/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space / Series: Boundary

Boundary

Eric Flint


Eric Flint

Boundary

Ryk E. Spoor

PART I: FOSSILS

Problematica, n: a term used in paleontology to refer to fossils that appear to be either of unknown taxonomic origin, or whose occurrence in the location they are found contradicts current beliefs of the field.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 1

"Dear God, I'm going to die," muttered Joe Buckley, as the SUV bounced from one rutted pothole to another.

"Oh, come on, Joe, I don't drive that badly."

The silence caused Helen Sutter to glance over at Joe. His face was pale under its tan, contrasting all the more with his dark hair. His habitually cheerful expression was currently replaced by that of a man who has discovered he has a terminal illness and just two weeks to live. "… Do I?"

"Eyes on road! On the road!!! UNGH!"

The "ungh" was from the SUV's particularly hard, bottoming-out-the-shocks landing following yet another acrobatic leap across the roadbed, in an attempt to leave the rough dirt track and strike out across the rocky terrain nearby.

Helen gave a restrained curse and hauled on the steering wheel. The SUV responded, skidding slightly, but heading back into the center of the dirt track leading to the Secord ranch. Holding the line with one hand, Helen brushed her blond hair out of her eyes; as usual it was escaping the ponytail it was supposedly tied into. Despite the fact that it was early in the season and only eleven in the morning, Helen could feel a thin film of sweat on her forehead.

Well, that's the life of a paleontologist, she thought ruefully. Pay all your grant money for the chance to break rocks, instead of getting sentenced to hard labor and doing it for free.

"What's wrong with my driving?"

"Nothing, nothing." Joe paused. "If you're in the Baja 500."

"Oh, all right, I'll slow down. But who cut down your testosterone ration? As I recall, the first year we came out here, you almost got yourself killed trying to offroad along an arroyo. Nearly lost us our dig, too. Then the second year, you-"

"Hey, all right, already. It's just that I want to survive this summer. It's my last year."

Helen smiled a bit sadly. "I know. We're going to miss you, Joe."

"I'll miss it, too. But… push comes to shove, this is ultimately just a hobby for me. If I hadn't taken your course on a whim as an undergraduate, I never would have gotten interested in paleontology at all, it's so far removed from my own field of EE."

"Yeah, I understand. Now that you're closing in on your Ph. D., you don't have any choice but to clear everything else aside. I know, I've been there. We'll still miss you a lot-and take it from a pro that your skills as a paleontologist are a lot more than those of a 'hobbyist.'"

"Thanks."

The gate to the Secord ranch leaped into view as the SUV crested the hill and charged down the other side. Helen expertly maneuvered the vehicle through the gateway and pulled up to the sprawling ranch house in a cloud of dust.

Joe got out, pausing to let his legs steady, and possibly to give himself an excuse to watch Helen going first. As he was a several-year veteran, she ignored the matter. She was used to the fact that she got a lot of stares; in what was still a male-dominated profession, just about any woman got them. And in her case, a woman whose figure was still very good for someone close to forty years old. For a miracle, even, her face wasn't showing the wrinkles you'd expect from years of wind and sun in rugged country.

The door to the ranch house opened. "Welcome back, Dr. Sutter!"

Jackie Secord stepped aside and ushered them in with a wave of her hand. Combined with Jackie's striking appearance, the gesture had a dramatic flair to it that was absurdly out of keeping with its humble purpose.

But that was pretty typical of the young woman. She was Indian in her ancestry, on her mother's side. Her good-looking but intense face, black hair, black eyes and dusky complexion sometimes reminded Helen of a cartoon version of a Foreign Spy. Natasha, with a rural Montana accent.

To make the absurdity perfect, Jackie was a graduate student in engineering-and shared with Joe a fascination with space exploration. Her looks and liking for dramatic gestures aside, the young woman was about as down-home American as anyone could get.

Despite her intentions to become an astronaut, Jackie shared Joe's longstanding side interest in paleontology. That interest, as with Joe's, had been triggered years before by Helen herself-but not as a student. The first time Helen had showed up in the area, she'd introduced herself to the Secord family since they were one of the largest landowners around and she needed their permission to conduct digs on their property.

Their daughter Jackie-then eighteen years old and a high school senior-had promptly attached herself to Helen as a combination guide and gofer. Since then, Jackie had become one of Helen's main local contacts and a constant, helpful presence at the digs. She'd developed into a top-notch amateur paleontologist, in fact, and usually tried to spend at least part of her summers on one of Helen's digs.

"What's with the 'Dr. Sutter' business, Jackie? It's been 'Helen' for years, remember?"

Jackie grinned. "I figure I gotta practice up on my formalities. I'm not all that far behind Joe when it comes to getting my doctorate-and God help me if I start breezily referring to the head of my committee as 'Frank.' So what's up for this year?"

"Same as ever," Joe said, coming in after Helen. "Spend a couple months working ourselves to death to dig out a few fossils just like the ones everyone else has. Write some papers about them that no one but us and the reviewers will read. Then Helen and company write another grant proposal."

"And Joey's still the optimist, I see."

Joe winced. He detested being called "Joey," Helen knew. But some years before, when they'd both been undergraduates, Jackie and Joe had been casually "sorta-dating" for one summer. Her pet nickname for him had probably seemed cute then. Now, of course, it was inescapable, though he wouldn't put up with anyone else using it.

Laughing, Helen nodded. "As always. Seriously, I thought we might try that area a bit north of the last dig. The indications we had seem to show that some of the random fossils come from that area in the runoff."

"You stop by Jeff's?" Helen wasn't sure, but Jackie's gaze seemed somewhat more intense than usual.

Jeff Little owned a souvenir shop in the nearest town, and specialized in buying and selling fossils from the local rock hounds and collectors. If a new group of fossils started showing up, he was generally the first to know.

"Yes, we did. He didn't seem to have much new, except one bone that might-might-have come from a dromeasaur or related species."

There was no mistaking the gleam in Jackie's eyes now. "Well, Jeff doesn't get all the good stuff. After the time I've spent working with you, I can spot the real winners out in the field if I run across them. Most of that stuff he gets is junk."

"Sure, you showed me your better pieces last year, too. Saves us having to bargain with Little for them."

"I've got something really nifty this year, I think. Came down in the year's runoff, and I think I've got a good idea where it came from. Be right back." Jackie trotted upstairs to fetch her prize.

Jackie's mother had come in from the kitchen by then. "Would you like some lemonade?" she asked, then gestured at the couches and armchairs scattered about the sprawling ranch-style living room. "And why don't you two sit down a spell before you go out there to start your digging?"

"Don't mind if I do," Joe said, sighing histrionically. "A chair that isn't bouncing up and down will be a comfort."

"Cut it out, Joe!"

Jackie came clattering down the stairs, holding something behind her. "Ready?"

"Let's see it."

A few minutes later, Helen looked up. "Joe, take a look at this."

Joe put down the lemonade Mrs. Secord had handed him, rose from the couch and joined Helen in staring at the object.

It resembled nothing so much as a large blackish shoehorn- Helen estimated it at around fifteen centimeters long and ranging from three to six centimeters wide, with a concave side and a little hook on the narrow end.

"Some kind of brachiopod relative?"

"Not one I'm familiar with. Look at these marks here."

Joe frowned, then took the object and studied it more closely. "Well, it's definitely a fossil, and… those sure look like muscle attachment scars. But what're they doing on both sides of this thing, if it's a shell? Should run down only one side, shouldn't they?"

"That'd be my expectation, too. But if this is a bone, why is it so thin and concave? I've never even heard of anything like that."

Joe was good at visualizing anatomy-much better than Helen, in fact, who always had to sit down and sketch it out a piece at a time. His face now screwed up in concentration. "If you had a… no, no, that wouldn't make sense. Oh, but maybe… no, not that either. I suppose if…"

He turned the fossil over, examining the backside carefully. "Darn. No sign of it being a piece of something else, either, which might have explained it." He turned it over and over a couple more times, shifting his point of view as though it might suddenly become an obvious and familiar fossil from some different angle, then handed it back to Helen.

"Okay, you win, Jackie. I'm beat. Do you know what it is?"

Jackie shook her head, looking excited and trying not to-after all, she wasn't a high school girl any longer, and hadn't been for a number of years. "No, not really. I knew it didn't look like anything I'd seen before, but I was sure you people would know right away. Are you guys putting me on? You really, truly don't know what it is?"

"Really, truly, Jackie," Helen said. "I've never seen anything like it, or heard of anything like it. You say you know where you found it?"

Jackie looked hurt. "Of course I do, Helen! Haven't I been keeping a journal since my second year doing this?"

"I'm sorry. I should have said: will you show us where you found it, and where you think it came from?"

"Of course. Let me get my hiking boots on, and we'll go out there now."

***

"There" turned out to be a few miles out, not all that far from the old dig site, but to the northwest up a small arroyo. "I found it lying over here, half under some sand. I think it washed down from somewhere up the arroyo."

Helen measured the area by eye, trying to visualize the rains, the wash coming down, the size of the fossil.

She thought Jackie was right. "Let's go up a ways, then, and see if we find anything."

Luck, luck, luck.

The word kept repeating itself over and over in Helen's mind, as she stood there looking at the wall of the arroyo in a state of half-shock.

"Jesus Christ," Joe repeated for the fifth time, finally straightening up from his examination. "Helen, that's a Deinonychus, or I'm just a first-year student."

"And if the rest is in the same condition, we've got ourselves a fully articulated skeleton."

Amateur or not, Jackie understood how very rare that was, and her excitement was only restrained by an attempt to be more professional and dignified than the professionals around her. Theropod skeletons, like the Deinonychus, were rare enough to be noteworthy, but fully articulated skeletons-skeletons that had remained pretty much connected as they had been in life-were vanishingly rare.

Helen glanced down the arroyo, frowning. "Odd, though."

"What's odd?"

She pulled out the unknown fossil. "If this came from here, there's no way it's a shell. Not of a water dweller, anyway."

Joe nodded. "These are land formations; late Cretaceous, maybe even Maastrichtian."

"No 'maybe' involved, Joe. Look at where your hand is."

Joe looked at the rock wall he'd been leaning against. "What-"

He suddenly started laughing. "You can't be serious, Helen! It's like pulling three jackpots in a row at Vegas!"

"What is it?" Jackie asked, seeing the narrow, dark band both Joe and Helen were staring at. Then she whipped around, eyes wide.

"You mean…?"

"Yes." Helen was hardly able to believe it herself. "It looks like our fossil is sitting right smack on the K-T boundary."

"Where the comet-um, sorry." Jackie caught herself before finishing the sentence. She tended to forget that the Alvarez Hypothesis was still a touchy subject for a lot of paleontologists, even if she herself thought it was a darn neat idea.

"Yes, where the comet." Helen said the words with a half-snort, half-chuckle.

Fortunately for Jackie, Helen was less hostile to the Alvarez Hypothesis than most members of her profession. She didn't doubt at all that an impact had happened at the K-T Boundary, which marked the end of the Mesozoic Era. She simply questioned whether it had the worldwide cataclysmic effects that the hypothesis proposed. There were other impact craters about as big as the one in Yucatan, after all. The Manicouagan, to name just one. But they'd had no discernable ecological effects at all; not even regional ones, so far as anyone could determine.

Nor had anyone ever really explained, to Helen's satisfaction, exactly how the impact had killed off so many species. Nor the peculiar mechanism by which it had killed off some, but not others. In what mystifying manner, for instance, had it killed off all ammonites-but spared their close relatives, the squids and the octopi? These were the sort of nitty-gritty questions that paleontologists focused on, and that physicists tended to ignore.

Still, she was willing to entertain it as a valid and testable hypothesis. In truth, she'd privately admit to herself, Helen's residual animosity toward the Alvarez Hypothesis was emotional rather than intellectual. Like most paleontologists, she was often rankled by the overbearing arrogance of many of the physicists who were so charmed by the hypothesis and took it as Revealed Truth. When they pontificated on the subject, physicists tended to dismiss the inconvenient facts paleontologists kept bringing up, much like an exasperated adult brushes aside the foolish questions of little children.

One of those facts, however, was that there was no evidence that any dinosaur had survived till the end of the Cretaceous. But now…

It looked as if they'd found the evidence.

"Yes, where the comet," she repeated.

She dusted her hands off on her jeans, and straightened up. "It's going to be a hike back and it'll be getting dark in a few hours. Even if it weren't, we can't do anything yet. This is on your folks' land, Jackie. We'll have to get their permission to dig here, and I've absolutely got to call the Museum of the Rockies. Probably a few other people."

She took a long, slow breath. "This is going to be a big dig, Jackie. Whatever your funny fossil is, it's led us to the mother lode."

That night, on the telephone from her motel room, she conveyed her excitement to the director of the Museum of the Rockies. It wasn't hard, actually. Ever since the days of Jack Horner, the museum had prided itself on its eminence in the world of paleontology, especially dinosaur paleontology. Director Bonds immediately grasped the significance of finding what appeared to be an articulated velociraptor skeleton on the very edge of the K-T boundary. He promised to give her the full support of the museum.

In fact, he even came out himself, three days later. By then, Helen, Joe, and Jackie had been joined by Carol Danvers and Bill Ishihara, the other members of Helen's team. Three days of careful digging had uncovered the entire lower half of the fossil. And, in the process, they had found the leg bone of another velociraptor underneath it, the body apparently extending off to the side of the first.

Helen heard the footsteps coming up behind her, but continued scraping away. The smell of chipped rock, a dusty hot scent that always reminded her of striking flints, lingered strongly in the bright heat of a Montana summer.

"Dr. Sutter?"

She finished freeing the small round stone that had been in her way, then stood up, dusting off her hands before extending one for a handshake. "Hello, Director Bonds."

Bonds was sweating and trying not to show how winded he was from the walk. He'd been quite a field scientist himself before he became director of the museum, and was probably a little embarrassed to discover how far out of shape he was from a few years of chair-warming.

At a gesture of invitation from Helen, he squatted at the edge of the work area, the others clearing out of the way. "Marvelous. Simply marvelous. A death scene, you think?"

Helen scratched her chin thoughtfully. "Too early to tell. There's something… Well, let me hold off before I jump to conclusions. But look at this. See? That's the K-T boundary, all right. There's no doubt about it."

"Jesus." The director was practically bouncing up and down in restrained professional excitement. "No one's ever found a dinosaur this close to the boundary!"

"Close?" demanded Helen. "It's not close. It's right on it."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 2

Two weeks later, Bonds was back again, bringing more help and equipment. By then, Helen and the people on her crew had managed to clear the first skeleton, half of the second, and had discovered yet a third on the other side of the first. To say the museum director was happy would have been an understatement on a par with saying the Titanic had experienced some difficulty on its maiden voyage.

Helen, Joe, and Jackie were also clearly happy, but someone who knew them better than the director might have noticed something a bit odd in their reactions. They welcomed the newcomers and showed them around, agreeing that it was clearly a death scene, but saying that they hadn't drawn any firm conclusions as to the sequence of events yet.

That was true enough, as far as it went, Helen thought, but…

They relaxed a bit once the director left. Helen needed to talk to the new paleontologists alone, without the director hearing things that might make his funding the venture politically difficult. It was extraordinarily hard to think that way, but with what they were finding, the circumstances were also extraordinary.

"Funny." One of the new guys, Michael Jennings, shook his head slightly. "The way the skeletons sit, I don't think they were fighting at all. Drowned, maybe? Flash flood?"

"Maybe," Jackie said.

"Found any wounds?" another asked. "Broken bones? Evidence of toothmarks? Clearly they didn't get eaten much, or whatever did it would've taken them apart."

"Yeah," said Joe. "There's some marks on the skeletons. Look here, around the pelvis." he pointed with a stick to the first skeleton.

The newcomers gathered around and shone flashlights on the exposed fossil, as the sun was starting to go down and long shadows were gathering in the arroyo. For several minutes there was silence.

"What the hell made that?" Jennings finally asked, frowning at the three neat half-centimeter holes that appeared to punch completely through the pelvic bone.

"Looks almost like a bullet hole." That was offered in a jocular tone by one of the other new arrivals, Ned Rhodes. But the quip trailed off a bit too abruptly.

"Too neat," Jackie responded immediately. "My dad's hunted all his life, and I've gone with him. A bullet would've mushroomed when it hit the bone, if not sooner. And even if someone had been using military-grade jacketed bullets, the holes are too small for the caliber guns you'd use to hunt big game."

"Funny thing, too." Helen extended her hand, showing several small, round, dark-brown pebbles. "These are all over the area."

Jennings took one and studied it, then put it up against one of the holes. It was clear that they were essentially identical in size.

"Bizarre. Cysts that cause bone loss, eat it away or something?"

Helen's eyebrow quirked upward. "Now there's an interesting idea, Mike. We'll have to section a couple of these, see what's inside."

"They all look the same size. Are they?"

"Within the limits of my field equipment, they're identical. Perfectly spherical and measuring, by field micrometer, 4.65 millimeters in diameter. We've measured ten of them at least, and all of them are just the same."

Dr. Sean Carter, the senior of the newcomers, had been silent until now. Finally he spoke. "Um, Helen, don't take this the wrong way, but are you sure… uh…"

"That there's been no contamination of the site? Yes, I'm sure. And I've kept detailed notes from the beginning. Even more detailed than usual, in fact."

The newcomers were silent. Helen Sutter had the reputation, among other things, for being one of the most meticulous field paleontologists in the country. Her notes were used as models in at least two textbooks and an unknown number of classes. If she said she was taking unusual care, the only thing that would have kept the site more pristine would have been not to dig it at all.

Carter was studying the bones and their positioning. Helen saw him judging angles, glancing along certain lines, then picking up one of the dark brown pebbles and studying it pensively for a long time, while the others continued their examination of the site.

It was clear to Helen, though, that none of them were looking at the precise features that Sean Carter was. That was no surprise. If Helen had the reputation for being a fanatically careful field worker, Sean Carter's reputation for obsessive attention to detail made her look like a dilettante.

Carter never missed a single clue in the study of a fossil. There had been one wag a number of years before who had jested that Carter could probably visualize the entirety of the Cretaceous in toto from a single bone. What he was seeing in this death scene bothered him more and more. She could see his brow wrinkling so it looked like he was in actual pain.

Finally, he turned back to Helen. "Could I speak to you for a moment?"

"Sure, Sean. Come on, let's take a little walk. I'll show you where the first fossil came from."

Carter said nothing until they were well away from the others. Helen knew Sean Carter. He was the kind of man who hated anomalies-they disordered his ordered view of life and his profession-but he also hated avoiding the truth. The current situation was clearly causing him a strain.

"I'm not sure what you have here, Helen. I can tell you have an idea of your own, and I'm not sure I even want to think about what it might be. But I'm worried, very worried."

"What has you worried, Sean?"

Carter snorted humorlessly. "Helen, you've been doing this excavation. Don't tell me you can't see it."

"Maybe I do, but I want to hear what you see, without me biasing your opinion."

"Fair enough." He gazed back at the site. "The three skeletons, near as I can tell, are in a rough semicircle. They do not appear to have been fighting each other. In fact, it looks to me as though at least one, possibly two, of them were trying to leave the area. And I don't see any clear indication of what killed them, unless it's those odd holes. But then, what made those holes? Those pebbles, are they cysts? I doubt it. Perhaps they were, as suggested, part of an infection- perhaps one that had some kind of psychological effects, as a number of parasites do, and could have caused erratic behavior… but…"

He studied the area again. "It's hard to tell because of the effect of tendon contraction on death, but it also looks as if they did not die immediately. More as though they spent a bit of time thrashing in pain."

"And your conclusions?"

He frowned even more. "I'm not sure I have any. But if there's more to be found here, I have a depressing feeling that it will be even stranger than we've already seen. Be careful. You must be very careful."

"Sean, come on. I'm being as meticulous as anyone can be."

"I'm not talking about your field methods, Helen, and you know it. 'Careful,' I said, not 'meticulous.' You need to be more careful, if you're dealing with something… unusual. And no matter what, this is just too damnably unusual."

Helen knew exactly what Carter meant. Paleontology had been plagued by fraud, misinterpretation, and personal feuds ever since its beginnings: the Piltdown man, the legendary rivalry of Marsh and Cope, the faked "feathered dinosaurs" from China in the 1990s profiteering on actual feathered dinosaur discoveries made around the same time, and a dozen other such episodes. That, added to the confused sensationalism that had accompanied the field in the public eye for more than a century, meant that paleontology was possibly the most conservative field of science on Earth. Downright reactionary, Helen sometimes thought.

The more outre a claim was, the more violently a segment of the field would fight it. Bakker had not even invented, but merely revived, the claim of possible warm-bloodedness in dinosaurs in the 1960s, and it had taken most of his career to make that a respectable claim in many peoples' eyes.

"Well, what do you expect me to do, Sean? Stop working on this dig?"

"No, no. Of course not. It's a marvelous dig. I'd give just about anything to be the one who found it. But you need to find a way to make it foolproof. The dig, I mean."

Despite the tenseness of the situation, Helen almost chuckled. "I'm taking even more records than usual, Sean. Photos practically every millimeter we uncover. Multiple people's testimony. A much more extensive use of satellite imagery than usual and a thorough aerial survey in multiple spectra. What else can I do? It's not like I can just take a look at it before…"

She trailed off. "You know, Sean, I might just be able to do something more, after all, now that I think about it. Come on."

Returning to the knot of paleontologists and assisting folk, she called out. "Hey, Joe! Didn't you tell me once that you knew some guy in college, a couple of years behind you. Some kind of genius at imaging?"

Joe immediately understood. "A.J. Baker. And he wants something challenging and fancy to show off with, too. He's just starting working with us on the Ares Project, you know."

"No, I didn't. One of you Nuts That Roared, is he?"

Joe grinned. "Yeah, and he loves that rep. Anyway, I'll bet he could get us a picture of the whole scene before we go any further."

"Pictures through rock?" Jackie asked incredulously.

"Better believe it," Joe said. "Really, he can do things with GPR, ultrasonics, and other things that even JPL and DARPA couldn't match. Let me give him a call and see if he'll do it."

Helen turned to Carter. "What do you think, Sean? Will that play?"

"It certainly can't hurt," he replied, scratching his cheek. "And it's easy to justify, if he'll do it for a reasonable fee. If you know the disposition of the fossils ahead of time, it's far easier-which means cheaper in the long run-to do a major dig. Director Bonds will be happy to arrange funding for something like that."

Helen nodded. "Call up your whiz kid, Joe. Tell him he's got the chance of a lifetime here. And he won't have to wait to travel to another planet for this one."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 3

The black and silver helicopter wailed to a landing at the end of the arroyo. As the blades slowed to a visible speed, the rear cargo door opened and a tall man hopped out. He was dressed in black jeans, a shiny royal blue shirt, and had a backpack slung over his shoulder. The outfit combined with mirrored sunglasses and a full, shaggy, golden mop of hair made him seem very young.

He waved at Joe, barely evading the rotor blade as he jogged out to meet them. "Yo, Joe, what's doing? You'd better not have been shitting me on this-whoops, excuse me!"

He'd caught sight of Helen and Jackie. "You must be Dr. Sutter? Your pics don't do you justice. A.J. Baker, at your service."

He made an exaggerated bow so low that his backpack flopped down over his head and he banged his nose against a large pouch fastened to his belt. "Ow! So much for my suave European manners. I knew I should've settled for American ones. Oh, wait, that's right, I don't have any."

Helen couldn't restrain a smile. She knew that behavior from many a class she'd taught to bright young people, mostly male. Baker was clearly inherently shy, and the classic word "overcompensation" explained his noisy entrance.

"Helen Sutter. And this is Jackie Secord. She found the… anomaly."

"Glad to meet you both."

They shook hands, and then Helen asked: "Mr. Baker-or is it Dr.?"

At the last word, A.J. gave an odd twitch-or maybe she just imagined it. "Just A.J., Dr. Sutter. I'm at the dreaded A.B.D. phase, and probably won't ever finish the dissertation if I keep this busy."

The helicopter roared back to life behind them, making Helen jump. She wasn't accustomed to helicopters as a means of transportation to a paleontological dig. She glanced back to see that after depositing three moderate-sized cases on the ground, the copter was leaving. "How did you afford that thing, anyway? And you didn't bring your team?"

"I am my team, pretty much," A.J. said matter-of-factly. "Back at the labs I can get other people and use bigger equipment, but for fieldwork I just need what I brought. As for the chopper, it's a freebie. One of Ares' backers is stinking rich and offered to let me use it when I wheedled him. I'll have to arrange different transportation out, though. He only wheedled so far."

"No problem. We can give you a ride back."

Baker smiled. "I figured. And now, I'd better go back and grab those cases."

"We'll give you a hand. You're coming to help us, after all. Are you sure you aren't going to have to charge?"

"Well, there'll be a nominal fee, to make it all official. And expenses, of course. But if it's interesting, it's worth doing for publicity and professional respect. The Ares Project can always use more."

Helen nodded. The Ares Project was an attempt to send a manned mission to Mars following the approach Robert Zubrin had called "Mars Direct." It was mostly based in private enterprise and, like any major private attempt to do something scientific that seemed to have no prospects for immediate profit, it was perennially short of funds. But it was probably even shorter of the sort of "official respect" that it needed to drum up more support and financial backing.

"I think you will be more than satisfied with the challenge and the subject matter, A.J."

When they reached the cases, Helen picked up one of them. It was startlingly heavy, but Helen set her jaw and forced herself to carry it as though it wasn't any heavier than she'd expected. She wasn't sure why. Habit, she supposed, of never showing weakness in a profession that was still mostly male-dominated.

By the time they reached the dig area, her arm felt like it was about to pull out of its socket and she was cursing her perverse pride.

Then she caught A.J. grinning at her.

"You know, I usually get help carrying that one, ma'am."

"Then why didn't you offer any, you twit?" Joe demanded.

"She seemed to want to handle it. Who am I to tell her otherwise?"

With a groan of relief Helen put the case down. "Just what is in there?"

"Fuel-cell generator. Some of the gadgets I'm going to use need some pretty high-power juice, and I knew this dig wasn't exactly going to have electric outlets handy. Now, you just give me some peace and quiet to set up and test some stuff, and I'll be able to get started."

Helen indicated a tarp and field tent nearby. "We set one up for you near the site. You'll need us to show you what to do, right?"

"Certainly. I'm no paleontologist. I need to see what you need done, and you'll probably have to give me feedback on the data, so I can refine it to what you really need."

Helen caught a faint glint of color from behind the mirrored glasses as he entered the darker area of the tent. She realized that A.J. must be using a VRD or projective display on or from his glasses.

"I'll give you a holler when I'm ready."

They spent the next hour or so making sure the site was cleared of anything that might interfere with A.J. Baker's work-tools, canvas coverings, they even swept away dust. Finally Helen heard a call from the tent. She went over, with Jackie and Joe following.

"You're ready, A.J.?"

"Ready to work my magic, yes, indeed." A.J. turned. To Helen's astonishment, there appeared to be a literal halo of light hovering around the man's head. A gasp from Jackie confirmed it was not her imagination.

"Oh, for the love of-A.J., you showoff!" Joe snorted. "And there's no way it should be a halo, anyway. Why not horns?"

"How do you do that?" Jackie demanded.

A.J. patted the large pouch on his belt. "Fairy Dust. From Dust-Storm Tech. Finest intelligent dust sensor motes on the planet. These are integrated with micromotile units to let them fly, as long as I can either keep' em supplied with enough power to scavenge-or I'm willing to let them drain the hell out of the onboard batteries for the sake of a few seconds of showing off. Yeah, that's a cheap stunt using their illuminators, but it's fun."

He opened the flap. The halo, which at closer range appeared to be made up of hundreds or even thousands of individual tiny sparks of light, poured itself into the pouch.

"These things aren't toys, though. It's the heart of my approach. Thousands of ultrasensitive sensors all over the survey area, networking themselves together automatically, then using all that data to pull out a really detailed picture of whatever lies below. The trick is knowing what sensors and modalities to use and how to combine them and process the data the right way. Now, let's take a look at this dig of yours."

As they headed to the dig area, Jackie glanced at the belt pouch curiously. "I've heard of them being used for things like inventory tracking and so on, but…"

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," A.J. said. "Even back in the first decade of this century, when Dust, Incorporated, Ember, and a few others first started making intelligent sensor motes, it was clear there were a lot of potential uses for distributed sensor and computing networks that were embodied as near-microscopic motes that each had their own power, communication, computation, sensor, and memory capacity. I honestly don't think I could list every use I've thought of for these things in the past few years."

"So these motes can look right through the rock?"

A.J. laughed. "Not exactly. Let me take a look at what we have and I'll explain a little more."

Helen showed him around the dig area, letting the imaging and sensor expert kneel down to examine the fossils and surrounding rock. She saw him reach into the pouch and then let fall a ghostly shimmer of the dust-mote sensors across the area. From the side, Helen could see that the light behind his glasses was directed into his eye; what she'd seen vaguely before was the reflection. A Virtual Retinal Display, then, rather than a mini heads-up display projection. The VRD flickered brightly from his eye for a moment or two.

"Hmm, interesting." The imaging specialist seemed to have the habit of talking to himself. "Yeah, we can work with that."

He turned back to Jackie. "The motes are really excellent at sensing things, and if I combine the signals from thousands of them across the area, that's great-but only if there's something to sense. And there's no way anything their size can produce the beefy signals I'm going to need. Penetration through rock depends on a lot of different things-the type of signal, the wavelength, the precise type of rock, presence of moisture, and the power available probably being the most dominant, although there's a bunch of other ancillary ones. For the most part, I can control three of those variables-type, wavelength, and power. The trick here is that we have something of a dilemma. We want lots of penetration, but we also want lots of detail. As a rule, penetration increases with increasing wavelength-but the level of detail that can be detected decreases with increasing wavelength. If I want a shorter wavelength to give me a readable return, then I need a lot of power."

Helen nodded along with Jackie, as A.J. continued to carefully sift his Fairy Dust onto the ground in the area of the fossils and the rock still left to be removed.

"So what do you use? GPR? Seismics?"

"The short answer is yes." A.J. grinned. "Ground Penetrating Radar is just fine, for some things. But for others, some acoustic signals are good. Seismic shock is related to acoustics, of course, but I can induce different signal characteristics with acoustics than with a simple seismic signal. I can also sometimes get results with powerful magnetic fields. They react with the metals in the ground and bones, and bones are often packed with metal compared to their surroundings. I also use radiation detection-as I'm sure you know, sometimes fossils accumulate significant radioactives."

Helen nodded.

"There have been times I've used radiation directly in imaging, but that's not really practical in this setting, so I'll have to settle for whatever I get on the passives. Straight centimeter-scale radio waves on as high power as I can manage is another thing I'm going to try. While that wouldn't normally penetrate very far, a lot of your fossils here aren't all that far below the surface. I also try to use digital pulses where possible."

"Does that make them penetrate farther?" Helen asked. It didn't seem likely to her.

A.J. shook his head, smiling in acknowledgement of her doubtful tone. "Not directly, no. But what it does do is make it much, much easier for me to pick up the return signal from the noise, because I can listen for a specific pattern. I know what I'm looking for, in essence, and that really increases the chances of picking it up. Where the motes come in is in registering the returns from all different modes in thousands of closely related vectors, which the sensor net can coordinate and extract as precise survey points in spacetime. The motes construct their own ad hoc network and then derive their own relative positions with very high accuracy. Between time-of-flight, multiple triangulation, and a few other tricks like performing interference patterns, the network characterizes itself to within very small fractions of an inch. This means that the combined received signals are known to an extremely high degree of accuracy. That takes some processing time-that's what it's doing now, since I've stopped playing Tinkerbell.

"So once the network's fully characterized, I start setting off the signal pulses. I let the network know"-he tapped his glasses and the virtual control interface that only he could see-"exactly what signal I'm about to send, then trigger it. The net records all the responses it can, I hit it with another pulse; maybe change modes, it starts building up a rough picture. I examine it, see if I've got something coming up. Maybe I go back, do a few more GPR or radio shots, or try another acoustic signal, or shift frequencies. Eventually, I've got all the data I think will be useful. Then I can really go to town on this stuff; sensor fusion, bandpass filtering, synthetic aperture, Kalman and Weiner filters, all that kind of thing, plus some tricks of my own.

"With a handful of these motes and no special signal generators, I can use the ambient sound to locate and determine the number, direction, and general composition of your tents-without any of my dust motes actually touching the tents. Heck, with equipment twenty years older, I could send any two of you off to have a conversation, and not only locate you, but pick out your entire conversation, whispered, on the other side of a hill three hundred meters off. These motes have access to my own neural net code, expert systems, fuzzy logic structures, all sorts of stuff in the control unit and local heavy-duty processors, like in the main control unit here."

He patted another simple metallic box on his belt. "Give me powerful signal sources, and I'll guarantee to map out anything you want, above or below ground. And in this case, I'll even guarantee that you'll have enough detail to count teeth in a skull."

"Can you keep a record of how you produce the results?" Helen asked.

"Not only can I," A.J. answered, pacing out the area again as though measuring it, "it's pretty much part and parcel of the process-nice alliteration there, huh? I keep the raw data and track the sequence of filtering and analysis, all the way in. I have to-sometimes you don't get the best results and you need to experiment by taking out one step, moving it to another point in the sequence, and so on. It can make a big, big difference in the final results whether you filter first and then run an enhancement process, or enhance first and then filter, for instance. Pillage, then burn, so to speak."

He stopped, nodded to himself, then turned back towards the tents. "Well, it's getting pretty dark out here, but rather than waste time, I'll just get started."

Jackie and Helen held the lights as A.J. unpacked a number of devices with thick, rugged power leads.

As he did so, Helen studied him, a bit surreptitiously. Somewhat to her surprise, she was starting to find the man interesting.

In many ways, A.J. Baker was obviously a classic geek. Who else got that enthusiastic about dry-as-dust technical matter? But the muscles visible in his arms when he hefted the first case-the one that had nearly pulled Helen's shoulder out of its socket-made it clear that A.J. was in far better physical condition than the average geek.

On a personal level, the muscles impressed Helen even less than the flamboyantly awkward geeky mannerisms. But she found the combination rather intriguing. It reminded her of…

Well, herself, actually.

Since Helen didn't have that damnable male ego to deal with- the one that crucified every high school geek in existence-her own mannerisms weren't as awkward as A.J.'s. At least, she hoped not. But she could get just as enthusiastic when discussing paleontological issues, which were often literally as dry as dust. And on the few occasions when she ventured into public gymnasiums for a workout, she usually got admiring looks from all the men present and envious ones from the women. Even from women half her age.

From men half her age, she always got admiring looks. Ogles, often enough, to call things by their right name.

The thought of young men rallied her. Stop this, woman. He must be fifteen years younger than you are.

Thus fortified, Helen went back to studying A.J. from the perspective of an expert in one field watching another at his own. She did her best to ignore the treacherous little voice at the back of her mind, as it worked its way through simple mathematics.

Don't be silly. He's not as young as he looks. Can't be, not even in his cutting-edge field. He's got to be at least twenty-five or twenty-six. Maybe twenty-seven. Subtracted from thirty-eight, that is not fifteen years younger. It's only eleven. Maybe even less.

Shut up.

"Okay, here we got your GPR unit." A.J. held up a wide metallic antenna unit, followed by a cylindrical object that looked like a solid rod of metal but probably wasn't. "And this here's the impactor for seismic signals, some electromagnetic pulsers-keep metal and electronics that aren't shielded well away, folks-and my own shriekers. High-power ultrasonic pulsers."

The "shriekers" were strange things, looking a bit like large versions of the paddles found on a defibrillator unit, but ending with quivering blobs that looked like nothing so much as firm blue jello. They were labeled Kaled 1 and Kaled 2.

"What's that stuff?" Jackie asked, pointing to the blue blobs.

"Couplant gel. The attenuation of the signal through air is something fierce, so you try to use couplant to bring it more directly to the target. I wash the area off with a high-pressure water jet, then push the gel up against the rock. That increases the efficiency by many times. Even so, it'd be just plain useless without the Fairy Dust. You can immerse a sample in liquid and get good results, but in the field you just wouldn't get the penetration needed. With the sensor motes properly programmed and all over the place, and digitized pulses for signature return filtering, I can get results out of returns almost a hundred times weaker than I could with normal sensors."

"Anything else we can do to help?" Helen put in, seeing that he was now laying out his devices in a carefully planned order.

"Yeah," A.J. said. "Go away. Meaning no offense, just that once I start taking the readings the more people and objects in the area, the harder it's going to be for me to compensate for the signals. I have to sit dead still while the data's being gathered, and even so I'll probably be having an effect that I'll notice later."

"No problem, we understand." Helen and Jackie started off. "Let us know when you're done."

"Sure thing," A.J. replied absently, already staring at a display on his VRD unit. "Your problems are just about over."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 4

"What the hell is that?"

A.J. was taken aback by the vehemence of Helen's question. "Hey, cool down. And why are you asking me? You're the paleontologist. I just image what's there."

Joe shook his head, then bent down to A.J. and spoke quietly. "Look, I don't know what you think you're doing, but cut out the joking and give us the real data."

A.J.'s eyes narrowed. "That is the real data. Top of the line. Imaged in three different spectra, multiple wavelengths, filtered, neural-net-processed, compared with known data for verisimilitude, and data-fused and analyzed out the wazoo. If I wasn't doing this for you and my own entertainment, you'd be paying about a hundred grand for this little job-over and above expenses. That is exactly, precisely, and inarguably what is down there."

"But that's just… impossible," Joe said defensively. He gestured at the projected image before them.

The computer-enhanced graphic showed the entire dig area in three-dimensional, mostly pastel false color. The rock still to be removed was present as an outline, an overlay of faintly gray glass. The fossils of the three raptors were clearly visible, the two newer ones now fully visible in their curved death poses. In addition, two more raptor skeletons were revealed, one on either side of the other three, making a rough three-quarter circle around the perimeter of the dig area. All five skeletons were fully articulated, possibly the finest specimens of Deinonychus ever uncovered- and all of them were sitting on a stippled red and purple layer that was the K-T boundary itself. White dots showed the position of hundreds of the strange pebbles, both around and past the raptor skeletons.

But it was what squatted ominously in the center of the image, in the middle of the rough circle delineated by the fossilized predators, that was the focus of such utter disbelief. It was large-close to four meters long, from end to end-and was as clearly defined as the other skeletons. The problem was…

"That's not even a skeleton," Helen said finally. "I'm not sure what to make of it."

"I thought it was like some kind of squid," A.J. said. "I know there was a lot of squiddage back then. Squids with shells, if I remember right. Ammonites, they were called?"

Joe frowned. "Well, we do have a sort of cephalopodic outline here." He sketched an elongated oval in the air. "Those could be tentacles, sort of. I only see three of them, though. And it looks almost like there are more at the rear."

"A lot shorter, though," Helen pointed out. "And much of the rest looks like it is a skeleton. Well, sort of. Weird though it is, that part here, near the longer, um, tentacles, looks like a skull to me, and it's attached to these other parts. But it's not an ammonite or any kind of shell, that's for damn sure. And what's the segmentation effect we have here? What are those things you're rendering in blue, A.J.? Look like layered armor plates or something."

A.J. shrugged. "Like I said, don't ask me what they are. But I can extract one for you, no problem."

He glanced into his VRD, mumbled some barely audible words, tapped out orders on an imaginary keyboard, and suddenly one of the "plates" glowed and seemed to spiral up and expand, filling a secondary window at the top of the image.

There were immediate startled exclamations from the three others in the tent.

"My god, Jackie. That's your mystery fossil!" Joe almost shouted.

If Helen had had any lingering thoughts that A.J. was playing some kind of practical joke, this eliminated them. None of them had mentioned Jackie's unique find to him, and A.J. certainly had never had a chance to see it.

Yet there was no doubt about it. The "shell" Jackie had found was now revealed to be one of many sequential components in what appeared to be some kind of arm.

"And the… tentacle on the right," Joe said, pointing. "There. It's shorter than the others. I'll bet that it lost part of the arm, maybe in a fight with the raptors, and so that part got weathered out."

"But what was it?" Helen demanded, returning to the main question. "How do those plates come into the picture? They're not armor-the attachment points make that clear. They're internal structures of some kind. But I don't see any ordinary bones or anything, so…"

"Maybe they are bones," Jackie suggested quietly.

Helen stopped short and looked more closely at the image. Her classes in reconstruction stood out more clearly now in her mind than ever before. She visualized the connections, the necessary methods for locomotion, the attachment points as related to the way the- arm plates?-were clearly meant to fit. She could see Joe's face going through the same steps, and that Joe was finding the conclusion hard to believe.

"A.J., can I use your interface?" she asked. "Or can you hook the simulation up to something I can access?"

"Your portable have standard wireless? Sure, hold on." A moment later, he said, "Okay, tell it to access WEIRDSIM. The interface should be pretty straightforward."

Helen saw the interface come up in front of her. Not that different from the one she used at the lab, actually. A.J. clearly understood the totality of his field, including user requirements. For several minutes there was mostly silence as Helen patched in her own reconstruction data, modified it, cursed softly as she realized she needed something unique, queried the Net for a formula that would describe what she wanted, added that in.

"Here goes. Take a look at this."

The general display flickered, and a long, slender window opened across the site display. The plates moved forward and backward in a motion similar to that of a telescope or old-style antenna, the individual parts extending to make a longer unit, then pulling back to retract the tentaclelike arm into a shorter, fatter configuration. It flexed and moved in a manner that was both familiar and subtly, disquietingly wrong. A stick-figure simulation showed the shorter, wider "tentacles" moving in a peculiar rhythm that pushed the weird thing along with surprising speed.

It certainly wasn't impossible, mechanically or biologically speaking. But it was clearly not a method of locomotion used by any form of life that Helen had ever seen or read about.

Joe's head lifted and he stared incredulously at the imaged fossil again. He then turned to Helen. She lifted her head, stared into his eyes, and then nodded slowly.

"My god. Helen, this is it! This is the biggest find in three centuries-in history, dammit!"

"And you and Jackie might want to get very far away before I finish this dig, too," Helen said softly.

"What the-? Oh."

Joe and Jackie looked at each other. Their expressions showed that they understood what Helen was saying.

A.J., however, was obviously in the dark. "Um, what's the problem? One second you're practically ready to start writing your Nobel Prize speeches. The next minute you're acting as if Jack the Ripper just came in."

Joe pointed at the image. "If Helen publishes a full report on that, it'll probably wreck her career."

"Well, not quite that," Helen said, shaking her head. "I've got tenure, after all, so I'd keep collecting a paycheck. But it would most likely get me relegated to the status of a crackpot. At least in the eyes of most of my colleagues."

"So screw 'em," A.J. snorted. "They don't believe you, too bad for them. It's right there in front of 'em!"

"A.J., that may work for you-your imaging work deals with real solid stuff that no one can argue with. But paleontologists are more in the position of detectives trying to figure out what happened with only a handful of clues."

Joe's tone of voice was that of a parent trying to explain the facts of life to a stubborn eight-year-old. Given that A.J. was, in point of fact, not more than a year or two younger than Joe, Helen found it somewhat amusing.

But she could see that A.J. was beginning to bridle at the tone, so she intervened.

"Look, A.J., it's just a fact that paleontologists tend to be very conservative, in a scientific sense. Nor, by the way, do I say that critically. Joe's right, you know. We do have to work from mostly disconnected facts, just like detectives-and the fossil record is about as far removed as you can get from what anyone in their right mind would call a 'perfect crime scene.' Our data is hundreds of millions of year old, and fragmented to boot. There's so much gray area-so many different ways anything can be interpreted-that members of my profession generally look cross-eyed whenever somebody comes up with a sweeping proposition. Especially one that flies completely in the face of previous findings."

A.J. set his jaw. "So, what are you saying? You want to dump all this data and forget the dig?"

"Hell, no!" Helen said. She glanced at her two co-workers. "They're just worried. Mostly about me, and it's really sweet of you, Joe." Joe blushed.

"No, I just had to make sure they knew what might happen. You, A.J., I'm not worried about. Like Joe said, on your side no one will care what my interpretations of the data are, as long as the data you got is bona fide-and my excavation will prove that beyond any shadow of a doubt. But if I'm going to survive professionally, I'm going to have to be very, very careful about how I report this."

A.J. shrugged. Somehow he managed to make even that gesture a bit theatrical.

"Hey, as long as my pretty pictures don't go to waste, I'm happy. And if you end up in a controversy, it'll be free publicity for me. But it'd be a crying shame for them to be stupid enough to blackball you. I can tell a professional when I work with one."

He stretched. "Well, it's off to bed for me, and then back to the lab tomorrow. Thanks a lot for calling me in-this has been pretty challenging and interesting-and looks like it's going to be fun to watch the fireworks coming up." He grinned and headed off to the tent they'd set up for him.

"So," Joe said finally, after A.J.'s footsteps had faded away. "How are you going to approach it?"

"I don't have to decide yet, Joe." Helen was still staring at the image of the impossible. "I have some vague ideas, but I've got months to finish the dig and it'll be at least a year after that before I can get anything published. I think I'll just wait and see what comes up. Wait and see."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

PART II: QUARRLES

Controversy, n: a prolonged public dispute, debate, or contention; disputation concerning a matter of opinion; contention, strike, or argument.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 5

A.J. Baker skipped down the hall, drawing tolerant stares from other members of the Ares Project. He might have just turned twenty-eight years old, but after the year or so he'd been with Ares they had stopped expecting him to act much more than eighteen. He bounced through Glenn Friedet's office door, making the harried-looking project director jump.

"I swear, A.J.," Glenn sighed, "more than half of my gray hairs come from you."

"Well, let me see if I can make your day a happier one, Fearless Leader." A.J. slapped a sheet of paper down in front of Glenn.

That got Glenn's attention. "Paper? From you?"

A.J. grinned, smugly aware of his reputation as someone so far out on the bleeding edge that he considered paper and papyrus to be equally outmoded.

"You won't begrudge me the death of that tree, Glenn."

Glenn's gaze scanned the paper. "They went for it!"

"You better believe they did!" He bounced around the office. "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I get to build Tinkerbell, Ariel, and the rest of my Faeries! And get to make all the rest of your engineers modify the designs on Pirate!"

The latter made Glenn wince. Wince twice, actually, first at A.J.'s official use of the very unofficial nickname of the Automated Arean Reconnaissance Rover and Return module. Officially A^2 R^3 -which had led to its own spate of Star Wars jokes-the longhand acronym AARRR had been pronounced in such a way as to inevitably be followed by "matey," "walk the plank," and so on, thereby causing the obvious moniker of Pirate to refer to the test vehicle.

The second wince was at the equally inevitable complaints the redesign would engender from the engineers.

A.J. recognized both winces with satisfaction. "Hey, Glenn, I told them I would win this one. They should've planned for it."

"Actually, they probably did. But with two more months going by than we'd expected, we were getting pretty settled into the other design."

"So, do I call up NASA and tell them to keep their money?"

Glenn laughed. "Not a chance. We can use all we can get, and none of the critical construction stages have been passed yet- though this was close."

"I'll go get things started in RDD, then. You get someone processing the files-I've already digisigned everything to authorize my end and you'll find the secure contract files in your inbox."

A.J. jogged out, giving another whoop of triumph as he exited the office area. His grin grew even wider as he headed toward Research, Development and Design.

It was finally sinking in. Despite his words, he hadn't been nearly so sure NASA would go for his proposal. It made sense, true, but sense often didn't have much to do with government contracts, especially when the government agency in question was competing with the proposing private organization.

The Ares Project.

It had been A.J.'s dream since he was a kid to be able to go into space, and especially to land on Mars. But despite some initial rumbles in that direction in the very early part of the twenty-first century, the government's efforts to land a manned mission on the Red Planet had progressed only haltingly, with the vast complexity, immense inertia, and often wrongheaded design strategies that had characterized government space missions for years.

With a new generation of engineers agitating for private space missions, the U.S. government had finally authorized a few incentives for private space work. A series of prizes had been established for achieving certain space-travel goals, with a general eye towards eventually reaching Mars.

The prizes involved were mere pittances, needless to say, from the point of view of most government agencies and megacorporations. But they were large enough to warrant an attempt by moderate-sized consortia of interested organizations. The idea itself had its genesis in Robert Zubrin's The Case For Mars, and the Ares Project had been formed to seize the opportunity. Many of the founders were, of course, the same people who had hounded the government into arranging the prizes. Collectively, the group had gained the nickname of the Nuts That Roared, for their Grand Fenwickian victory over the ponderous and generally unswervable inertia of official space programs.

The public had started to take notice when the Ares Project successfully orbited, deorbited, and retrieved a fully functional man-capable space module-and did it for a million dollars less than the prize money for that achievement. But it was the follow-on Ares-2, a smaller but fully automated sensing satellite, that galvanized public opinion. The completely privately constructed spacecraft reached the Red Planet, used aerobraking to achieve orbital velocity, and sent back multiple high-quality images. And did it at a smaller cost than any equivalent government probe to date.

Stung into high gear by these successes, the politicians had showered money onto the space program. NASA and its associated partner agencies suddenly found themselves with quadrupled budgets and a mandate to get a manned spacecraft to Mars-and the unspoken mandate to manage the task before the Ares Project beat them to it.

Politics and government approaches still influenced the work at NASA, of course, and part of that caused NASA to avoid using many of the approaches which Ares used. This suited members of the Project, like A.J., just fine. If NASA decided to copy their methods, it might well outdo the Project despite its current lead.

For A.J.'s purposes, one important way in which they had taken a lesson from the Project was to avoid what Zubrin had called the "Siren Call" of the moon: i.e., to see the establishment of a moon base as a necessary precursor to a Mars expedition. The important way in which they had not taken that lesson was politically connected. The moon-base faction had been persuaded to give up on a Luna base, and a compromise reached: that a base would be constructed on Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars.

This was not something the Ares Project was directly interested in, but it made a lot more sense than building a base on Earth's moon. Phobos had no gravity well to speak of, and aerobraking in Mars' atmosphere could help in achieving a matched orbit at a reasonable cost. That done, the closeness of the moonlet would allow excellent surveying of parts of Mars.

Better still, there had been some indications from prior probes, including the ill-fated Soviet Phobos 2, that there might be some fossil deposits of water on Phobos, which was over twenty kilometers wide. That wasn't really surprising, since both Phobos and its brother moon Deimos were suspected to be captured outer-system bodies, possibly the cores of former comets. So the Phobos project was justifiable on its own terms while still being reasonably well integrated into NASA's overall mission design. And-always a critical factor in the world inhabited by government agencies and the megacorporations with whom they maintained an incestuous relationship-the Phobos project kept the existing vested interests happy. A moon base, after all, was a moon base, regardless of what moon it was on.

It was here that A.J. had seen an opportunity. Obviously, no one-neither government regulatory agencies nor private insurance companies-was going to let the Ares Project blast human beings into space without firm proof that all aspects of the proposed system would work safely. Pirate was an unmanned device designed to demonstrate the most critical aspects of the system: to be able to travel to the Red Planet with no return fuel, just a small store of "seed" hydrogen; to be able to create fuel from Mars' atmosphere; and then return to Earth using Mars-manufactured propellant.

A rover unit was to be deployed during the atmospheric fuel manufacturing stage to do surveying of the area, which was one of the prime locations currently considered for final landing of a manned mission. It would also leave the first "hab"-habitable enclosure-on Mars, although it was a scaled-down version from the full-scale "tuna cans" in the forthcoming main prep flights. The "hab" would serve as a testbed for the long-term operation of some of the systems and as a radio beacon as well.

A.J. had proposed a modification of this mission profile which would serve NASA's interests and those of the Ares Project: instead of immediately landing, Pirate would aerobrake into an orbit close to that of Phobos, and would release a number of independent, remotely controllable sensor-probe units. The probes would survey Phobos carefully from all directions in a number of spectra, helping them to select the best places for NASA's base. Pirate would then deorbit and carry out its basic mission. Though now, probably, with no rover or a much smaller one, to make up for the extra mass of the sensor drones that A.J. called his "Faeries."

The price tag for A.J.'s proposed modification was substantial for Ares-around twelve million dollars-but was far, far less than NASA would have to spend on any similar mission. Assuming they could do it at all-which, as far as A.J. was concerned, they couldn't. They didn't have him, and that meant that they simply wouldn't be able to design sensor drones good enough.

Apparently, NASA agreed, because they had accepted his proposal and hadn't even quibbled on the price.

The doors slid aside as he approached. "Joe!" he bellowed, making everyone in the room jump. "I believe in Faerie tales!"

Dr. Joe Buckley frowned at him for a moment before catching on. "Well, dammit, why'd they have to wait so long? We've spent the past two months refining the rover designs and the interior supports. Not to mention-"

"Oh, don't gripe, Joe. You'll still get to build the rovers. They'll be used in the next launch-hell, they'll be used in every mission we land, I'll bet. But this first mission will help pay for your rovers, and it's not like all of you won't get something to do in the redesign. I'm going to need half the machine and prototyping group to whip up prototypes of the Faeries. You'll want to try to design a chibi-rover to do at least some of the other stuff we wanted to test on the ground. The main capsule guys are going to need to design the drop-off module so we can match them up with Phobos' orbital speed exactly. I sure don't want to have to make the Faeries try to play orbital catchup; it'd play merry hell with the mass ratio and energy budget. And we'll all be playing games to figure out the best design for the drive systems on the things."

Joe grinned. "Sure. But you know how we engineers hate being kicked out of a nice comfortable rut. Now you're going to make us all work."

"True. Still, don't I get any thanks for bringing us in about twelve million bucks?"

A.J. found himself blushing as the entire engineering group on duty answered by giving him a standing ovation, something he hadn't actually expected. If there were going to be serious gripes about the changes, apparently they weren't going to be addressed at him.

"Umm…" The claps trailed off, leaving him in an awkward silence. "Thanks. Thanks a lot, guys."

"Aw, c'mon, you're embarrassing him!" Joe said, grinning. "Next he'll start getting teary-eyed and thanking the Academy and all that kind of thing. Enough of all this, let's get to work-we've got a hell of a lot of redesign work to do, and if we want to make this launch target, we've got just six months to do it all!"

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 6

"For the last time, Joe-no." As if to emphasize the point, she sat down at the desk in her office with a solid-sounding plump that properly belonged to a woman much heavier than she was.

"It's not going to hurt my career, Helen!" Joe Buckley looked just as stubborn as Helen did. "I've gotten my doctorate now, and as far as the rest goes…" He snorted derisively. "I doubt if more than two percent of the people in my field know the difference between a triceratops and a tricycle-and less than half of the ones who do could care, anyway."

"That's not the point, and you know it," Helen said bluntly. "You want to do the spaceman thing just like your friend A.J., except you're willing to follow the standard route with NASA if the Ares Project doesn't pan out. Well, Joe, you and I both know that there's nothing more political than a national space program. Get associated with the wrong weirdos and you'll never get picked. It doesn't matter what your colleagues think-they're not the ones who call the political shots at NASA. And I might well be the absolutely wrong weirdo."

"Come on. The way you've written the paper, no one can gripe at you. It's not like you even say anything controversial."

Helen laughed humorlessly. "Joe, you worked with me for how long? And you still think they can't gripe any time they want to? Of course, they can. And they will, because they'll notice exactly what I'm not saying-when, normally, I'd be expected to say quite a bit. At the museum next week they probably won't tear me to shreds, but after the paper comes out publicly and the axes start getting ground…"

She shook her head. "By the time of the North American Paleontology Conference next year someone will absolutely crucify me. Might even be Nicholas Glendale."

Joe grimaced. Glendale was far and away the best known paleontologist in the country. And, somewhat unusually, his popular acclaim was matched by professional respect from his colleagues. Tall, handsome, with salt-and-pepper hair and a toothy grin, Nicholas Glendale was a regular figure for interviews, movie consulting jobs, and had written several best-selling books on paleontology.

He'd also been a solid fieldworker, early in his career, though he hadn't done any fieldwork in many years. For at least a decade, now, he'd been generally considered one of paleontology's top theorists. He had, in fact, been one of Helen's instructors for her graduate work-and probably the best.

If Glendale did decide to weigh in against Helen's work, she could really be in for trouble.

Helen saw the wince and smiled wryly. "You finally get it. And no, my chivalrous friend, there's nothing you can do about it. If you were thirty years older and at the top of the profession, maybe. But then you'd most likely be on the other side, anyway. If things work out well, don't worry. You'll all get the credit you deserve. I'll shout it from the top of the library building, if I have to."

"I'm not worried about that!"

"Maybe not, but I am. That's the part that rankles most about not putting your name-and Jackie's, Bill's and Carol's-on this paper. I feel like I'm cheating you, even while I'm trying to keep you out of the mudslinging. The only reason A.J. is listed is because his field won't care about ours, and it's really our only payment to him for the work he did."

"Well, then, don't worry, okay? None of us think anything like that."

He glanced at the sheaf of papers that summarized the many months of work Helen had done at the dig. Joe himself, along with Jackie, had only participated that first summer before their engineering careers made any further such time-consuming sidelines impossible.

He grinned as he once more read the name in the title. "And Jackie, at least, is getting her credit right there."

"… of Bemmius secordii."

Helen finished and looked up. She tried to maintain a detached and professional expression, but it wasn't easy. Half of her wanted to burst out laughing at the expressions around the table, and the other half wanted to dive into a foxhole.

The room was silent. For a long time.

Finally, one of the visitors cleared his throat and said: "The study of the raptors is brilliant. But I noticed that you don't speculate on the holes in the skeletons. Or on the-ah, pebbles-that you found scattered about the site."

"That's true," replied Helen. "I simply reported the facts. People can draw whatever conclusions they choose. I don't feel I'm in a position to do so. Michael Jennings feels he has an excellent explanation for them, however, and he will be describing his theory in a separate paper."

Silence.

Another visitor spoke.

"Your treatment of the new species is also very restrained. The description is excellent, and I personally found your analysis of the presumed shape and locomotion quite convincing. But again, you draw no general conclusions. You don't even attempt to locate the animal within any established phylum."

"You're right. Where would you put it?"

Silence.

After another long pause, Director Bonds spoke.

"One small point, Helen. I'm a little puzzled by the name you've chosen for this new species. The species name is for the Secords, of course. But why the generic name?"

Helen managed to keep from smiling. "Oh, I don't know. I needed a name, and that one just came to me."

Fortunately, none of the people in that room were regular readers of science fiction. So she got away with it.

That was the easy one, she thought to herself an hour later, relaxing in the chair of the borrowed office. The museum had supported the dig, was getting the skeletons, and had every reason to accept whatever they got. But the peer-review process was bound to get interesting. By the time the paper came out publicly, months from now, the whole field would be alerted to the gist of its content. That would generate an instant academic brawl, which would reach a climax at the major conference next year.

The phone rang. Startled, she stared at the warbling instrument for a moment before finally picking it up. "Dr. Kamen's office, Dr. Sutter speaking."

"What's up, Doc? How'd the grilling go?"

Even over the phone, Helen recognized the exuberant voice. She was startled to hear it, though. She wouldn't have thought that, after more than a year, A.J. Baker would have still been following her work. She knew from Joe Buckley that his friend Baker was up to his eyeballs in his own project at Ares.

That's… kind of intriguing, actually.

She shook off the thought. "Not too badly, A.J. They knew I was dancing around certain subjects, sure. But they didn't want to go there either, so that works out pretty well for me."

"I still say I'd just go for it. Hit 'em with the truth and to hell with the rest."

"Oh, how I wish. Apparently, when it comes to professional status, your field works differently than mine."

"Well, yes, that's true. In my trade, there are those who are good, those who are excellent, and those who are divine. I have sufficient worshippers to qualify for the third category."

"And you're the most modest person you know, too."

He laughed. "Damn straight! So no one caught on?"

"Well… The director did ask about the name. But either he didn't quite get it, or he was really working hard on ignoring it."

"Maybe everyone else will do the same."

"Ha. I laugh. And I laugh again. Everybody at the museum is friendly. Some of the people in this field are long-standing professional rivals of mine. Outright enemies, in the case of at least one or two. And they'll all have lots of time to read over my paper, once it comes out. For that matter, plenty of them will be reading it already.

You can bet copies will get circulated ahead of publication, no matter what the rules are. Oh, they'll be ready for me and Bemmie, A.J., don't you worry about that. Come along to the conference next fall. You can see me get burned in effigy. It'll be a big bonfire, too, with them having almost eighteen months to pile up the firewood."

"I'd love to, but it'll probably be impossible." A.J.'s voice sounded sincerely wistful. "Especially since I'd gladly roast anyone trying to light flames under you, and-if I do say so myself-I'm damn good at roasting people. 'To Serve Man' is my favorite bedtime reading."

Helen laughed herself at that. A.J.'s cheerful delivery made the whole conversation lighter. "So come on, then! The conference next year will be held in Phoenix, which isn't even that far away for you."

"No, it isn't-even allowing for the fact that New Mexico and Arizona are both big states. Hell of a scenic drive, too. But the problem isn't the travel time, it's the time I'd have to spend at the conference. Alas, though it devastates me, dear lady, I fear I cannot, for duty doth call."

A.J. had put on a very exaggerated Ye Olde English accent for the last sentence, but promptly lapsed back into his usual Wiseass American. "We're kicking into high gear over at Ares, and I've been given the green light to go all-out in designing my sensor gear. You're talking to the man who's going to be first on Mars. Well, at least by proxy, but I get to design and run the proxies. And, who knows, maybe I'll actually get sent myself. Still, by next summer I'll be working round the clock and I doubt very much I'd be able to go attend a paleontology conference. Send me lots of pics and a transcript, though."

"You want pictures?"

"Of course. Mostly of you, though, not the stuffy old professors."

A.J. was too hearty with the flirty approach. But he segued back into the dry humor that Helen thought fit him much more comfortably. "Though if you can get some pics of people about to explode with outrage when you read your paper, I'd enjoy that also. By the way, thanks loads for the 3-D model you made of Bemmie. I have him as my wallpaper at work."

She heard a voice in the background. "Whoops! Gotta go, Dr.

Sutter. Hey, hope you enjoy the e-mail I just sent! Bye!"

"Goodbye, A.J." she said, but he'd already cut off. Her portable pinged, signaling that A.J.'s message had arrived. She saw it contained an animation file, which she opened.

A flying saucer floated down the screen, disgorging a rather disquietingly cute Bemmius: squat, overly short, with exaggerated eyes and a completely anatomically wrong smiling mouth under the three forelimbs.

Bemmie scuttled in its odd way across a simple landscape, coming upon a bunch of similarly overcute raptors. Bemmie held up a sign: TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER. The raptors leaped at him, there was a struggle, and over the now unconscious body of Bemmie one of the raptors held up another sign: LEADER? I THOUGHT HE SAID LARDER!

She laughed again, even though the joke was pretty lame. He'd clearly put some work into that one. Bemmie might have been given a sort of face against his anatomical realities, but it had taken some thought to create a cartoon version of his actual locomotion style.

She dictated a quick, appreciative thank you, and then stood up. It was time to start working again. For the next year and a half, she wouldn't have much chance for relaxation.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 7

Jackie Secord gripped the frame of the observation port tightly, staring at the strange assemblage of spherical tanks, tubing, and massive bracing structures within the almost unbelievably huge enclosure before her. Behind, a calm voice continued the countdown. "Five… four… three… two… one… Firing."

From the center of the assemblage a monstrous tongue of flame reared up. Even through the soundproofing and vibration-absorbing material of the test facility, there came a deep-throated, thundering roar that shook the room. The sound went on and on, an avalanche of white noise that overwhelmed even her shout of triumph. It also wiped out the continuing counts and updates of the engineers, who had to resort to electronic communication rather than attempt to make themselves heard over the force of that unbelievable sound.

Finally, when it seemed to Jackie that even her bones were vibrating from the unending song of power, it cut off. Then she could hear the yells, the whistles, and leaped into the air herself with a cowboy whoop.

"It worked, it worked!" she shouted, ears still ringing with that impossible noise.

"And why should it not?" the deep, sonorous voice of Dr. Satya Gupta inquired calmly. "The concept was proven decades ago. It was merely a new design that needed to be tested."

"Dr. Gupta, you can't stand there and tell me you didn't feel anything-any nervousness, any anticipation-while we were counting down to the first firing!"

The dark eyes twinkled. "Well… Anticipation, certainly. The success of such a project, this is the reward of an engineer."

Jackie loved that considered, deliberate delivery, with the exotic combination of Indian and English accents flavoring Dr. Gupta's precise and well-crafted speech.

There was nothing unusual about Gupta's appearance-dark skin, black hair, symmetrical and well-molded face with a hooked nose over a brilliant smile, and he always dressed as though attending a formal dinner. Nothing unique at all, unless you counted the sharpness of those black eyes. It was Satya Gupta's voice that caught one's attention.

Everyone remarked on it, sooner or later. When A.J. Baker had met Gupta, he'd said: "So that's what Saruman is supposed to sound like."

Being A.J., he'd said it right in front of Gupta, too. Fortunately, the Indian engineer had a good sense of humor and hadn't been offended.

"So you never worried about something going wrong?"

Gupta gave an elaborate shrug. "It is always possible for there to be a failure, of course. Why else do we engineers always try to allow for all possibilities-and then add more reinforcements, just in case? On the other hand, a machine that is designed correctly should work. It will work. On this premise, Ms. Secord, our entire civilization depends."

Jackie almost laughed. Coming from anyone else, Gupta's little speeches and saws would just sound pompous; coming from him, they were simply right.

"Still-a nuclear rocket, Dr. Gupta! We just fired the first nuclear rocket since NERVA shut down!"

"Speaking for myself," Dr. Philip Moynihan said from his chair near the observation port, "I knew perfectly well it would work, and I still feel the same way Jackie does." The very elderly researcher was the only living man in the room who had participated in the original NERVA tests in the 1960s. "It's wonderful to see the new rocket fired for the first time."

Steven Schiffer, as was his way, added a cautionary note. "If the scrubbers don't make the outside air as clean as it was before the firing, it may be the last firing, too. The licensing hassles to permit this were something hellish. If one of the counters outside the range so much as hiccups, they'll probably come in and seal the whole complex." Gloomily: "With us in it, under a million tons of cement."

"And if they do that," Dr. Rankine said from his position at one of the analysis stations, "We'll just fire Zeus up again and blow a hole in the cement. Peak thrust of four and a half million newtons-call it just over a million pounds."

"Sweet! That'll give us something to fly from here to Mars on!"

"I still prefer 'Old Bang-Bang,'" grumbled Dr. Hiroshi Kanzaki.

Jackie rolled her eyes. The Japanese engineer's attachment to the old Orion design had always struck her as just barely short of obsessive.

"Oh, sure," she jibed. "That would be a lot easier to get authorized. 'Hi, we're going to take this huge honkin' plate of steel, put our ship on top, and then light off a chain of nuclear bombs under our asses to get us moving. In your back yard.'"

Kanzaki was never one to take a jibe without a rejoinder. "Well, you can't argue that us going for the nuclear rocket hasn't taken the heat off your boyfriend."

"A.J. is not my boyfriend!" Jackie replied automatically, for what was probably the three thousandth time.

The rest of what Kanzaki had said was true enough. The Ares Project also needed nuclear reactors to pull off some of the projected stunts, like generating new fuel on Mars for the return trip. If the government hadn't already been planning to make extensive use of nuclear technology in space for its own projects, A.J. and his fellow Nuts would have had hell's own time trying to convince anyone to let them fire off something loaded with fissionable materials into the sky.

"No doubt. I'm sure they're all grateful for that minor favor. Still, it means we get the real drive system while they're playing with bottle rockets."

That was greeted with another euphoric roar of agreement. Ever since they began, the space programs of the world had been stuck using chemical fuels to catapult loads into space. While that was perfectly acceptable for simple small orbital work, the fact remained that to explore the rest of the solar system demanded some other method of propelling a spaceship.

Many alternatives had been proposed, but they all had one of two disadvantages. Either, like solar sails or electric drive systemssometimes called "ion" drives-they provided miniscule amounts of thrust. Or, they required a power source of such magnitude that only something like a nuclear reactor could provide the oomph needed.

In the case of Orion-"Old Bang-Bang," in their parlance- the design cut out the middleman entirely and detonated nuclear explosives like firecrackers under a tin can to kick a truly impressive payload upwards. However, with the paranoia against all things nuclear-even controlled reactions like NERVA-no such design had ever really been given a chance to get off the ground, so to speak.

But with the impetus to get to Mars suddenly in overdrive, it was clear that some superior drive system would be needed for the projected spaceship that NASA intended to send to Phobos and, thence, to Mars. With that demand, the NERVA program-Nuclear Energy for Rocket Vehicle Applications-had been reborn. Even in its prototype stages two-thirds of a century before, NERVA had demonstrated the immense thrust of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds. The specific impulse, which meant the amount of time that one pound of propellant could be used to produce a thrust of one pound of force, had been over eight hundred seconds-far greater than that which could be obtained from chemical sources.

While other theoretical systems, such as VASIMR, offered superior overall performance, they remained theoretical. All of them required major technological breakthroughs, such as controlled commercial fusion-still eternally twenty years away-or specialized materials design. NERVA was in fact the simplest overall concept available. It used nuclear power to heat reaction mass to tremendous temperatures and pressures, and then let it squirt out. Simple, but with proper design reasonably efficient and vastly powerful.

"What was our specific impulse?" she asked.

"Eight hundred ninety-two seconds," Rankine answered smugly. "Pushing the calculated limits already. I'll bet with tuning we can crack the nine hundred second barrier!"

Jackie's phone pinged. "Yes?"

A.J.'s image appeared in front of her, courtesy of her VRD. "Congratulations, Jackie! Looks like you hit a million pounds of thrust there!"

"How the hell do you know that? You didn't play Tinkerbell with me, did you?"

A.J. gave an exaggerated look of wounded pride. "How could you even consider such a thing, Jackie?"

"Because it's just the kind of thing you'd do!"

He waved a finger in the manner of a prissy teacher. "Certainly not. Planting unapproved sensors inside that complex would be illegal, and the last thing I want is to get hauled up before the law."

He paused a moment, obviously fighting a grin. "Now, monitoring it from outside and performing my own unique analyses on the data, that's a different matter."

A.J. made a theatrical frowning glance to the side, as though consulting some very complex and important display out of her range of vision. "And it looks like you can tell your friends not to worry about having your tests cancelled. According to my data, the air you're venting is actually coming out below ambient rad levels."

"Showoff."

"Well, true. Let me make it up to you-meet Joe and me in Alamogordo and we'll buy you dinner. We both have something to celebrate!"

"You too?"

"Yep. Ted's Steak and Lobster, how's that? Meet you there at eight? Great. See you!"

"Hey, wait! What-" But A.J. had cut off. "Oooh, he is so…"

"Your boyfriend annoying you again?"

"He is not my boyfriend!"

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 8

"I'm not?" A.J. pulled an exaggerated sad face.

"No, you're not," stated Jackie firmly, as she slid into the booth seat opposite A.J. and Joe. "And stop pouting. You look cuter when you smile."

The sensor specialist brightened. "I'm cute!"

Joe shook his head. "She said you're cut-er. All that means is that you're less annoying when you smile than when you sulk. She's the precisionist type, don't forget."

"So," Jackie said, ignoring their byplay. "Obviously everyone knows what I'm celebrating. What about you guys?"

After A.J. filled her in on the latest news, Jackie jumped up and hugged him, nearly spilling water all over Joe. "Congratulations! That's wonderful news!"

"Dammit, Jackie, watch out." Joe blotted up the spill with a handful of napkins. "Or you'll get in trouble for consorting with the enemy."

She resumed her seat. "Yeah, right. Like they don't already believe I'm consorting. Do you know how often I have to repeat the fact that A.J. and I are not dating?" Jackie studied the menu and her eyes widened. "Holy sheep, as my dad used to say. Celebrations shouldn't leave people broke!"

"Don't worry, I'm paying." A.J. spoke before Joe could even respond.

"Oh, A.J., you don't have to-"

"It's no biggie, guys. Seriously."

Joe raised an eyebrow. "Paying for Jackie, I can understand, but I doubt I'm that good to look at."

"No, you're ugly. I'm paying for you out of pity."

"You are funny, A.J. That is why I'll kill you last."

There was a break in the banter as the trio considered the many options on the menu. The ordering process was delayed as Joe interrogated the waiter sternly on the precise methods of cooking employed, the spices, and a number of other issues. Jackie saw A.J. roll his eyes.

Joe was a gourmet; and, quite possibly, the most ungodly picky eater either of them knew. Apparently, however, the waiter's answers satisfied him, because he finally leaned back and selected stuffed portobello mushrooms with lobster and king crab for an appetizer, with grilled swordfish marinated in red wine sauce for his main course.

A.J. had taken all of three seconds to make his choice of calamari followed by a broiled lobster. Jackie wasn't quite that fast, but she'd still managed to order her grilled vegetables with dipping sauce and surf-and-turf combo in far less time than Joe took.

"I can see why you said you don't go out to eat with Joe very often."

Joe gave a tolerant smile. "Oh, you complain now, Jackie, but that's because you aren't in Ares."

She looked quizzically at A.J. "Just what does Joe's mania for cuisine have to do with the Project?"

"Well, everyone in the Project has to wear more than one hat. It so happens that Joe is in charge of the consumable supplies aboard the ships."

"Ah. Light dawns."

"Which," A.J. added, "is one of the reasons I pay for his meals. He's going to be picking mine when we go."

"So you're actually going?" Jackie couldn't keep her voice from rising on the last part, nor exclude the envy.

"About ninety-five percent chance. I'm in training already."

"Not that he really needs much," Joe said. "A.J.'s always been in good shape. I'm the one who has to really work."

"Don't tell me you're going, too!"

"Not all that likely. But possible. I'm a candidate, but nowhere near the front of the pack like A.J." Joe shook his head. "Basically, for me to go up, some of the others have to either get disqualified or quit. Or else something new has to turn up that gives me some special qualifications that other people don't have."

He eyed Jackie sympathetically. "What about you? The Nike is going to be big. We've heard it'll have a crew as large as ten people. Maybe even more."

Jackie knew she didn't look very optimistic. She didn't feel optimistic, either.

"Maybe. There's hellish competition. I'm going to be starting training next week, but I don't think they'll want more than one drive systems engineer aboard, and Dr. Gupta isn't about to step down. If the crew size was maybe half again larger-leaving enough room for an assistant drive engineer-then I'd have a real chance."

"You're a good electrical and micro-electro mechanical systems engineer, too."

"Thanks, but they've got qualified specialists for that. Again, the problem is the crew size. I'm everybody's favorite second banana, but with a crew of only ten there's just no room for any second bananas. If the Nike were twice the size-" She shrugged. "But it isn't. So all I can do is hope."

"Well," said A.J. brightly, "if both of you stay back, you can at least keep busy cheering me on."

It was Joe's turn to roll his eyes. "A.J., sometimes you are really a… "

"Self-centered jerk?"

"I wasn't going to say it," Joe muttered, still staring at the ceiling.

"I was," Jackie hissed.

Joe brought his eyes back down and changed the subject. "So, Jackie, today's test-any hitches at all?

"Not a one, so far. We may-wonder of wonders-actually finish a project ahead of time."

"Isn't that, like, completely against government regulations?"

"Normally, sure. But as we are currently under what amounts to an order to kick your sorry civilian asses, we've actually got permission to do things at real speed."

"The ass-kicking is going to happen in the other direction," A.J. jeered.

Jackie just smiled. "Possibly. But we've got a big fat government butt to absorb the punishment, where all you've got is skin and bones. Besides, if we can actually get close enough to launch this mission, I don't think it will matter. Especially if we can get everything done we've got projected."

"Well, I'll do my best to make it easy," A.J. said. "I'm really looking forward to doing this one. I'll actually get to play in both sandboxes at once. I stay on Ares' payroll and get to design all their cool stuff, but when the Faeries actually get down to business, since that data's going to belong to NASA, I'll be working in Mission Control with the big boys. Does it get any better than this?"

Joe laughed. "Probably not. I suppose I'm a little jealous, but hell, if it's adding that much to the department budget I can't really complain." He looked back at Jackie. "So how's the Nike design going?"

"Mostly hush-hush, but I can tell you she's going to be really big. More than one main engine to shove this lady along."

"I'll admit NASA did one thing right," said A.J. "At least they gave her the right name for the job."

He raised his glass over the arriving appetizers. "It may be disloyal, but here's to the winged Goddess of Victory, Nike!"

The others clinked their glasses with his, Jackie managing to control her irritation. Jackie had plenty of criticisms of NASA herself, but as time went on, she found A.J.'s incessant jibes were getting more and more annoying. As she'd often found with hardcore libertarians like A.J., if not with someone like Joe, the man could be insufferably smug-and amazingly blind to the contradictions in his own attitudes.

In this instance, she'd admit, Jackie happened to agree with A.J. She wasn't sure who, in the vast bureaucracy of NASA, had first come up with the name, but it was appropriate in so many ways. The Greek/Roman pantheon had, of course, been the source of the planetary names, and Mars-Ares to the Greeks-was the God of War. However, the Greek pantheon had another deity of war: Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare. Athena was symbolic of the necessity of war waged with rationality and control, while Mars/Ares was the symbol of its destructive savagery. NASA's first goal, however, was Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars, named after Ares' companions Phobos and Deimos: Fear and Terror. But Athena had her own companion, Nike. Thus the ship was named, and the motto of the Phobos Expedition was born.

She raised her glass and repeated it. "'Conquer Fear.'"

They drank again. When she lowered her glass, Jackie found that she was still irritated enough to do a little needling of her own.

"A.J., explain to me again exactly how you guys are proposing to finance your junket-besides begging money from NASA? I've never been able to figure out how the abracadabra works."

"Oh, you mean instead of mugging the taxpayers and blowing their dough on expensive boondoggles?" A.J. grinned. "Well, you know about the prizes."

"Right. That's some money, and I suppose if you guys manage to have everything work right, that'd finance a good chunk of things."

"So far it's done real well for us. But it only pays for you being first, don't forget. If you have a reason to do things more than onceand we have a number of reasons we have to do multiple launches and landings-you'll start burning through whatever small profit you might make on the prize money after development. So as you imply, we need other sources.

"So first we got people who believed in it enough to be willing to donate money to the cause, work for cheap, and so on, to keep costs down. Then we started looking for angels-investors who wanted to be in on private space ventures."

A.J. leaned back, stretched, and then attacked his calamari for a moment. "Of course, the problem there is that even though a few ventures like Rutan's managed to make space before, they never got a chance to do much with it except some touristy stuff, so there weren't too many angels left. That meant we had to actually promise something."

"You started selling Mars, right? But you don't own the planet, so how can you sell it? That's what I don't get."

Joe held up an admonishing finger. "My dear girl," he said in a pompous tone, "we aren't selling Mars. We are selling the option to own property on Mars on the speculation that we can arrive there first and, therefore, claim that property by virtue of our arrival."

"Isn't that the same thing? And isn't it against international law to begin with?"

"Not exactly," A.J. said defensively. "If you look at it cold-bloodedly, what we're really doing is essentially a legal form of gambling. There's a reason they call the financial section the 'Harriman Division' at Ares. This is land speculation based on the potential opening of a new frontier-something Heinlein mentioned in his story 'The Man Who Sold the Moon.'"

"In other words, it's a hustle." Jackie made no attempt to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

"The fact is," she said forcefully, dropping her innocent pose, "that your scheme is against international law-going back at least to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The principles of which, I remind you, were reaffirmed in the treaty regarding use of the moon in 1967. Not to mention about a jillion UN resolutions that the United States is signatory to. What you're gambling on-more precisely, trying to get other people to gamble on-is that if you can land on Mars first, you can get at least some of those treaty provisions lifted."

A.J. and Joe were both looking defensive now-and the term "defensive," in the case of A.J. Baker, was a very difficult one to separate from "belligerent."

Joe, however, responded first. "Yes, Jackie, we're gambling-or asking others to, if you prefer. But what we're gambling on is not whether it will be done, but how quickly it will be done."

"What makes you think it will ever happen at all?"

"Because, to put it bluntly, Mars will eventually be habitable. The engineering to make it livable is already known to be possible, and relatively quickly-unlike the ten-thousand-year job it would be to terraform Venus. Antarctica really isn't, and there's a biosphere already on Earth that you can't risk disrupting in order to make it habitable. The Moon is a useless rock. Basically, those treaties hold because no one wants the areas involved badly enough to kick about it, and because there's no real motivation for lots of people to go there."

He took a bite, savored the flavor. "Mmmm… Now, if you want people to live somewhere else, you have to offer them something. And if what you want is for the place to be self-sustaining, you're talking about getting everything from farmers to miners to management people there. History has shown that, especially in frontier locations-and Mars will most definitely be a frontier-one of the big driving forces is the ability to get your own place relatively cheap, or potentially even 'free.' I put little verbal quotes around that because, of course, you'll be working your tail off to live on your land. You'll not be getting the best immigrants if what you do is force a lease or rental agreement on everyone. They will want to own the land, and I think the governments of the world will recognize that a separate habitable planet is an entirely different kettle of fish from some deserted, airless rockball like the Moon."

Jackie nodded. "Okay, it's not quite a con. You're right, it's a gamble. You're betting that the potential of a frontier will cause political pressure, on the one hand; and the thought of the potential profits from owning and exploiting an entire planet, on the other hand, will cause pressure from major industrial and financial interests. And all of it happening fast enough to make a difference in the laws to your benefit."

"Profit motive and a need for freedom are strong incentives. I think it's worth betting on, and so, apparently, do our investors."

"Fine. And let me tell you what else is true, Mr. Sudden-Expertin-History. Your parallel between the American frontier of the nineteenth century and the Martian frontier of the twenty-first conveniently overlooks the fact that a lot has changed in two centuries. It's not going to be Ye Plucky Pioneer racing his Conestoga in a land rush, it's going to be Ye Megacorporation gouging the hell out of everybody to allow them to go to Mars-on Megacorp's terms. Or do you think every would-be pioneer can build his own version of the Nike? If you ask me, your scheme-even if it works-isn't anything more than a fancy recipe for bringing back indentured servitude. In the name of 'freedom,' no less. And that's true even for American or European or East Asian would-be emigrants, much less-"

She broke off suddenly and took a deep breath. Then, decided she wasn't really in the mood for a full-bore argument. "Ah, never mind," she said, digging into her own food.

Fortunately, A.J. and Joe were just as willing to let it drop.

It was an old argument anyway, and one which in all its permutations the three of them had been bickering over for years.

A.J. and Joe were both libertarians in their political leanings-A.J., flamboyantly so; Joe, moderately so-and Jackie wasn't at all. As far as she was concerned, the splendid-sounding word "libertarianism," when you scratched the surface, all too often just meant "Me-me-meme-me."

On the subject of who really owned Mars-or ought to-Jackie tended to agree with her boss, Dr. Gupta.

"I see, "he'd said to her mildly once, after she explained the Ares Project's scheme." Finance Mars exploration by selling Martian land to wealthy speculators. Well, that will certainly be to the benefit of a billion of my former countrymen. Most of whom can't afford to own an automobile. Or a bicycle, often enough."

It was easy to deride government agencies for being bureaucratic. Jackie had done so herself, many times-and had to deal with NASA's often amazingly stupid decisions and procedures far more directly than A.J. ever did. But, in the end, she didn't really think that handing the world-the whole damn solar system!-over to people with the single-minded and ultimately self-centered focus of A.J. Baker would be any improvement. At all.

The problem wasn't even with people like A.J. anyway, much less Joe. The problem was that the kind of people they'd get to provide them with the sort of financial backing they needed usually did not look at the world the way they did. A.J. might be self-centered in terms of his interests and his personal focus, but he wasn't a damn bean counter. Money, as such, ranked so far down on his list of priorities that it barely made the list at all-and then, only as an afterthought. Allowing for his more practical nature, the same was true of Joe.

Jackie doubted that the Ares Project's fund-raising scheme would really work, in any event. She knew Ares had picked up enough financial backing over and above the prize money to keep their operations running-albeit always on a shoestring budget. But she thought their assessment that a successful landing on Mars would start unraveling almost three-quarters of a century's worth of international treaties forbidding the private exploitation of Antarctica and extraterrestrial bodies was…

The proverbial pie in the sky. If anything, she thought it was more likely that the treaties would be strengthened. Nor could she really envision any government-certainly not ones as strong as the United States or China or the European confederation-allowing any private enterprise to build spacecraft which, push comes to shove, could serve as platforms for weapons of mass destruction.

But, she reminded herself again, there was no reason to turn the subject into a loud argument over this particular meal. And who knew? When the dust all settled, they might wind up with an immensely complicated mixture of public and private methods. It had happened before, plenty of times. The kind of compromise that satisfied nobody, but didn't create enough resentment for anybody to really want to pick a fight over.

A.J. still seemed to be a bit sullen. But Joe apparently shared Jackie's sentiment.

"Enough of that," he said, pushing away his plate but obviously referring back to the earlier dispute. "Come one, Jackie, let's get to the good stuff. Tell us what it was like to test a NERVA rocket!"

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 9

Helen gritted her teeth, willing herself to keep still in her chair. It helped that she had clamped both hands on the armrests to make sure she didn't move. If she let go of the armrests, she'd probably leap straight over the three rows of seats ahead of her and strangle Dr. Alexander Pinchuk with her bare hands.

Helen had first encountered Dr. Pinchuk in her second semester as a graduate student. He'd been a visiting professor. Within a month, she had come to detest the man. Nothing in the years that came after, as she encountered Dr. Pinchuk time and time again- either personally at conferences or indirectly in professional journals-had changed her opinion except to deepen it.

Wine improved with age. Dr. Pinchuk did not. The sarcastic nickname he'd been given by graduate students-Alexander the Great-had derived from the man's egotism. A decade and a half later, coming toward the end of a career that had never been very distinguished, Pinchuk was as sour as vinegar.

Dr. Myrtle Fischer, an old classmate from those graduate student days, had hinted to Helen that she might want to attend Pinchuk's talk at the conference. Not that Helen had really needed the hint, given the title of the talk.

Frauds, Fakes, and Mistakes: An Overview of Questionable and Falsified Paleontological Evidence and Methods.

Leaving aside Helen's personal dislike for Pinchuk-she'd spent some considerable time avoiding him over the past many years; said avoidances including one outright rejection of a pass-she'd also taken him to task in several articles and at least one conference for sloppy fieldwork, something that he'd been perennially guilty of.

Pinchuk, among other things, had a nasty streak. He not only kept grudges, he fed them and bred them.

At first, the presentation seemed a good review of the history of the field, with a focus on misperceptions and outright fakery. But soon a theme emerged, wherein Pinchuk kept returning to the present and asking the question of whether such a fraud could be perpetrated in modern times. Each time, presenting a little example of how such a thing might be done. And each little example was, in fact, clearly drawn from her own dig. Without saying anything directly, the slimy bastard was implying that she'd faked Bemmie!

The fact that the accusation bordered on the ludicrous wouldn't necessarily keep anyone from believing it. Dr. Pinchuk had done his research well. Helen was a bit astonished, in fact, when she finally realized how much effort he'd put into it.

The approaches he described would, in fact, make it possible to create a fake even as complex as Bemmius, given the advances of current technology. People would ignore, or be unaware of, the other facts-for instance, that to make such a fake dig and set it up as described would take far more money and time than she'd received in grants over the past ten years. And that he was implying that the Secords were also in on the scam, as were all of Helen's associates and assistants.

Original drawing by Kathleen Moffre-Spoor.

That made her even madder than the accusations against herself. She'd been prepared for something to be brought out against her, though the brazen effrontery of this approach went far beyond anything she imagined, but not for accusations against her friends.

And now she was aware of the surreptitious glances being sent in her direction. She wasn't the only one who was catching Pinchuk's references. She wondered if it would do more harm than good to try to confront him.

But… no, he was surely ready for that. If he'd spent this much time preparing what was obviously both an actually worthwhile paper and a carefully crafted strike at her, he wouldn't have neglected to cover the likelihood of her presence.

She could just ignore it, but that might give it more credibility. Helen ground her teeth together as Pinchuk unctuously began a discussion of another possible technique that "the paleontological field must keep vigilant watch for."

Just as she felt she couldn't possibly keep seated any longer, someone else spoke.

"Pardon me, Dr. Pinchuk."

That deep, warm voice, clearly audible around the auditorium without benefit of microphone and speakers, yanked Helen's head around almost as though by a string. It was the voice she'd been dreading all weekend, since the big annual paleontological conference began.

Dr. Nicholas Glendale rose from a seat in the back as Pinchuk recognized him.

"Overall, Doctor, an excellent piece of work," Glendale began. Helen's heart sank. Attacks from Pinchuk she could handle. Overall, she outpointed him professionally-by a big margin, in fact-and everyone knew it. But Glendale was, quite honestly, out of her league. As a paleontologist, Helen today was probably just as good-better, in fact, in the field. But in terms of reputation and professional politics, there was no comparison.

"But while it's certainly instructive to think on past events," Glendale continued, "I think you are missing an opportunity with your review of potential techniques for modern fakery."

She could make out the barely restrained grin on Dr. Pinchuk's face very easily. "Indeed, Doctor? How so? I would be glad to elaborate on any of the points I have made so far."

Glendale returned Pinchuk's smile with his charming white-toothed grin. "I'm not speaking so much of the points themselves. While, as you say, they could be elaborated upon, your descriptions were more than sufficient to get across the important elements. What I mean is that you weaken your argument by presenting it piecemeal. The audience can be left with the impression that one piece or another of some dig could be faked, but without the understanding that an entire dig could be successfully falsified."

He raised an elegant eyebrow, questioningly. "Unless I am misinterpreting you?"

"Not at all, Doctor, not at all! You're quite correct. Even a dig of quite considerable size could be effectively faked with the right techniques, even today, and proving it after the fact… Well, perhaps in twenty years. But we know what can happen in twenty years-and how hard it would be to eradicate false impressions that remain for that long."

"I think," Glendale said, nodding in agreement, "that it would be instructive if we could go over, step by step, the faking of such a dig from start to finish. Unless I am imposing too much, Dr. Pinchuk?"

By now, Helen thought, Pinchuk's professional smile was clearly straining to break through to some version of

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Evil Overlord laughter.

"I wouldn't mind at all, Dr. Glendale, as long as the audience doesn't. After all, I still have a few parts of my retrospective left."

To judge by the anticipatory murmur that followed, Helen was probably the only one in the room who would rather just see the subject dropped. Pinchuk's eyes carefully avoided hers, giving the impression that he was utterly unaware that she was actually in the room-except that his smile widened momentarily when his gaze passed nearby.

"Well, then, Doctor, let's see what we can do." Glendale joined Pinchuk on the lecture stage, without asking for an invitation. "We need a large, sensational fossil we want to fake. To make it really challenging, it should be something that's completely impossible in the fossil record. Something truly-"

"Alien?" Dr. Pinchuk finished, innocently.

"Alien?" Glendale mused on that theatrically for a moment. "Certainly an excellent candidate, but I think we should stick with something for which there's anecdotal evidence, so to speak. How about another creature of myth? A unicorn? No, something like that actually could have existed. Ah, I know. A dragon! Your classic dragon, four limbs plus two wings, tail, and so on. Fire-breathing metabolism, the works. And to be proper about it, let's put him in the Age of Dinosaurs-always a favorite for sensationalism."

"Perhaps right on the K-T boundary?" That suggestion came from a member of the audience. Helen couldn't quite see who it was.

Glendale looked rather torn, but Dr. Pinchuk nodded. "Oh, come on, Dr. Glendale. It allows the demonstration of all the techniques in one example."

He sighed. "Oh, very well, but the combination is ludicrous."

The talk, now an exploration in theoretical paleontology gone bad, continued. Glendale and Pinchuk alternated conversation as elements of the phony dig were explicated. For authenticity, Pinchuk demonstrated the use of actual fossils and how they could be effectively "salted" to the dig. Glendale raised objections of mineral consistency and solidity, pointing out that in order to fool observers and the cameras one would have to effectively fake rock. Dr. Pinchuk countered with numerous exhibits of replicated stone from recent laboratory studies-including one sample which looked suspiciously like the stone from which Bemmie had been dug. If that part was possible, Glendale conceded, it would take care of many of the objections.

"Now, the skeleton itself would be a problem," he pointed out. "Perhaps you could use similar techniques to replicate the fossilized bone. But how would you make a convincing design for the creature?"

Pinchuk was tall, very skinny, and had outsized elbows. The way he seemed to stoop over that question, even while sitting, reminded Helen of nothing so much as a vulture. A vulture with disheveled graying red hair, just to make things worse.

"Ah! Excellent question! Let me refer you to my earlier images, Figures 19 through 23. As you can see, combining a modern 3-D modeling package with data on fossil formation, then putting the model through the desired process, leaves a model of a fossil in all the detail you desire. In fact, you'd probably want to damage the model some to make it look believable-here, let's rip off part of our dragon's wing and leave it over here. Then we can arrange to find the dig through this piece."

A little titter ran through the audience, at this latest of Pinchuk's none-too-subtle jabs at Helen's work.

"Excellent thinking, Doctor," Glendale said approvingly.

Glendale continued to analyze the phony dig, and Dr. Pinchuk eagerly supplied explanations for every objection. Finally, the entire structure was complete.

"If I may say so, Dr. Glendale," Pinchuk triumphantly concluded, "I believe between us we have built an ironclad case. Such things are possible today."

"Ironclad indeed, Doctor." Nicholas Glendale was smiling broadly. His gaze swept the audience. When it reached Helen, staring in paralyzed fury, she thought she saw one eyelid dip-ever so slightly-in a wink.

What…?

"I have, in fact, been verifying your facts as we went along." Glendale patted the glittering ornament which was his personal data center. "They check out very well, although you are considerably more optimistic with a few elements than I feel comfortable with. Still, you've made an excellent case. A large dig such as this could indeed be faked, even well enough to fool modern technological investigation. Of course, doing so would cost-at rock-bottom minimum-about…"

He looked down to check his figures. "Forty-six million dollars. Or, to put it another way, approximately six hundred times the annual salary of a fully established paleontologist."

Dr. Pinchuk's grin seemed to freeze on his face, and a hush fell over the audience.

"Forty-six million… Well, it's true that-"

"No matter," Glendale said breezily. "While it's clearly ludicrous to contend that any large and important dig could be faked in the real world"-his emphasis was sharply defined and unmistakable to everyone in the room-"your points still stand well on their own. Smaller fossils and digs are well within the capabilities of well-off notoriety seekers-millionaires, really, they'd have to be, to throw that much money around-and certainly should be watched for."

The good humor seemed to fade a bit from his expression. "I just wished to caution the observers to draw no conclusions about large excavations from our admittedly overly ambitious example. Such a falsification, though within the realm of the theoretically possible, would be so expensive as to make it, in the real world, something out of science fiction. Fantasy, I should say."

He gestured to the image of the falsified dragon fossil. "As fantastic as our draconic friend here. It would not only require money, but multiple coconspirators in laboratories and at the dig itself. The latter is what truly dooms any such attempt at fakery, of course. Money itself doesn't talk, but in conspiracies we must all remember what Benjamin Franklin said."

He paused, smiling at the audience, and finished. "'Three can keep a secret-if two of them are dead.' So be suspicious when someone hands you a fossil of Tinkerbell, but don't worry about something much larger. It may be weird, and the discoverer may be misinterpreting the data. But it's real. Don't think for a moment it isn't."

He shook Dr. Pinchuk's hand with great enthusiasm. Since Pinchuk's whole arm seemed to have gone completely limp, it looked as if Glendale was shaking hands with a very large rag doll.

"Thank you very much for an entertaining diversion, Dr. Pinchuk! Well, I'd best leave you to finish up." He bowed to the audience. "And thank you all for your patience."

There was thunderous applause as Dr. Nicholas Glendale left the stage. Helen would have added to the applause, but on forcing her hands to release their grip she'd found they hurt too much. A huge weight was lifting from her shoulders. She couldn't help but laugh as she saw Pinchuk, still shell-shocked, try to resume his speech.

But his audience was already up and leaving. They knew what had been happening, under the surface. And now that Glendale had utterly demolished him, there was nothing left to see. She waved cheerily to Pinchuk, then headed for the exit herself.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 10

"Reactor cooking?"

"Ruth's doing just marvelously, Joe." Reynolds Jones looked up from the readouts of the large atmosphere chamber. "Producing fuel and oxygen both at near-optimum efficiency in our little simulated Martian atmosphere."

Jones was a tall, slender, black-haired man with a faint speech impediment that, combined with his prissy schoolmaster's vocabulary and gesticulating conversation style, made virtually everyone sure that he was gay. Or, as Joe's father used to put it, "walked the other side of the tracks."

Joe had his doubts. First, because he was generally reluctant to typecast people. Secondly, because he didn't think anyone could be that much of a stereotype.

It didn't matter, anyway. Whatever Ren's sexual orientation might be-and no one at Ares really knew-one thing that was sure and certain was that he was a master mechanical engineer. Better still, he had enough knowledge of chemistry to make him an ideal team member for designing and building all of the chemical reactors that would transform native Martian materials into everything human beings needed to live there.

That made him, arguably, the single most irreplaceable member of the team. The strategy of the Ares Project pivoted on a premise advanced by Robert Zubrin long before: that an expedition to Mars only needed enough fuel and supplies to get there. Surviving on Mars, and returning to Earth, could be done using the materials found on the planet itself. If that premise proved to be unworkable, everything else became a moot point-and it was Reynolds Jones, more than anyone, who would be the person to make it work. Or find out that it wouldn't.

"You can actually see the levels going up as we watch," Reynolds added.

"Ruth," the reactor in question, was deceptively simple. A test version of a close relative had, in fact, been created by Zubrin himself to prove the basic concept. A ruthenium-iron-chrome catalyst in a long pipe combined hydrogen with Martian carbon dioxide, producing methane gas for fuel, along with water and carbon monoxide as useful byproducts.

The reaction used was a variation of the Sabatier process. Once started, the process produced enough heat to maintain itself. The water was electrolyzed using an advanced solid polymer electrolyte (SPE) unit similar to those developed years before for use in nuclear submarines to produce oxygen and return hydrogen to the catalytic process in the reactor. Meanwhile, the carbon monoxide was led off to other processes or stored for later use. The various componentsattachments for power; tubing for leading the gaseous and liquid products to their destinations of liquefaction, compression, storage, or transfer; the compact shape of the custom SPE unit; and the connections for control circuitry and valves-were carefully distributed to leave the unit clear of obstructions. That was critical, because it operated at significantly high temperatures.

The basic tube-shape was still visible, however. Several other devices, of different construction, were set at separate locations around the atmospheric chamber.

Jones turned towards Anne Calabrio. "Annie, watch that carbon dioxide flow. We have to keep the pressure just right, and I think the program's not handling the valves properly. Something's wrong, anyway. The ratio's fluctuating more than it ought to."

"I'm on it, Ren. But with three experiments running at once, it's hard to maintain it all. I know we need to do this, checking for cross-interactions and all, but still, it's getting into pretty chaotic territory here."

Anne frowned. "Lee, can you throttle Ferris back some?"

"Throttle it back?" Grimes complained. "C'mon, Annie, I'm just gettin' started here!"

Anne's blue-eyed glare pinned Lee to the wall. The former Marine Corps lieutenant winced and raised his hands.

"Okay, okay. Gimme a sec. I was just starting to see some results here-and demonstrating iron production is going to be a pretty major experiment for us when we land, right?"

"Sorry, Lee," Reynolds said soothingly, "but remember, they're all tied together. We have to coordinate. When you start drawing the gas out of the system, the others have to adjust their timing so that each of us manages to support the other. It won't do us any good at all if you pull down the carbon monoxide when it's supposed to be used for a cleaning cycle. Or, worse yet, take too much hydrogen out of the main cycle."

Grumbling, the metallurgy specialist started shutting down the reactor that created iron by two separate paths. One combined hematite-an ore of iron that gave Mars its distinctive rust-red color-with carbon monoxide to produce iron and carbon dioxide. The other used hydrogen in a cycle that produced iron and water, with the water going to electrolysis to get more oxygen and return the hydrogen to work.

Lee Grimes was justifiably proud of the design. It allowed them to test and demonstrate both methods for producing usable iron, in a very small space.

"Part of the problem," Lee said, his tone conciliatory, "is that we're not really on Mars now. The damn chamber isn't big enough for us to drive things at full speed, at least not without a lot more ramp-up testing."

"Well, that's what we're all here for." Ren turned to Buckley. "Joe, what do you think?"

"I'd like to see if you can get Lee's experiment running again," Joe admitted. "Sure, our fuel-oxy reactor's big enough for primetime and combines reactions efficiently, but it's nothing spectacular. Making iron from Martian materials, now… That's going to be a demo that will make more investors really start thinking. And I'd like to see a demo of the ethylene reactor and the brickmaker, too."

"Ethylene coming up!" Anne said cheerfully. "Lee, once I get Ethyl running, you can restart Ferris. Use the hydrogen reaction, so I can grab the carbon monoxide from Ruth. Once I get that all balanced, we can try Porky."

"'Porky'?" Joe repeated, puzzled.

Lee gave an explosive snort of laughter. "You haven't heard that one yet, have you? The heat cycle on the brickmaker was hogging all the energy, since we haven't got a nuke reactor right now. To use the waste heat to cook the bricks, we need to pull it off the mains and use electric heaters. When I said that to Annie, she said to me: 'Well, yeah, it's the Third Little Piggie.'"

"Lee didn't get it immediately," Reynolds chuckled. "Until I pointed out it was making our house out of bricks."

"You do realize we'll need more respectable names for our advanced technology than Ruth, Ferris, Porky, and Ethyl?"

"Joe, stop worrying about the damn investors." Anne coded in several instructions to the system, causing Ruth to increase production and Ethyl to start in. "We've got perfectly good, dull, respectable names full of stupid acronyms for them."

Meryl Stephenson and Bryce Heyers from the next lab poked their heads in. "Hey, guys, can we use some of the- Oh, hi, Joe. Big demo for the boss, eh?"

Joe smiled. "Something like that. Look, I'll be by your lab in an hour or so. We need to-"

A buzzing noise sounded from one of the panels. Reynolds' head snapped around. "That's-"

Joe was just turning towards the panel when the world split open.

Even through his headphones, A.J. heard the sharp boom of the explosion, and felt the floor jolt under his feet. The phones shut off as A.J. leapt from his chair and dashed for the door.

"What happened?"

"I don't know," said Melanie Sherry, standing indecisively. "But it sounded like it came from Engineering."

Other people in the hallway blurred past as A.J. sprinted towards the doors. He burst out into the open.

As he ran towards the testing area, he could see that it was bad. Black billows of smoke, lit from beneath by orange flames, curled upwards from the shattered Engineering wing, near the Atmospherics Testing area. He felt his stomach tighten. Joe had been planning to test some of the catalytic generation processes today.

He skidded to a halt in a scattered jumble of stone and brick. A few others were hesitating, like him, before plunging into the yawning, smoke-belching ruin.

"Joe!" he shouted. "Reynolds! Annie! Lee!" He could hear the distant wailing of fire and emergency medical vehicles approaching.

Setting his jaw, A.J. started in. But then, startled, backed off almost immediately.

Something loomed up in the smoke, emerging slowly, backlit by the flames, seeming almost to materialize like a monster in a bad action movie. It was too wide and squat to be human. A broad, blocky silhouette that wavered like a black ghost…

A.J. gave a shout and charged forward. "Joe!"

Joe Buckley gave a faint grin through the soot on his face, as did Reynolds Jones from beneath the reflective heat blanket the two had around their shoulders. "I don't believe it. We made it out alive."

"Christ, what the hell happened? Never mind!" A.J. interrupted himself and reached for the blanket. "Give me that. The EMTs will be here soon."

Wrapping the blanket around himself, he plunged into the building, ignoring the shouts of people behind him.

Acrid chemical vapors spiked into his lungs as he reached into his pouch and grabbed a small, somewhat malleable ball. With all his strength he pitched it into the darkness ahead of him.

His VRD lit up almost instantly, matching the data now coming in from the sensor motes being scattered through the shattered interior by the ricocheting "scatterball" against the filed building plan. The data was patchy but good enough to work with.

The air was bad, very bad, but it wasn't going to kill him right away. Atmospheric chamber gone kablooey. Bodies…

There! And alive!

A.J.'s eyes stung terribly, but he blinked and fought the tears away. Then, suppressed a cough with desperate effort. If he started coughing now, he might not stop until he'd finished himself off.

A.J. tapped out commands on the virtual control panel in front of him as he stepped over a sensor-outlined block of rubble to get nearer to the body. The ad hoc network was coming up and trying to link in with the emergency vehicles' frequencies. There! Got it!

As he squatted next to Anne Calabrio's unconscious body, A.J. broke into the EMT frequency. "I've got a live one in here. We may have a few others. I think…"

He almost started coughing, then rasped out: "I think I can get out with her, but tie in with… local net… maps… "

He stopped talking and got Anne's limp form over his shoulders. The body was damnably heavy, even though Annie wasn't at all fat.

A.J. just didn't seem to have much strength. Unusual, for him.

It was puzzling. And the VRD wasn't focusing right at all. What the hell was wrong with it? It was supposed to project straight to the retina, focus shouldn't be… a problem…

A.J. stumbled and almost fell. Oh, shit. I'm the one having trouble interpreting.

He could make out some symbols showing that the conditions were already far worse than they'd been when he entered. His head was spinning. Which way was out?

He couldn't tell. Black smoke was everywhere. Light, he needed.. . needed to find…

He was on the ground, blood in his mouth, hurting. He realized he'd fallen. Someone… Anne… was on top of him.

Got to get up. Get up, dammit!

Light drew him. Orange flickering light. No, he realized, that was bad. Fire bad! Fire bad! The words came into his head from some long-distant movie.

With a supreme effort, A.J. forced himself upright. The VRD had failed. Maybe the fall, maybe soot on the optics, who knew? It didn't matter. A.J. doubted he could have understood it at this point, anyway.

He dragged his feet forward, one step at a time. Just one step more. Now just another step.

It's a building, not a catacomb! You only have a few…

The wall smacked him in the face.

He knew that wall texture, though. He was near the back of the

Atmospherics area. He'd gotten turned around and headed in just the wrong direction. A hacking cough hijacked his breathing, forcing him to stop and almost drop Anne. Disembodied knives stabbed deep into his lungs. Somehow he got the pain under control, and managed to turn around.

But there looked to be flames everywhere! He'd have to run through

Running seemed out of the question.

A dull explosion punctuated his oxygen-deprived panic. Move! Have to try!

A.J. managed a sluggish trot. It was already stiflingly hot, but every step towards the flames seemed to double the heat. The pain in his lungs…

I can't die yet, dammit. The Faeries haven't flown.

Then he was falling.

A.J. stirred slightly. Joe came alert, looking down at his friend's reddened skin, scorched hair, and streaks of black soot that even scrubbing hadn't yet managed to eradicate. The blue eyes opened slowly.

"J-Joe?" The normally exuberant voice was barely a whisper, almost a hiss.

"Take it easy, man. You were really touch-and-go there for a while. You crazy sonofabitch." He extended a small cup to A.J. "Try to sip a little water."

A.J. sipped, grimacing at the pain in his throat, but sipped more anyway, trying to rehydrate the nearly cooked tissues. "Anne?" he finally managed, his voice now more of a croak.

"Alive. And so are Lee, Susan, and Lindy. Meryl and Bryce, too. Anne's doing fine. She'll have a scar on her head from where a chunk of metal hit her, but the concussion was minor and because she was unconscious and not doing heavy work, her lungs are in decent shape. She didn't inhale much. Lee, well… he lost his left leg."

A.J. winced. "Oh, hell."

"Come on, A.J.," Joe almost scolded. "He's lucky to be alive. Wouldn't be-neither would most of the others-if it hadn't been for you."

"Me? Ha. I went charging"-he coughed slightly and his eyes watered at the pain-"charging in there like an idiot and got myself trapped. Anne, too. And never did anything at all for Lee."

"You certainly did, you moron," Joe retorted, with a touch of affectionate exasperation. "You also tied all your sensors into the local net, and with that the firefighters and EMTs who just happened to also have masks were able to navigate through the mess and find everyone in jig time. Apparently they caught you just as you were about to fall into the fire. So you did land yourself in the hospital, but you almost certainly kept the rest of us out of the morgue."

A.J. looked somewhat gratified, if still embarrassed over having turned himself into a victim. "Still. With a leg gone, Lee's hopes to be on the mission are over." That was true, but Joe wanted to change the subject. Obviously,

A.J. hadn't yet figured out the implications of Joe's earlier statement that Anne's lungs were okay.

A.J.'s… weren't.

His good looks had miraculously come through untouched, except for a small scar on one cheek that would just draw more attention. But A.J., unlike Anne, had been breathing heavily in that holocaust.

The air in there hadn't simply been "bad" toward the end. It had been toxic. There'd been almost no oxygen left in the interior of the building. Instead, it had been filled with poisonous vapors from burning plastics, chemicals used in the engineering experiments, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides from the intense heat, particulates-a sheer witches' brew that would have felled most men with a single breath. Joe knew the doctors were astonished that A.J. had survived at all, much less managed to move around as much as he did. Under the flamboyant exterior, the man was about as tough as any human being could get.

A.J. finished the cup of water as a nurse came in, checked his IVs, and went to get the doctor.

"What happened?" he asked, after she left.

"Not quite sure yet," Joe admitted. "It'll be a while. I think that we had a leak somewhere that caused oxygen to get into the mix, and once it started running away on us… anyway, we'll know in a couple days."

"Play merry hell with our schedule," A.J. said gloomily. Then, obviously trying to cheer up: "Hey, how'd you and Ren get out, anyway? I thought you were a goner!"

"Damn near was. I don't remember it all clearly, and neither does Ren. Near as I can figure, when the tank went up, the shockwave threw both of us towards the wall that blew out. A fire blanket was in the mess next to me, so I threw it over myself and Reynolds, and managed to get him to wake up so we could get out."

"You seem to make a habit out of this kind of thing."

Joe grinned weakly. He had a reputation for nearly getting killed-a climbing accident in which a belaying rope gave way, an explosion in a model rocket when he was a kid, going off a cliff in a car with no brakes, and a few other less spectacular but no less dangerous events.

"It doesn't get any less scary, let me tell you. If anything, it's worse-I'm sure that somehow, somewhere, fate is saving me up for a really spectacular finish."

"Well, I guess this one wasn't quite good enough." A.J. leaned back as Dr. Mendoza came in. By the time Mendoza finished his examination, A.J. had actually fallen asleep.

"He must be exhausted."

"He's got a ways to go yet, Mr. Buckley," Mendoza said briskly. "We'll be keeping him here for at least a few days for observation. With all the fumes he inhaled, and the high temperatures, he has significant damage to his lungs. Hope for the best, of course, but Mr. Baker is very lucky to be alive. I will be surprised if he comes out of this with more than eighty percent of his former lung capacity."

Joe grimaced. Eighty percent…

That would be enough to knock A.J. off the Mars mission. You didn't send people with respiratory problems into space.

"Please do what you can, Doctor. He's on the short list for the mission."

Mendoza nodded. "I know, and I will. But I can't do miracles. He'll have to do that himself."

Joe couldn't help another smile. "Well, as he'd say himself, that's his main job. Making miracles."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 11

Helen had intended to wait for Glendale outside another lecture late that afternoon, in order to thank him. But the call from Jackie Secord telling her about the accident at Ares not only distracted her for too long, but left her feeling much too depressed. Instead, she returned to her hotel room and spent most of the evening on or by the phone, waiting for further news.

She was finally able to talk to Joe himself. That was a source of much relief, regarding him, of course. But the rest of the situation was very unsettling. In an odd sort of way that Helen still couldn't define-she'd only spent a few hours in the man's actual presence, after all-A.J. Baker had come to be an important person in her life. The idea of him dying was… horrible.

Early in the morning, though, Joe called again.

"He'll survive, Helen. The doctors say there isn't any doubt about that at all, any longer."

"Oh, thank God."

There was a little pause. "But he won't be one hundred percent again. Never. The damage to his lungs was just too extensive."

"How bad is it?"

She could almost hear the shrug on the other end. "Depends how you look at it. From the standpoint of most people, not bad at all. After a few months, you really won't be able to tell the difference, under normal circumstances-at least, that's what the doctors say. He won't be running any marathons, of course."

Helen chuckled. "Did he ever?"

"As a matter of fact, he did. Twice, once in the big Boston one. He even had a pretty respectable finish. The truth is, Helen, A.J. is one of the few geeks I've ever known who could have been one hell of an athlete, if he'd wanted to. Which he didn't, but he's always been in top physical condition. Even studies martial arts, if you can believe it. That's partly why he was placed so highly in the running for the expedition. Now…"

Suddenly, Helen understood. "Oh."

"Yeah. 'Oh.' Traveling to Mars just doesn't fall under the label 'normal circumstances.' And you know how much it means to him."

"Yes, I do." She took a long, slow breath. "Well, let's hope for the best. And let's also not forget-and make sure you remind him, Joe, when he needs it-that as long as you're alive you can still hope."

She finally caught up with Glendale in one of the hallways later that morning.

"Dr. Glendale-Nicholas-thank you."

The famous smile was muted but sincere. He didn't try to pretend he didn't understand, either.

"Helen, there's nothing I despise more than a hatchet job. And that was one of the most cleverly repellent things I've seen in years. It was, I assure you, a genuine pleasure."

"So you believe…"

"I believe that you have found the most interesting case of Problematica on record," Glendale said firmly. "Nothing more than that, Helen. I know you have some rather… extreme conclusions. But… "

"But? Nicholas-"

She more or less dragged him into a side room, away from the circulating masses. "Look at it. There isn't a phylum that even comes close. The means of locomotion is utterly alien to this world."

Glendale winced. She could see he had been hoping to avoid this conversation entirely.

"Helen… my dear…"

He stopped, looked at her, sighed, and then shifted into his professional persona that she knew so well. "Dr. Sutter, I suppose it would be easiest to speak directly about this. Can we do that? I know everyone else, including yourself, is avoiding direct statements. Can we be straight with each other here?"

Helen nodded.

"Very well. Dr. Sutter, your theory, and presumably that of your co-workers, is this: that the anomalous fossil you have named Bemmius secordii is, in point of fact, the remains of an alien creature. A star-traveling visitor to our world, who had the misfortune to encounter some of our nastier native predators sixty-five million years ago, and paid the price. Although he managed to finish off the predators as well, through the use of a weapon which used the ceramic-type pellets you found on the site as projectiles. Am I basically correct?"

Helen found herself hesitating momentarily. She didn't think any of them had ever-even to each other-put it so directly. It had been more an assumption than anything else. But what other explanation was there?

"Yes, that is correct."

"An attractive theory, certainly. We all want to have something sensational in our careers, and I remember you well as an undergraduate. You were something in the way of my star pupil. Science fiction was one of your favorite reading areas, too, as I recall. So, naturally, such an explanation would occur to you when confronted with something that bizarre."

"It would occur to a lot of paleontologists. I would have bet it would occur to you, too."

Glendale laughed. "Oh, it most certainly would occur to me. Did occur to me, I should say, the moment I finished reading your initial report. I'm an occasional reader of science fiction myself, as it happens. Unfortunately-or fortunately-I am also far too aware of the logical flaws involved to retain such a theory for very long."

Helen felt her jaw setting as it always used to when she started arguing with Glendale. She reminded herself sharply of how often that had presaged her getting roundly trounced in an argument, rather as Pinchuk just had.

"What other theory is there?"

"There are many possibilities, Dr. Sutter. Instead of immediately offering one, I want you to consider what you are asking us to accept.

You are, as a paleontologist, intimately aware of the probabilities involved in fossil formation. You may not, perhaps, have considered the probabilities of other events quite so closely, reasoning-with some justification-that there wouldn't be sufficient information to judge them by, anyway. Still, let me summarize."

He held up one hand and began counting off the fingers with his other. "You want us to believe the following unlikely chain of coincidences:

"First, an alien from another world arrives here. Perhaps you have never considered how very improbable that is, what with all the science fiction books and videos ignoring that very point. But from everything we currently know, such travel between the stars is hideously unlikely, even for us. And, so far, we have absolutely no evidence that there is any other life in the universe. We may assume it, but thus far there is not the smallest shred of acceptable evidence that it exists at all.

"Second, this creature lands on our world and manages to get himself killed. Perhaps not so farfetched.

"Third, that he was traveling completely alone. That seems a ludicrous assumption unless we allow for truly space-operaticlevel technology-and in that case, what was he doing protecting himself with what amounts to a fancy shotgun? Or, if he wasn't alone, that his fellow beings didn't bother to retrieve his body. Human cultures do not just leave bodies to be savaged by random creatures, and I find it hard to believe that alien ones would either. Or, of course, something else killed off his fellows coincidentally before they could interfere or retrieve the body.

"Fourth, that he managed to injure most if not all of his attackers- but not swiftly enough to keep from being killed himself, though the injuries he dealt made them expire just a short distance from him. Close enough that they could all be found together in a single death scene, sixty-five million years later.

"Fifth, that of all the untold trillions of death scenes across the entire world over the past hundreds of millions of years, it was this- already utterly improbable-death scene that just happened to be one of the very few preserved as a fossil."

Having run out of fingers, he lowered his hands. "And, finally, to add insult to statistical injury, you want us to believe that all this just happened to occur at the very moment the asteroid or comet struck the Yucatan. So that all of these perfectly preserved corpses ended up literally sitting on the K-T boundary."

He gave Helen a level stare. Not an unfriendly one, no. But it was just as disconcerting today as she remembered that stare being when she was a young graduate student.

"Helen," he said softly, "I just demolished Pinchuk by showing the mathematical absurdities that his scheme would entail. I can assure you-this is my own field of expertise, as you know-that if I subjected your theory to the same sort of mathematical scrutiny, the results would be several orders of magnitude worse. I did a rough estimate, as it happens, the moment I finished your paper. I stopped once I realized that your theory is statistically more improbable-far more improbable, as a matter of fact-than the existence of dragons and unicorns."

Helen couldn't argue with the statistical improbabilities involved. She was not an expert on the math involved, the way Glendale was, but she knew enough to know that he was right. She'd been bothered all along by the cumulative series of unlikely coincidences, and had no good explanation for them herself.

Still…

Helen was a fieldworker, not a theoretician like Glendale.

"But facts trump probability, don't they, Nicholas?"

"Certainly, Helen. Facts always trump theories. And if you had found that our mysterious friend had a fossilized repeating shotgun on his person, I would have conceded immediately-and then wracked my brains trying to figure out how to explain the improbabilities involved. In this case, however, I think what you are seeing is something still very improbable, but at least a couple of orders of magnitude more likely than fossilized aliens. That is, a creature of a previously unknown phylum which, through quite amazing probability events, has not had any of its precursor forms discovered previously.

"Or," he added, "which I personally think is what we'll find, that such fossils have been found but weren't recognized for what they were. Helen, I suspect that if you could take a few years and search through the miscellaneous fossils in the New York Museum of Natural History and similar places, you'd find some misfiled shells that are, in fact, parts of precursors to your Bemmius. Such things happen often enough, as you well know. Look how long it took before we finally realized what the conodonts were. This is just an extreme version of it."

He looked aside, for a moment, pensively. "It may even be less unusual than it seems, for that matter. The oddity isn't really the design of the phylum, after all, if you consider the incredible range of evolutionary possibilities we can see in the Burgess Shale. Is Bemmie really so outlandish, matched up against Wiwaxia and Opabinia and Anomalocaris-not to mention Hallucigenia? For that matter, it occurred to one of my current graduate students, when we discussed the subject, that your initial impression may actually not be far from the truth. Imagine an offshoot of the cephalopod family which took to land; had some of its tentacles migrate and become shorter for movement, and others evolve for manipulation or catching prey on land. It develops the platelike supports for land propulsion and the skull is the internalization of the shell. Farfetched, perhaps, although.. ."

He shrugged. "You know as well as I do that the real mystery is not the creature itself; it's explaining why we haven't seen any previous indications of such a phylum in the fossil record. But if the lifestyle of such animals kept them away from conditions which lend to fossilization, it's by no means impossible. And what's certain, mathematically speaking, is that the discovery of even a large, highly evolved representative of an unknown phylum is still a far, far more likely event than the fossilization of a singular alien from some distant planet."

She suddenly felt exhausted, emotionally as well as physically. Her extended session of fury in Pinchuk's lecture, the abrupt relief, the lack of sleep from worrying about A.J.'s condition-and, now, the realization that even her defender didn't believe what she'd found, had drained her.

"I don't know about that." She summoned enough energy for a last sally. "I do know this-and so do you. Using that same method of statistical analysis, you can demonstrate that the likelihood of a universe emerging which could eventually produce intelligent human life on Earth is every bit as farfetched."

Alas, Glendale just grinned. "Yes, you're right. I hate to think how many innocent trees have been slaughtered to provide the paper for the endless debate over the anthropic principle. But there's still a fundamental difference, Helen. Facts do trump theory, and here we have a fact. We know there is life here on Earth, and we know it's produced other phyla of life, including intelligent life. We have no such evidence for life on any other planet. Much less intelligent life. Much less life so technologically advanced that it can visit our own world."

He spread his hands a bit. "My own hypothesis is admittedly unlikely. But it is less unlikely than your own-and has the great logical advantage of being based on facts that we know to be true."

He looked at her sympathetically. "You're wiped out, Helen, and no wonder. You've been worrying about just this sort of reaction for weeks, and it's not doing you any good. If you'll just accept that what you have is a wonderful terrestrial find, and write up some papers that way, you'll find it's a lot easier to sleep at night-and idiots like Pinchuk won't be able to bother you."

He checked his watch. "I have a panel in five minutes. Helen, take care. You have a magnificent find; just stop thinking of an explanation that really doesn't hold water, even if it does look, well, a lot cooler than any other explanation out there."

After Glendale left, Helen sank into one of the empty chairs nearby. "I wish I could do that, Nicholas. But-unlikely or not, impossible or not-I'm sure that Bemmius secordii died a long, long way from home."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

PART III: FAERIES

Paradigm shift, n: a sudden, transformative change in world view, generally the result of new information or events which render the prior world view ineffective in describing the world in which the person or civilization now finds itself.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 12

"No, it's okay. You deserve to go, Joe."

"I didn't ask for them to do this."

"Are you deaf, Joe? I said it's okay."

To someone who hadn't known him for years, A.J. sounded like he was one hundred percent recovered. Joe, though, could hear both the overemphasized casual tone and the very slight roughness, the latter indicating the cause of their current discussion.

A.J. put his VRD glasses back on, pointedly trying to act as though it was a normal day at work. "I knew something like this would happen once the doc had his little talk with me."

Joe put a hand on his shoulder. "Cut the crap, A.J."

The blond imaging whiz sat still for a moment, trying to maintain a casual pose. But it collapsed and A.J. tore the glasses from his face, flinging them down violently.

"God damn it. Damn it!" His voice broke, bringing a sympathetic sting to Joe's eyes as he saw actual tears break through A.J.'s reserve and spill down his face before he savagely scrubbed them away with his sleeve.

"I shouldn't be crying about this. I shouldn't even be angry about this. I did it to myself, didn't I?"

He tried to stop the rant, choked off a sob, and dissolved into a racking cough. Joe waited until his friend had recovered breath and some self-control.

"Yeah, you did do it to yourself. Saving my own engineering staff. The whole project, really. Look, A.J., the Faeries are on their way to Mars right now. You watched the launch yesterday. You'll be exploring Phobos soon, on schedule, and if you hadn't pushed yourself past the limit, we'd have missed that deadline. I can't override the docs, A.J., but no one can take away what you've achieved, or what you're going to achieve."

A.J. glowered down at the table, obviously trying to keep from crying, shouting, or both again.

"And you weren't the only one who paid that price. There were two, three other people ahead of me, and the accident took them out one way or another. That's why I'm at the top of the list now."

The blue eyes closed again. A.J. took a deep, carefully controlled breath that still held a faint wheezing note, a sign of the damage to his lungs. When his eyes opened again, the fury was fading from them.

"I know. It's just… going to take me a little time to accept it, okay? I was so close to that part of the dream. I knew they hadn't actually decided the crew, but I sort of assumed I'd be on it."

"And so did everyone else."

"I'm not entirely off the list," A.J. said after a pause. "The doc said I was down to eighty-two percent of my normal-former-capacity, and there were things that could trigger other problems, but that it wasn't absolutely out of the question, depending. The rest of me is healthy."

"Well, that's good. Maybe then on the next trip…?"

A.J. nodded, a bit too lightly. "Maybe so. But I should get to work. Have a lot of things to do before I move out to JPL and handle the Faeries for NASA."

He picked the glasses back up and put them on. A moment later, he took them off, stared at them, and then suddenly burst out laughing, a laugh which also turned into a short coughing fit.

"Just perfect. I've killed my VRD."

He stood up. Then, so suddenly it startled Joe, turned and hugged his friend. "Thanks."

Joe recovered and returned the embrace. A.J. wasn't affectionate with too many people, but with those few he tended toward unabashed displays of joy and sorrow. Joe appreciated the fact that

A.J. considered him one of those few. "Thanks for what?"

"For making me explode, letting it all out. It'd be a poison if I kept it in. I know myself that way."

A.J. wasn't really all right yet, Joe knew, but at least he'd acknowledged the anger and started to face it. They needed that anger worked out as fast as possible, because the Project still needed A.J. badly, and Joe very much did not want to lose one of his best friends over something like this.

"I guess I'd better go pick myself out another VRD. Congratulations on making the crew, Joe."

"Thanks, A.J."

The imaging specialist walked out, just a bit more slowly than he might have a few months before, shoulders slumped the least little bit. Joe heard himself sigh. What a goddamned shame.

Helen rubbed her eyes and pushed back from the desk. Opening her eyes, she found that the tests had, alas, not magically finished grading themselves as she had hoped.

"What I wouldn't give for a distraction," she muttered. Being a professor had its advantages, but this wasn't one of them. Especially with the quality of students these days.

She suddenly chuckled, remembering that her father-a professor of long standing himself-had made the same complaint, and mentioned that his favorite professors had done the same. If all of them had been right, by now she should be teaching a class of mostly australopithecines.

Opening up the next test file, she winced. Perhaps she was. Was it really so very difficult for a student to master basic language skills before entering college? Yet Jerry was always attentive in class, and he didn't do badly on the lab practicals. He just could not seem to put into written words anything he knew. Maybe he needed a verbal examination.

Her phone dinged, then gave voice to a four-note chime that she hadn't heard in months. "A.J.!"

"What's up, Doc?"

"To my neck in tests, is what's up," she answered. The tanned face displayed before her had the subliminally odd cast that came from generating the face image based on the actual face, but using sensors set at a much different location than the apparent camera viewpoint. Still, there was something about the expression that seemed additionally wrong.

"What about you, A.J.?"

"Oh, I just… thought I'd give you a call. It's been a while."

"Uh-huh. I'm actually a little pissed at you. I also got a call from Jackie Secord. About five hours ago."

"Oh."

"What the hell is wrong with you, A.J.? She calls to give you some good news and you practically freeze her from long distance. Then won't answer her calls? I know the two of you argue about a lot of stuff, but that's just plain rude."

A.J. was silent, but his expression was failing to maintain the usual open and carefree look. The imaging expert looked… miserable.

Helen couldn't recall ever seeing him even look momentarily glum. She was silent, waiting. He obviously had some kind of trouble, but she wasn't going to let him completely off the hook.

"Yeah. I had better send her an apology. She… it was just a really, really bad time to call."

"A bad time to call? Come on, A.J."

"You know what she called about?"

"Well, of course. She's made the cut to be on Nike's crew. It's not guaranteed yet, but things are looking much better than she ever-"

"I've been grounded."

It took a moment for Helen to grasp what A.J. meant. "Grounded? I didn't… Oh, God. You found out today?"

The answer was almost a whisper. "Yeah. Joe managed to talk me out of a major tantrum, so I went out to get myself new shades, and while I'm doing that Jackie calls me out of the blue."

"Oh, A.J." She didn't honestly know what to say. What could she say?

"I figured you might understand better than anyone."

"Huh? I'm not one of you space cases."

"No," A.J. conceded. "But you've had your career take a down turn because you did something you knew was dangerous to it, even though you really didn't have a choice."

"I thought… Joe called me last week. He told me your recovery was going very well, according to the doctors."

"Yeah, I guess. The way the doctors look at it, which isn't the way I do. I'm not blaming them, you understand. They did what they could. Twenty years ago I'd have lost a lot more function, and fifty years ago they'd have written me off, even if I'd lived to get out of the fire. I'm a little better than eighty percent; but in space, they're looking for a hundred and ten percent, you know?"

"Even so, I can't believe they've taken you off the list entirely!"

"Well… no. But I'm down around where Joe was. Oh, and just by the way, Joe's now on the list for Ares."

No wonder he hadn't been able to handle Jackie's call! His two best friends got the nod just as he got the boot, and then…

"I'll have to congratulate him. But… that must hurt."

"A lot." The roughness in his voice became apparent as he tried to control it. "More than I told Joe, though I know he knows me enough to know… does that make sense? And I feel like such a complete and utter dickhead, Doc. I shouldn't be mad at Joe, it's not his fault, and it's not Jackie's. There's no one to blame except a faulty valve that happened to blow a few months back. But I'm still mad at him. I'm so fu-frigging mad that I could punch him out, and all the damn doctors, and I'd take a swing at Jackie if she wasn't a girl. Because, dammit, it's my dream. Mine."

"I know," she said softly.

"And here I am, crying to you. I sorta cried in front of Joe before, but I can't really do that. And my folks, well…"

He didn't finish, but she already knew that A.J.'s parents had been killed in an auto accident several years earlier. "So I guess you get the really short end of the stick. First Jackie gets to tell you what a jerk I am, and then I get to tell you in person."

"Why me?"

A.J. wiped his eyes-his image had blurred for a moment and then suddenly refocused, this time clearly coming from a camera that was actually transmitting his real picture-and sagged back into a couch visible behind him.

"Why? I guess… Because you're outside of it all, Doc. I know you, and you know all of us, but you're not in the space race any more than I was in the game with you bonediggers. You're not competing with us."

"I see. Well, I'm honored, I guess."

A.J. managed a weak chuckle. "I also knew I would get straight talk from you. But you wouldn't make fun of me, either, because you know what this means."

"People don't make fun of you, A.J."

"How very little you know. Maybe not now, but if you have it happen enough when you're younger… "

"True, true," she admitted. "I managed to avoid most of that, but I can't deny I've seen enough of it."

She studied A.J. for a while in silence. "So what are you going to do?"

"Well, my job. What else? I'm still going to be running the Faeries for NASA, and I've got buttloads of other sensor work to do. But if I'm not going, I suppose I'll have more free time… "

"Maybe you can finally finish up that dissertation and be Dr. Baker."

There it was again, that tiny little twitch. "Nah, I don't think so. I don't really need it, with my rep. I've got other things to do."

"Okay, A.J., give. What's with you and the title 'Doctor'?"

To her surprise, A.J. blushed. "That's my deepest and darkest secret. Joe knows it, but he was sworn to solemn secrecy."

"So…?"

The imaging genius rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay. Have you ever heard of an old TV show called Doctor Who?"

Helen nodded. "Sure. I was a sci-fi fan when I was younger, myself. I've even seen a few episodes when they reran them for a while."

"Well, both of my parents were Whovians. Fanatic Whovians, though at least-thank the gods-Who fans tend to be more civilized. But still

… my dad's first name was Thomas."

"Tom Baker." She was still puzzled.

"He was probably the most popular and well-known Doctor in the series."

Now she remembered. "Oh, yes. He was the tall one with the scarf."

"Yes. Well, like I said, they were real fans. So the word Doctor has some very strong associations for me. Especially with my name."

"A.J.?"

"A.J. is short for my real name. Adric Jamie, for their two favorite male companions. I suppose I should be grateful that I wasn't born a girl, or I would have been Romanadvoratralundar Leela."

"Jesus. You're kidding."

"I'm not. I loved my folks, but I swear, there were times I thought that killing them would have been justifiable homicide."

"Do you have a…"

"Sister? Yes, actually. And yes, she does have that name. Well, Leela Romana-mom had gotten to choose first when I was born, so dad chose the first name when Lee was born."

"Your parents were definitely in actionable territory there."

A.J. laughed, the first relaxed sound she'd heard from him. "It could've been worse, I guess. I'm named after a supergenius who adapts to any situation and an honest, courageous, and really tough Highlander warrior. And other than their little obsession they were really great folks." He looked sad, but no longer on the edge of tears. "Thanks, Doc."

"You're welcome. At least now I know why you go by your initials. And to be honest, I was hoping for a distraction."

"Let me guess. Test time."

"Right in one."

"Well, much as I know you won't thank me, I'd better send you back to the test papers. And then go bite the bullet and see if Jackie will accept a groveling apology."

"If you can get past the first few moments and she finds out why you went off on her, I suspect it won't be a problem. But you'd still better do some groveling. It will do you good, anyway."

"Okay, on that note, good night, Doc."

"Good night, A.J. And, hey-keep in touch."

"I will. Bye." His image vanished.

Helen shook her head. What a mess. Glancing at the screen, she sighed again and began the long task of grading.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 13

"Coming up on confirmation. Reacquisition of signal due in five, four, three, two, one…"

A.J. held his breath. Please don't screw up now, Pirate.

"… waiting… waiting…"

"Are the Martian antispacecraft defenses up again?"

"Wait-we have a signal. Pirate reports all functions green."

"Trajectory?"

"Looks to be slightly hot. May need a short burn for final match. Running the figures now… within safety margin. We are go for ISM release at Phobos rendezvous."

The room, momentarily silent, echoed suddenly to the explosive whoosh as A.J. finally took another breath. Good-natured chuckles followed.

"A little nervous, A.J.?" Diane Sodher asked with a grin. "Oh, maybe just a little. I mean, it's not like there's anything important riding on this mission."

"You mean like your rep and half of Ares' money?"

A.J. grimaced.

"Well, you let me know when you're ready to relax." The spectacularly redheaded info specialist winked at him and turned back to her station. A.J. managed to keep from looking either nervous or smug. Diane had been flirting with him for weeks, ever since he started coming to Mission Control regularly, but he'd been too worried about making sure everything worked right to risk fraternizing with the enemy, so to speak. But after tonight, maybe…

"Burn to match orbits set for 1435:04. Deployment of ISM units will follow at approximately 1600 to allow for verification of burn success and deployment readiness."

Time for him to take a break. Once the deployment happened he was going to actually have something to do for a change. He couldn't control the Faeries-the Independent Sensor Modules or ISMs in official parlance-in detail at a distance, of course. The speed-oflight lag meant that even at closest approach to Mars, he'd still have a round-trip delay measurable in minutes; at maximum distance it was close on half an hour. But he could give them a lot of general guidance, especially if he thought ahead carefully.

He'd been doing a lot of mission profile planning for the past several weeks, including disaster contingency plans. Hopefully that part of his work would turn out to be wasted. A.J. intended to work out all the systems to their fullest extent, and that meant he would actually have to take a few risks-something he couldn't do if he lost any of the Faeries on deployment. He'd need them all intact before he could take chances.

A drive and a late lunch sounded like a good idea. If he were back at Ares he could've grabbed Joe to go with him, but things weren't quite that casual here at NASA. Most people were busy right now, anyway. He headed to the parking lot and was soon driving down the commercial strip in the nearby town, looking for something appropriate.

Not fast food, thanks very much, A.J. said to himself as the neon and brighter lights of said establishments tried to beckon to him. I need real food to keep me going tonight. Well, real food and then a sack of doughnuts and coffee. Ah, there we go, a steakhouse!

Getting a table in midafternoon was easy; the place was almost empty. He checked the menu, ordered, and then sat there in the quiet, waiting.

A.J. hated eating alone. After chewing on the problem for a moment, he pulled out his phone and dialed a still-familiar number.

The tanned face that materialized in his VRD vision was streaked with sweat and dirt, and the golden hair pulled back but escaping in tangled disarray.

Damn, but she looks good.

"What's up, Doc?"

"A.J.!" Helen Sutter's smile was brilliant against her honey-dark tan. Then she frowned in mock annoyance. "And will you stop greeting me like Bugs Bunny?"

"Better, ah say, girl, better than Foghorn Leghorn!" A.J. retorted in his best drawling bellow.

That got a laugh. "True enough. Well, as you can see, I'm in the middle of a dig right now. What's up with you, almost-Doc?"

"I'm in a restaurant completely alone, and wanted to see if I could at least have virtual company. I thought you might be able to indulge me. Time for a call?"

"Oh, I suppose I could take a little break. But if you're in an even vaguely respectable place, I sure hope you're not using a projector. I'll bring down the tone of the place. Badly."

"Purely for my eyes only. But even just like you are, you'd bring the tone of any place way up."

"That's why I put up with your antics-you know how to flatter a woman."

"Flattery? Never. I just tell the pure and honest truth. The secret is knowing that women like you never believe that they really are gorgeous."

Helen studied him for a moment, her head cocked a little. The expression on her face was a bit disconcerting to A.J. A sort of distant amusement combined with… something else, that he wasn't sure about.

He was reminded, not for the first time, that badinage with a very intelligent woman twelve years older than he was could be a chancy proposition.

Abruptly, Helen changed the subject. "So what's up with your work now?"

"The Faeries get to fly in a few hours. Pirate just succeeded in the aerobraking maneuver to get her into a closely matching orbit to Phobos."

"That's great, A.J.! I'll bet you're excited."

"Yeah. Yeah, actually, I am."

Helen's head was still cocked, subtly inviting an elaboration.

He was rather surprised to find he meant it. After being taken off the flight crew, he'd spent weeks working simply because he hadn't had much else to do and he didn't know how to just slack off. He was out of practice, having been working like a demon since he was fifteen. "You know, I really am!"

Helen's smile flashed again, this one warmer and with a touch of sympathy. "I'm glad. I could tell you weren't doing well at all for a while there, even though we only talk occasionally. Your e-mails just didn't have the usual A.J. edge."

"You mean bad puns and stupid humor."

"That too," she said, chuckling. "But really, you have a voice all your own. And as annoying as you can sometimes be, it's a signature that comes across even in a typed note. When I don't see something that says 'look, I've got something really cool to tell you' in the note, and instead get something that just reads like a thank-you note, I know something's wrong."

"Well, have no fear, Milady Bonedigger. A.J. the Great, Imperator of Imaging, Sovereign of Sensors, Dictator of Detection, has returned!"

Plates rattled. "And my lunch has arrived. I would share some of it, but somehow I don't think it'll work out."

She looked wistfully at the table. "You are a cruel man, to call a woman who's working here in a hot desert and then taunt her with real food and drink when all she has"-she held up a small wrapped object-"is a granola bar and a canteen of warm water."

"True, true. But it's an artistic kind of cruelty. I'll make it up to you, whenever you're back from digging. You name the place, I'll pay the check. Joe and Jackie could even join us, if you time it right."

"I'd love to see them again. I know they've been busy in their training, though."

"Don't worry about it. They can get enough time off to drop in and see an old friend, I guarantee you." A.J. started in on the salad. "If this really bothers you, I can cut off. I mostly needed company while I was waiting with nothing much to do."

"It doesn't really bother me. But I probably should get back to work."

"No problem. Thanks for taking the time. Now, and before."

"Anytime. Later, A.J. Let me know how everything goes!"

"I will."

The image of the paleontologist vanished, and A.J. dug in. Now that he realized how excited he was, he was impatient to get back. There were things to do, and he was the one to do them!

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 14

Release of ISM units completed successfully. All units showing on the green."

"That's the way to do it," A.J. said triumphantly. "Okay, time to get to real work."

A.J. checked the release pattern and observed that the Faeries were in proper station-keeping mode with respect to each other. Pirate was already moving away to a safe distance preparatory to making its final deorbit burn.

That was fine with A.J.. He knew what he was going to do with the Faeries, but he wanted to tweak all the instructions to reflect exactly the situation around Mars. The release had occurred just one hundred and sixty thousand meters from Phobos-a bit less than a hundred miles.

The Faeries were equipped with electric or, as A.J. preferred to call them, "ion" drive systems. They were low in actual thrust-the optimized designs on the Faeries would, at full power, shove the sensor platforms forward with an acceleration of all of one-fiftieth of a gravity. But the ion drives made up for it with specific impulse ratings that were beyond even the wildest fantasies of nuclear rocket enthusiasts, measured not in hundreds but in thousands of seconds. That made it possible for objects like the Faeries, which were small enough that A.J. could have picked them up and carried them, to hold sufficient reaction mass to travel significant distances and stop at their destinations. It was critical to give them that ability, since the availability of high-thrust drives such as compressed gas, rockets, or similar approaches was tremendously limited on small probes.

As everything was on the green, A.J. was going to have one of the Faeries-Ariel-run ahead of the pack, trying to reach Phobos at maximum speed, while the others would take much more leisurely approaches. This would be a test of the Faeries' navigation skills, the precision of his programming and the engineering departments' design work, and of the efficiency and precision of the drive system. At that distance

Close enough for minimal orbital mechanics to take part, 1/2at^2, we get… um… a little over twenty-one minutes, full acceleration for 10.66 minutes and a smidge, flip and decel for same amount of time.

The other Faeries-Titania, Tinkerbell, Sugarplum, and Rane-would follow at a more sedate pace, getting to their stations around Phobos in a few hours. He worked the precise numbers and course data carefully, then transmitted the orders to the Faerie Fleet.

"Well, in a while we'll start seeing some action," he said, leaning back and glancing around. "Say, about an hour. Though if you'll watch Titania and Rane's transmissions, you'll get to see the Pirate do its burn and start true deorbit. They'll try to hold the image as long as possible, another test we programmed in them before we started. That will demonstrate how well they can track. Tink's doing some GPR on Phobos before approach, while Sugarplum will be seeing if I can get good returns from Mars with the same equipment. Probably not, but it's worth a try."

"Where's Pirate landing?"

"We're combining science and sightseeing. Landing track will take Pirate right down the Valles Marineris, and our target landing site is somewhere near the Melas Chasma. There's a lot of interesting possibilities to be found at the bottom of the Valles, and Melas Chasma has some of the best potential for all sorts of stuff, including mineral finds of various sorts. You'd have to ask some of the others back at Ares for more details. I'm not as up on that as on other things."

"How long do you think you'll be working here tonight?" Diane asked, curious.

A.J. laughed. "Possibly all night. Or until the caffeine runs out. I may not be able to control them like a video game, but watching what they're doing and making decisions as I start getting a real picture of what Phobos is like is a job that can't be entirely left to machines. I don't think I'm going to want to just hand it over to automatics for quite a while yet. Until I know what I'm dealing with, I won't-and the Faeries won't-know what the best approaches are, especially for locating the best places to land the base materials."

That was, of course, the main purpose of the whole exercise: to survey Phobos with an accuracy and detail never before attempted, including interior imaging if possible, so that the best location for the Phobos Base could be determined.

"Once the data really starts flowing, no one bother me. I'm putting my earphones on now." He suited action to words, and the exuberant sounds of Tenkuken's Battle for Heaven blotted out any possibility of being interrupted short of someone physically poking him.

The latter would also be difficult as he had now brought up a temporary cubicle. That minimized disturbance in both directions, since it not only prevented people from casually walking up to him to ask questions, but also screened him from view and at least partially from hearing. A.J. had a habit of talking to himself or playing VR games while waiting for the next round of Real Work. It was only a matter of courtesy to try to minimize the amount of such antics his co-workers were exposed to.

Initial GPR data was starting to come in from Tinkerbell and Sugarplum. That was what he was currently interested in, but he left the feed from Titania and Rane up so that anyone interested could track Pirate's progress.

Excellent, the returns were coming in loud and clear from Phobos. It wouldn't be too long before he could start building up an idea of what he had there. Surprisingly, he was actually getting some usable returns coming back from Mars. Well, with the lowest orbit of a natural satellite known-less than six thousand kilometers-he wasn't trying to scan from nearly as far out as he would otherwise. He stored that data for later analysis; it wasn't part of the main project.

A shadowy image began to build up on his VRD. Phobos' density was known to be very low-not even high enough to be mostly carbonaceous rock. The moonlet's composition was a mixture of rock and ice, or it had large hollows inside. Either was a fairly likely possibility. The theory was that both Phobos and Deimos were captured outer-system bodies, possibly "burned out" comets or something similar.

Privately, A.J. had bet himself that it was a combination-there would be some hollows, and some ice as well. The latter was close to being a sucker bet, as some probes, notably the ill-fated Soviet Phobos probes of the late twentieth century, had actually detected some water outgassing from the little moon.

The GPR probes were slowly gathering enough data to start generating a 3-D model of Phobos. The moonlet was roughly oval in shape, with the giant ten-kilometer crater Stickney showing how close the little moon had come to being shattered eons ago. The model was slowly solidifying. Now it was a cloud of gray with just tantalizing hints of structure, but as time went on, he was sure he'd get more out of it.

Looking at the rest of the feeds, it was clear that he wouldn't have much to do-even just on the thinking end-for another half-hour at least, maybe more. So he keyed the system up to do alerts only when various tasks were complete, and logged on to the Elemental Flame VRRPG (Virtual Reality Role Playing Game) server net.

After about an hour with no particular alerts from the system,

A.J. switched over for a glance. What he saw caused his character Severn Four-Winds to exclaim "What the hell is that?" This necessitated some out-of-character explanation and a quick log-off.

"What is that?" he asked himself again.

The 3-D model of the miniature moon had become much more solidly detailed, since its ghostly first appearance of an hour or so ago. But the details that could be made out were…

Peculiar, to say the least. Some areas of the interior were blank, as though the GPR waves couldn't penetrate. That was pretty odd given what was normally required to screen out radar waves. There were rounded and blocky outlines, long curving lines seeming to radiate out from various points, and things that appeared to be hollows of a wide, flat nature.

A.J. started talking to himself. "Hmm. Well, this is over near Stickney. Result of collision? Maybe. It does radiate outward. I wonder if the other radiative areas coincide with impact events. It's the blank areas that are really funny."

A.J. wasn't really that knowledgeable with regard to astrogeological dynamics, but to his untutored eye it looked like half-melted conglomerate with crystal inclusions.

"Which, come to think of it, might not be far from the truth," he muttered. "If the things were outer-system, they must've been something like comets, so parts would certainly be melting at perihelion. And they'd be moving so fast that normally they couldn't be captured by something as small as Mars. So maybe they hit something-something that caused serious melting. Hmm… maybe… what if Deimos hit Phobos, or something like that? I'll have to get one of the orbital mechanics guys to model it. How fast would these things be moving if they came in from outsystem, and what would it take to get them captured by Mars?"

He checked the disposition of the Faeries. Ariel was very close to the surface of Phobos, no more than a mile off. The other probes had stopped about six or seven miles away and were bracketing the nearly fourteen-mile-long moon in a designed attempt to ensure that no point on Phobos' surface would go unmapped.

"Okay, let's get fancier."

A.J. considered the arsenal of sensors at his disposal. The Faeries were, in some ways, the most advanced instrumentation packages ever constructed, and they had an awful lot to offer. The primary modality on Earth was sight, so naturally the Faeries were well equipped with cameras. Visible light, ultraviolet and infrared-with their optics sealed between synthetic diamond windows for protection.

Unfortunately, the real detail he needed-down to a foot or less-he couldn't get at this distance. With a field of vision of only sixty degrees, he wasn't going to get much better than five feet or so, even with interpolation and super-resolution tricks. Narrower FOVs would have been better, but the tradeoffs involved had torpedoed that. He'd even had the engineers try a synthetic FOV approach, but that ran into problems with light-gathering capability which would take too long to solve.

"If only I could use something with decent resolution," he muttered, not for the first time.

The problem was an old one, dating back to the onset of space exploration. There was almost always a big lag between what technology could do on the surface and what you could get to work up there, with the radiation, vacuum, and other things to cope with. The gap had only gotten bigger in the last decade or so, because with most of the advances hinging on how much smaller and more efficient they could make the gadgets, they'd been getting progressively more sensitive to minor problems.

Tons of minor problems were pretty much what space handed you all the time. Cosmic rays, outgassing from vacuum, the list went on and on. And there was no corner store on the way to pick up a replacement. That meant that you couldn't afford to use something that wasn't fully space qualified on an interplanetary voyage. For a jump to orbit and back down, maybe, but not across a hundred million miles.

So, for the Faeries, A.J. was stuck with something not much better than he could've gotten on the street twenty years ago. Barely twenty-five megapixels in the visible, and worse in the IR and UV spectra.

But there was no point regretting the inevitable. A.J. had IRnear, mid, and far-along with visible and three UV bands. He had GPR, which would certainly be needed. Other frequencies of radio might prove useful, especially if he used the X-ray approach-have one transmitting and the other receiving. Measurement of heat signatures and any chemical emissions would be vital. If there were major caverns or differing composition beneath the surface-which did, as suspected, seem to be covered with about a meter of regolith-the heat absorption and radiation should show some differing patterns.

The other real bottleneck was data transmission. Even with all the advances made in other technology, the speed of data transmission from miniature sensor craft like the Faeries was only slightly better than that from old dial-up modems. That meant that most processing had to be done on the Faeries. Even one full-size image would take a significant time to send. And this was even though they were relaying through a separate satellite, put there by NASA a few years back, which had as its sole purpose being a communications facilitator.

The Faeries were advanced. Still, as they had to be space qualified, small, and mobile, their CPUs didn't have anything even vaguely like the power of current processors. With the transmission limitations, they couldn't send back too much data to be analyzed. That had to be reserved for truly unique work.

Both Tinkerbell and Rane's chemical sensing arrays were showing some water spikes. It was time to try mapping that out and see if he could get some idea as to where the outgassing was coming from.

It took another hour or so to figure out the optimal search pattern to cover with all sensors, and to ascertain the parameters of the low-power ion burns that each Faerie would have to perform in order to fly that pattern. Finally he was satisfied with the layout of search and sent out the directives. That, of course, triggered a slow-motion acknowledge-repeat-confirm cycle to ensure that all the directions had gotten through and were properly understood. Another hour later, he sent the final "go" confirmation.

He was tempted to go back to Elemental Flame, but there was business-related e-mail to answer and other work to do. And this part of the work would take a while.

A few hours later, the alert pinged in his ear, letting him know that he was receiving data from the completion of his survey pattern. He stretched and dropped the cubicle.

It was later than he'd thought. There was hardly anyone left around, except Bernie Hsiung over at the Nike construction section, overseeing some of the remote construction work in orbit. NASA had been assembling the material for Nike slowly but surely over the past year, and the work would continue for some time. Like him, Bernie often spent much of his time just keeping an eye on otherwise automatic processes, but it was still necessary to have someone around who had the capability to respond in an emergency.

"Let's see what we got. Hmm… the internals are still weird, I'm going to have to let the experts argue over this stuff. Water emissions as plotted over time… heating patterns correlations.. . There's water in there, no doubt, and possibly quite a bit of it. That'll make it a lot more attractive as a base. Transporting water is such a pain. Emissions and internal mapping plus heat signatures… Ah-ha! Two possible emission sources. Ariel, my sprite, come to me! Time for you to earn your living."

As Ariel was already closer to Phobos, A.J. would use her as his "point man." Ariel would examine the surface up close near the areas where water vapor was apparently escaping. If he got lucky, there would be a crack or cave in the area.

After another hour and a half, with Ariel now conducting its survey of the Phobian surface, A.J. headed off for a bathroom break. He stopped off for a candy bar and soda and then headed back. By then, Ariel's transmitters were showing the gray, soft-edged surface covered with fluffy regolith-powdered stone the consistency of flour-up close as it drifted along with a carefully defined path of examination.

The first emission site was a bust. There were some cracks, which clearly were the source of some of the outgassing. But they wouldn't have admitted a mouse, let alone a sensor drone the size of a large breadbox. Ariel continued along her way, approaching the locale of the second outgassing.

As it cleared a small crater ridge, A.J. couldn't quite restrain a triumphal "Yes!"

Even to eyes still accustoming themselves to the sharp-edged perceptions needed in the airless setting, there was a clearly darker streak that couldn't be anything other than a crack in the surface of Phobos. It seemed to be a crack yawning wide about two meters above the surface in one of the many little cliff ridges that meandered across the moon's surface.

"That's why it's not buried in regolith," A.J. muttered to himself. "Horizontal entryway instead of vertical. Hope that doesn't mean it's to some shallow deposit in the cliff."

As Ariel approached the crack, the automated sensor platform slowed according to prior instructions and directed illuminators into the chasm. It was wider than Ariel by a good half meter in any dimension. Ariel hovered, waiting for instructions. It wasn't permitted to proceed into the interior unless A.J. directly ordered it to.

There was considerable risk here, of course. The width of the crack was sufficient, but there was no way of knowing how far that ran, and even so the margin of safety was very thin. Piloting would be purely in the hands of the automatics, as there was no way A.J. could react in time to change anything that happened. And an accident could easily destroy Ariel.

On the other hand, looking at Ariel's sensor data, there was clearly water outgassing from below. Ice had to be present, possibly in significant quantities. And all of his other Faeries were running perfectly. Speaking cold-bloodedly, he could afford to lose one of them.

The call was entirely A.J.'s to make, since this was his project and no one else could make the judgments necessary. That fact didn't make it all that much easier. In some ways it made it harder, because if something went wrong he could hardly shove the blame away to someone else. But the way A.J. looked at it, finding out as much as possible about Phobos was his mission. He didn't see any reasonable alternative.

He went through the back and forth of order and confirmation once more. This time, once the acknowledgement came through, he stayed glued to his screen. It was true that he couldn't really do anything for Ariel if something went wrong, or at least not immediately, but he still wanted to know right away if something damaged her.

Slowly, turning on both ion and low-powered chem thrusters, Ariel drifted into the darkness, illuminating it with LED strobes timed with her frame captures to minimize power drain. Tinkerbell positioned itself above the chasm as a telemetry relay, since the farther into rock the drone descended the less signal would penetrate.

Twenty-two meters in, the dark lateral chasm intersected with another going almost straight downward. A.J., enhancing the view ahead slightly, could see that the lateral one narrowed and eventually ended a few dozen meters farther in.

"Excellent. Down we go!"

Ariel could also see the same thing, and despite being orders of magnitude less intelligent than her master, quickly reached the same conclusion. The little probe paused, rotated, and descended into the abyss.

Fifty meters down.

With a slow and steady precision, Ariel passed by gray-black rock with occasional tinges of other colors like reddish-brown. The crack descended at a slant, and its irregular walls showed that some sort of violence had caused its opening. That wasn't much of a surprise, of course.

One hundred meters down.

Ariel slowed and rotated, seeing a large rock blocking part of the crack dead ahead. It was clear to either side, however, so the automated sensing drone continued its descent, having chosen the left-hand side of the rock to pass by.

Two hundred thirteen meters down.

Dark shadows showed on either side of the crack, indicating another cavity or cavern. As Ariel drew level with this new intersection, it was clear that whatever cataclysm had caused this crevice to open had also caused it to cut straight across another long, slender cavern. Ariel hovered at the three-way intersection, consulting its own data to decide its course-further down, or into one of the two tunnellike cavern segments. A.J. did the same, in case he had to transmit to Ariel to abort and take a different route.

But Ariel made the same decision he would have. The flow of water vapor outgassing was stronger from one branch of the bisected cavern.

Here, Ariel had a bit more room to maneuver. The tunnellike cavern, oval in cross-section, was ten feet wide and eight feet high. Strange rippled formations were visible along the walls at regular intervals. A.J. was reminded of the scalloping he had seen in several caves, but clearly these odd shapes could not have resulted from running water over millennia. He wondered if cometary outgassing could have a similar effect.

Two hundred meters farther along, the tunnel reached a branching. One side turned deeper into Phobos, while the other stayed roughly level beneath the surface.

Tinkerbell was starting to show a clear drop in signal strength from its sister drone, but both A.J. and Ariel calculated that at least another three hundred meters would be possible before it would be time to decide on whether Ariel would have to go totally solo or not. Once more Ariel selected the path with the strongest H2O concentration-this time continuing along the original passageway.

Two hundred meters more, and the signal was starting to show some signs of interference. Suddenly the walls fell away on three sides, leaving only one-the side towards the surface-relatively level with respect to the prior tunnel. On Earth, this would be the equivalent of entering a large room in a cavern, with the relatively level side being the "floor." Ariel began a surveying drift around the dim, airless space, which seemed to be huge, something like a football field across. Its light began picking up other cavern exits along the "floor" area.

A.J. realized how stiff his neck was. He'd been leaning forward, watching tensely, despite the fact that on a VRD leaning forward was just useless. Amazing what instinctive reactions will do. For what must have been…

Two hours? It was heading for six in the morning! He got up, stretched hugely, and slugged down the rest of his now-warm soda.

Something nagged at the corner of his vision, which had been concentrated on the mundane for the past couple of minutes. He refocused on his VRD screen and sat down. It had seemed that there'd been a flicker of slightly different color…

Ariel had noticed it too, apparently. The probe had many subroutines for analyzing images, noticing anomalies, and returning to them. It was slowing and turning around now. Using gyros, it spun in place. Something flicked across the field of view, then stopped and was centered. Slowly it began to grow, with slight flickers of interference across it, as Ariel approached.

A.J. was barely aware of himself standing slowly, his mouth half-open, hand stretching towards the virtual screen, his hindbrain trying to reach out and touch the image glowing before him.

Inset into the wall, perhaps a meter from the nominal "floor," was a massive…

Something. It shone with a brownish-gold luster, undeniably metallic. It was symmetrical, a generally triangular shape with rounded sides and smaller, round-sided triangles at each corner. Across its surface, in curved sequences like waves, mysterious black and silver symbols marched in organized ranks.

Ariel had stopped with the object just filling its field of view. This target lay entirely out of its search parameters, and it was now waiting to be told what to do.

"Well," said A.J. to the empty air around him. "That's something you don't see every day."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 15

"And Seig Heil to you too!" A.J. snapped.

"Cut it out," Colonel Ken Hathaway said tiredly. "First, I'm not the one slamming the lid down. Second, it's a perfectly reasonable response from the government's point of view." Hathaway's subtle southern drawl was heavier than usual, turning his "I'm" into "Ah'm"-a sure sign of annoyance, which A.J. failed to note in his own anger.

"You can't keep me from calling out! This was my project. You can keep the data, but you can't just shut me in!"

"We can, and we will, A.J. I know it's grating on your free spirit, but you'd better deal with it. Or do we have to take away all your toys just to make sure?"

A.J. got himself under control with difficulty. Ken Hathaway was one of the main driving forces behind Nike, and A.J. had worked with him for months now. He knew that the Air Force colonel wasn't really the problem. The truth was, A.J. liked the man.

The whole situation still rankled, however. "No. Okay. Sorry. But send it up the line to whoever came up with this idea-we should be broadcasting this worldwide, not sealing it up tighter than a bank vault!"

"No, I won't pass it up the line, and yes, we should, at least for the sake of your funders and mine. Like it or not, there's still politics to consider, and that includes things like national security. What if this turns out to be an alien military installation intact enough for us to learn something from it? Can you tell me there's a single country on earth that wouldn't want that for itself at first?"

Reluctantly, A.J. shook his head. "No, I guess not."

"I guess not either. And speaking as a soldier, I damn well do agree with the idea that if anyone's going to get the first shot at it, it's going to be my country."

"I'm not into patriotism. Buncha tribal instincts."

The colonel rolled his eyes, the extra white making them contrast even more with his very dark skin. "A.J., that's just the kind of attitude you don't want to express around the wrong people. Me, I don't care what you think, as long as you're not actively working against our nation. But some of the more rigid types have no sense of humor on that subject. Trust me, they don't."

He flicked the display to another page. "Now, they don't want to shut us down. In fact, it's top priority to find out whatever we can. So, if you'll promise me-not some faceless guys out there, but methat you won't try to sleaze around the security, you can have your connection back and return to work. Your Faeries are the only things on-site, and we obviously won't be getting anything else there for quite some time to come. So you are set to remain the top-billed star of this particular show, and I'd like you to keep that billing."

A.J. gave Hathaway a sour look. Despite only knowing A.J. for a few months, the blocky, solidly built astronaut apparently had read him very well. A promise to some disembodied abstraction like the government that was trying to stifle the discovery would mean relatively little to A.J., but a direct promise to someone who knew and trusted him, that was something A.J. would never break if he could possibly avoid it.

"You sneaky… Fine. Fine, I promise, I won't smuggle messages out, and I'll keep your silence as long as you say. No one else can run the Faeries like me, and there's no way I'm going to let someone else try. Dammit."

Hathaway smiled. "Good enough. Look, A.J., I'm sorry. But remember-we all want Nike and Ares to have their shots. If you pull some stupid crusading stunt, all of us could get screwed."

A.J. nodded unwillingly. "Yeah. Okay, you can trust me. I won't mess things up for your people or mine. Just let me back at the Faeries, okay?"

"In a shot."

Hathaway picked up the phone and called the MPs. "Mr. Baker is cleared to return to work immediately. Aside from the standard comm shutdown, he's got priority on everyone else. Anything he needs, make sure he gets."

After he hung up, A.J. demanded: "What about people who are expecting me to call? I mean, none of my friends would possibly believe I'm not going to call them and fill them in."

"I have no doubt that you'll be given a chance to call them soonwith some really clear guidelines on what to say, and a script if necessary."

"Ugh. You think?"

"I'd bet on it. Until they decide to release this, they'll be making sure no one can give it away. If you need to work with people, they'll find a way to bring them here and under the umbrella of secrecy."

"Aaaaugh. Well, hell with it, I'll go deal with my machines. They make sense and keep no secrets from me. You guys realize how lucky you are? I only told your people first because it was on your nickel. If you hadn't pulled the lid down right away, I'd have told half a dozen people by now. And if the data wasn't proprietary at this point, the transmissions wouldn't have been encoded."

A.J. paused. "By the way, I wasn't using the very top-level encryption on this stuff. It's possible someone will decode it eventually. I'd warn whoever's in charge of this circus that eventually-and that's a sooner rather than later 'eventually'-there will be a leak. From someone who received and decoded the transmissions, if not from someone inside."

Hathaway nodded. "I'm sure they know that already. It's a constant concern in security-you can't keep any secret forever, so the question is whether you can keep it long enough to matter."

"Okay. Anyway, I'm going to go to sleep first. I haven't had any rest since I started this whole thing… damn, forty-three hours ago."

"Yeah, you'd better go get some shut-eye. You'll have a long day ahead of you whenever you get up."

A.J. nodded and walked out, his gait already showing some of the flatness of the truly exhausted.

Jackie Secord tapped her foot as the system hesitated in opening the door. The guards nearby were unfamiliar.

Guards? Why two of them? Never had any need for them anyway, the system's automatic.

One of them was studying a screen in front of him. His partner was watching Jackie. The gaze didn't look hostile, but it wasn't friendly either; a neutral look that unnerved her more than a glare. Only when the guard at the screen nodded did the door to the operations area slide aside.

Jackie thought of commenting on the situation, but decided it wasn't worth it. Someone upstairs had probably gotten a bug up their ass about security, so now they needed some new tin soldiers and procedures. At least no one was asking for a strip search.

Reaching the main mission control area, Jackie glanced around. The golden mop of hair she was looking for was immediately visible, just slightly to the right of center.

"A.J.!"

A.J.'s face lit up as though someone had shone a searchlight on it. "Jackie? Jackie!" The slender, wiry arms hugged her close and then swung her around before setting her down. It was always a little startling to realize just how strong A.J. was.

"Whew! Nice to know I'm wanted around here, but you're getting a little overexcited, aren't you? I mean, it's not like I don't work for NASA. You could expect I'd drop by operations, once in a while."

A.J. grinned, but there was an edge to that grin. It looked almost like a sneer in some ways. "So you don't know yet? Damn, they're good."

"Don't know what? Who's good?"

Jackie looked around. It was odd, now that she thought about it. Things seemed a little restrained here-aside from A.J., for whom the word "restraint" would only apply when used in conjunction with the word "heavy."

Even the displays weren't showing the usual multiplicity of views. Most of them seemed to show some kind of movie set in an underground cavern.

"Where is everyone, anyway?"

"Briefing, I think. There's been a lot of… stuff going on here lately."

"You're being evasive, A.J., and that's about as unlike you as I can imagine. And what the hell is wrong with the publicity machine, anyway? I'd have thought by now pics from the Faeries would be on every space site in the country. But instead, aside from a few external shots that don't tell anyone anything, there hasn't been a peep out of you guys for two days."

She suddenly looked concerned. "A.J., the Faeries didn't, like, crash or something? They didn't die on you?" She knew that a disaster at that level would have left a hush for a while, and certainly put a sour look on A.J.'s face for weeks. But…

"Go ahead and tell her, A.J."

Jackie turned and saw that Colonel Hathaway was standing in the doorway that led to the central offices. "She's going to be up to her neck in it anyway," he added.

Jackie thought A.J. seemed to relax slightly. So there was something he wasn't allowed to talk about? That explains his tension. Telling A.J. he can't talk is like telling Santa Claus he can't go "Ho, Ho, Ho."

"Well… I guess it all starts right there." A.J. pointed to the screens with the slowly moving cave scenery.

"What does that have to do… with…"

She trailed off as she realized the symbols in the corner of the image denoted material being received from Phobos. From ISM-4, what A.J. called "Faerie Princess Rane."

Rane was traveling down a tunnel inside Phobos. Ariel was apparently sitting somewhere else inside the fast-orbiting Arean moon, serving as a relay for Rane.

"The cavern looks awfully smooth on that side," she began uncertainly, "but I…"

Her mouth fell open. "Oh… my… God."

Looming up on one side of Rane's field of view was a door. There was no other possible word for it. It was half-open, showing clearly the track or groove into which it was meant to fit. Shreds of some unknown material-probably a door seal-were still clinging to one edge.

"Ohmigod." She heard herself running the words together. "Ohmigod, ohmigod, A.J., that's a door, a door on Phobos for crissake, what's a door doing there?"

She whirled, about to put some pointed questions to the blond engineer, then stopped.

"No, you'd never do this kind of joke. That's real? Someone-or something-was on Phobos before us?"

Her mind was racing ahead of her words. That explained the guards at the door, A.J.'s comments, and why she hadn't heard updates on the Faeries' progress. Someone had clamped the lid down hard on the project.

"No joke, my fave NASA engineer. I'd say more something than someone if I were guessing. We haven't found any remains yet, or if we have I haven't recognized them as bodies, and I think I would. Then, there's several doors we need to open. This one's partly open, but I'm not sure I can squeeze one of the Faeries through."

"So, if you haven't found any bodies, why do you say 'thing'? No, wait, let me guess-the designs."

"Right in one. The corridors aren't shaped the way we'd do them. At least, not where they were clearly cut instead of just adapted from cracks and caves already present inside Phobos when whoever or whatever they were took it over."

He pointed to the screen. "That door-look at it. It's more a semicircle, or a half ellipse. Either they were really short but liked very wide doorways for some reason, or they were shaped low, kinda wide, and fairly big. We've come across plaques and things set in the walls in places we might put signs-you know, 'Engineering that way, Life Sciences to the right'-and they're all set much lower down than we'd put them. Almost a meter lower down."

"So you have closed doors? Do you think… maybe…?"

A.J. shook his head. "Not unless they have some super-miracle materials and no need for power. There isn't any significant source of energy left on this rockball. If there was, the Faeries would have picked it up. And without some kind of energy, nothing's going to be alive here for long. But there might be some other stuff in the closed rooms."

Hathaway joined in. "We've had some of our other engineers going over part of the data A.J.'s been feeding us. It looks to us like something violent happened to the base-maybe a collision with something else, maybe some kind of internal cataclysm. But whatever it might have been, there's been a lot of damage to various areas. Explosive decompression, shockwaves, the whole nine yards. If this was on Earth, there would probably have been cave-ins. As it is, there are places we can't get to easily."

"So," Jackie said, "maybe the doors that are closed got jammed during the disaster?"

A.J. nodded. "That's kinda what we're hoping. Yeah, it'd be pretty grisly for our alien friends who got stuck, since they'd have run out of whatever it is they breathed once the main base power went down. But it would also mean we'd have a good chance of finding something intact in there-bodies, maybe even equipment."

"Intact?" Jackie asked,

"Well… intact enough so we have a chance of figuring it out." Hathaway replied. "I doubt anything will work. But first we have to get inside."

A.J.'s grin was smug. "At least we actually do have a chance of getting inside."

Hathaway rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay, okay, yes, A.J., you were right and we were wrong. There was a point to putting manipulators on the Faeries. It was still a waste of resources. There was no way you could possibly have known what you were going to find."

"How can you call it a waste when we're using them? Besides, it was my grant money to spend. I was sure I'd have an occasion to use them for something. I'll admit, I didn't expect it to be something this big."

"You think the Faeries have the ability to move doors like those?" Jackie asked doubtfully.

"Not sure, really," A.J. admitted. "Maybe not. The systems were set up to be maximally configurable, and I'm going to be selecting the highest mechanical advantage. And using three of them at once, if I need lots of force."

"What if something goes wrong? You don't want to lose three Faeries."

"I don't want to lose one Faerie. But it's not likely I'll lose any of them. Even if it goes badly, the worst I'd expect to happen is that they'll blow the manipulators or break them. They're not going to explode or anything silly like that." He pursed his lips. "A shame, in a way. If I could make them blow up, then I'd have a way to open at least one of the doors even if the manipulators don't do the trick. I'd originally planned for them to have Fairy Dust dispensers, but the sensor mote design ran into problems and had to be scrapped. They'll be up and running for the real mission, no doubt, but for this venture it just wasn't in the cards."

"No way to get whatever mechanism opened them in the first place to work?"

A.J. shook his head. "I don't think anything in this base is going to be workable any more. If the colonel's scenario is correct, something went wrong to keep these doors from opening in the first place. So even if the power was on, they'd be jammed shut anyway."

"Then what are the odds of them being openable now? Wouldn't the survivors have tried?"

"First, we don't know there were any survivors. Second, on the ones I'm interested in, I don't see any signs of heavy prying or other forcible entry attempts. And third, after all this time the seals and other things may have become fragile, turned to dust, or otherwise changed in their basic nature enough that force which couldn't move them before can do so now."

"What about vacuum welding?"

He shrugged. "There's a lot of different materials involved here. I don't think that will be a factor. Speaking of welding, I'm still playing around to see if there's some way I can get some kind of welding or cutting electron beam out of one of my babies, but I'm not hopeful. There are limits to the configurations I can get."

"When do you think you're going to try to get one of these closed doors to open?"

"Not for a while yet. We want to explore as much of the base as possible with all Faeries running before we risk damage to any of them. Oh, yeah," A.J. brightened again and waved his hand to activate some commands, "here's the real important jackpot aside from the discovery of the century."

The screen in front of them flickered, then showed another Faerie-eye point of view, drifting down a different corridor. Before it a large doorway loomed, mostly shut but with about two and a half feet of space on the one side where the apparently rotating valvelike door had stopped. The Faerie slowly drifted down to that level and spent a few moments making sure it could fit through the opening. Satisfied, it began to move forward again.

This room was huge. The "floor" slanted slightly in what would be the "downward" direction, but soon the smoothness vanished, replaced by a chaotic mass of dark brown and black, with occasional white streaks. The floor was rippled and scalloped and extended back into dimness, with deep hollows and narrow columns connecting it to the ceiling. The scalloping was almost scalelike, in some places. Much of it was dull and absorbed light almost like a sponge, making the range of vision even shorter than normal.

In a few spots there was a bright glint, a shine from something smooth. That seemed more common toward the rear, which was confirmed as the Faerie cautiously continued farther into the huge room.

"What is that?" Jackie asked finally, as she watched the images wend their way through an increasingly narrow and hallucinogenic set of passages of the dark material.

"Mud," A.J. answered with satisfaction. "Looks like it's more water towards the back, more dirt towards the front, which makes sense. It's been subliming away for a long time through that door and these passages. But even after all that time, there's still a hell of a lot of water there. Our unknown visitors were possibly aquatic, or amphibious, because this seems awfully excessive for a reservoir but very sensible for something like a staff mudbath/swimming pool/whatever combined with a main water supply. From the surveys I've done, I think there's enough water left in this room to fill a cube a hundred meters on a side."

"A hundred… That's a million metric tons of water!"

"And all in one easily accessible chunk. Run it through a filter and I think you'd be able to drink it. Unless our extinct friends left some very long-lived bacteria behind. But I doubt if any diseases they had are something we could catch, anyway."

"So Phobos Base is definitely a go."

Colonel Hathaway smiled. "You could say that, Jackie." His wristphone buzzed. "I have a meeting to go to. There may be one both of you want to attend later, in a few days."

"No offense, Ken," A.J. said. "But I doubt I want to go to any meetings."

Hathaway's smile widened. "You'll want to go to this one, I think. See you people later, I have some business to attend to." As he turned to go, he paused. "Oh, and Jackie-this is under complete nondisclosure. You can't even tell anyone back at the labs, at least not yet."

She shook her head. "Ken, that's asinine. There's no way you can keep a lid on this very long. A few more days, maybe. But not much longer. Don't they realize that?"

"I think they do, Jackie. They're trying to decide how they want to approach it, and the time pressure is not helping. I'm trying not to add any pressure on our side. People, we can afford to wait. As you say, they can't keep this secret very long. When they do make that decision, I want them to think of us as the people who didn't give them a hard time over it. Capice?"

Jackie couldn't quite stifle a giggle at Hathaway's excellent "Mafia Don" accent, though his appearance didn't lend itself to the impression. "Okay, I get it. If we're the good boys and girls, they'll want to keep us all on the inside of whatever gets done."

"Exactly. So help me by not giving me any flack, and keeping A.J. from indulging his revolutionary impulses. Gotta go-important people waiting in my office."

As the door closed behind Hathaway, Jackie turned a mock-stern gaze on A.J. "No trouble from you!"

"I gave him my word," he said, a little sulkily, plopping into a nearby chair. "He doesn't need anyone to watch me."

"Oh, lighten up, A.J. You're getting to do your work, and you don't have to do much in the politics. Or would you rather have Ken's job? He's supposed to be in training for the Nike mission, but he's ended up being a part-time politician just to keep everything moving smoothly so that he can be on Nike when we launch."

She debated with herself, then sat down next to A.J. "You had your dream, you know. Remember how much it hurt to lose it?"

She could see he didn't quite understand where she was going with this, but he nodded, lips tight. The memory was obviously still painful, many months later. "Well, Ken has a dream too, a silly one that he's told to a few of us, the ones he was sure wouldn't laugh. You know what that dream is?"

"Well, no. He doesn't know me well enough to talk about anything like that."

"Ken's always dreamed of being the captain of a spaceship. And he just might make it. He's the highest-ranking military crew candidate right now, and he's got the training for it, and Nike is just about big enough to actually need a real boss. So if he seems a little uptight about anyone throwing a wrench into the works, remember he's on the edge of his dream too."

After staring at her a moment, A.J. smiled slowly. "Captain Kenneth Hathaway, commanding, NASA Exploration Vessel Nike…"

"Don't you dare make fun of him. Or tell him I told you. Or I'll-"

"Whoa, hold your horses. I was about to say 'that does sound cool.'" A.J.'s expression was grave. "Don't worry, I can respect a silly dream like that one."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 16

The moment Madeline Fathom entered the office of the director, she knew the situation was unusual. Highly unusual.

Even given that the intelligence agency she worked for generally handled the most delicate issues of national security, it was still unheard of for the National Security Adviser to sit in on a meeting between the director and one of his field agents.

She was especially surprised to see this Security Adviser present. George P. D. Jensen. The common wisecrack was that his middle initials stood for "plausible deniability."

For the past two decades, due to a curlicue in the confusing welter of laws which had replaced the Patriot Act after its repeal, Madeline's agency had wound up becoming the preferred agency of choice for American presidents when they wanted to maintain as low a profile as possible in a security matter that was likely to become publicly contentious. The official name of the agency-Homeland Investigation Authority-was meaningless. Its critics commonly referred to the agency as "the President's Legal Plumbers." And the agents of the HIA itself joked that their motto was The Buck Vanishes Here.

"Please, Madeline, have a seat." With his usual old-fashioned southern courtesy, Director Hughes had risen to make the invitation. "I believe you've met Mr. Jensen before."

"Yes, sir, I have." She and Jensen exchanged nods after she sat down in one of the chairs in the lounge area of the director's large office. Madeline's nod was courteous; Jensen's was so curt it bordered on rudeness.

Jensen had not risen, needless to say. Even by the standards of Washington, D.C., the National Security Adviser was punctilious when it came to maintaining the pecking order. Superiors did not rise from their seats to greet subordinates, period; not even when the subordinate in person was a very attractive woman in her early to mid-thirties.

Not that Madeline cared. Bureaucrats came; bureaucrats went. She had her own motives for the work she did, and the approval or disapproval of people like Jensen ranked nowhere on the list. She was reasonably polite to them, as a rule, simply as a practical convenience.

There was silence, for a moment. As Madeline waited, she considered the seating arrangement. Director Hughes was sitting in a large armchair directly across the coffee table from her. Jensen was sitting to her left, on the couch. That was unusual, also. Normally, when she and the director met, they did so sitting across from each other at his large desk in the corner.

Of course, that would have required Jensen to sit on a chair no larger or more comfortable than her own. Can't have that.

The director suddenly beamed at her. He was a short, plump man with iron-gray hair and good-natured features. The iron-gray hair was real; the good nature was off and on; and the beaming smile brought her to full alert.

This one's going to be a bitch.

The National Security Adviser spoke. "There's a… situation, Agent Fathom."

Politeness had its limits. "There's always a… situation. Honestly, why do people talk that way?"

Jensen's face tightened. The director laughed. "You'll have to excuse Madeline, George. As I told you, she came into our world from the wrong direction. Understands our language, but doesn't speak it at all."

So they'd already been discussing her, including her personal history. Madeline wasn't surprised, but the knowledge didn't make her any happier. Be a bitch got ratcheted up to be a pure bitch.

The director shifted his good cheer back onto her. "I assure you, Madeline, this one really is a… situation. Unique, I assure you.

Utterly unique. We need someone to be there to watch over our interests-our country's interests-when many of those there, even on our side, won't have nearly so, shall we say, clear a vision of what must be for the future."

Madeline was a bit relieved. While the director was often given to dramatic little speeches, he rarely indulged in hyperbole. The assignments she liked were those in which she was really dealing with important issues of national security. Unlike most of her assignments, she thought sourly. Which, stripped bare, usually involved nothing more substantive than the petty internecine warfare practiced by Washington's spaghetti bowl of competing bureaucracies and security and intelligence agencies.

She put up with the second for the sake of the first. The government might be everyone else's scapegoat, but Madeline Fathom owed it her life.

"Show me, sir."

"You have your VRD on? Excellent. Watch. And then we shall talk."

After she'd watched everything, she had to take off the VRD glasses to stare. "Are you serious, Director?"

"Never more so, my dear."

She shook her head in disbelief. "This thing cannot be kept secret long."

The National Security Adviser's expression had never quite lost the tightness that her earlier wisecrack had put on it. Now, it came back in full force.

"Let's not be defeatist about this, shall we?" he snapped.

Madeline gave Jensen a glance so quick it was almost rude. As if flicking away a fly with her eyes.

The director intervened. "George, save that silliness for public speeches, would you?"

Hughes was still smiling, but he was also letting the steel show. He'd been the director of the HIA through three and a half administrations-and both he and Jensen knew that he would still be the director when the current administration was gone. For over two decades, Hughes had done such a good job of balancing the demands of security with the need to tread lightly on the liberties of the public that even the HIA's critics were fairly civil in their attacks. The political classes in the nation's capital considered him well-nigh indispensable-a status that was definitely not enjoyed by national security advisers who'd held their position for less than two years.

"I told you already-Madeline is one of my three best agents, overall, and without a doubt the best one for this assignment. She's got a better technical education than Berkowitz or Knight, and, unlike them, she's single and has no family ties."

In the brief, silent contest of wills that followed, Jensen looked away first. "Still," he grumbled.

Hughes wasn't about to let him off the hook. "Still… what? I do hope that the President has no illusions that we can keep this situation a secret for more than another day or so-and that he understands the consequences if it appears to the public, when it does finally surface, as if we were trying to hide something."

His face now pinched, Jensen stared at the opposite wall and said nothing. Madeline knew the man was not actually stupid, so she was quite sure he understood the realities of political life. But "not stupid" and "faces facts readily" weren't the same thing. The Security Adviser was obviously still in the throes of the standard bureaucratic reaction to all unpleasant news-isn't there some rug we can sweep it under?

"You remember the endless ruckus over UFOs and Roswell Area 51?" Hughes' shoulders heaved in a soundless laugh. "Well, I can guarantee you that'll seem like the hushed tones of the audience in a fancy symphony hall compared to the hullaballoo you'll be facing- if there's even a hint that the administration tried to suppress the news beyond the initial few measures that any reasonable person will accept as minimal security precautions. And I won't even get into the international repercussions, since that's not really my province." Relentlessly: "But it is yours, isn't it?"

Jensen finally took his eyes from the wall. "Yes, I understand all that! It remains the case that we have no idea what we may discover in that alien installation. There could well be items of tremendous military significance."

"Of course," Hughes agreed, inclining his head. Smoothly, the gesture slid from being a polite nod of accord to a pointer at Madeline. "And that's precisely what Ms. Fathom will be there for. Making sure the wheat doesn't get mixed up with the chaff, so to speak."

Jensen gave her a glance that was every bit as quick as the one she'd given him, and more openly hostile.

"She seems awfully young for the post. Meaning no offense, Ms. Fathom," he added, obviously not caring in the least if she was offended or not.

"Alexander the Great conquered the world by the age of thirty-three," Director Hughes said cheerfully. "So I imagine, at the same age, she can handle this little problem. And there's really no other suitable choice, George. At your insistence, I showed you the dossiers of the other senior agents."

"And I told you I'd be considerably more comfortable if we went with either Knight or Berkowitz."

Hughes gave the man a look that was not so much hostile as simply weary. "George, cut it out. This is not a James Bond novel and I am not M. If you want comic book agents, go somewhere else. Try one of the cowboy outfits. Good luck finding an agent who can understand the technical material involved well enough to know an alien weapon system from a bag of popcorn-and better luck still, finding one who won't get you involved in Martian drug dealing to finance the operation. Or have you forgotten that not-so-little scandal?"

The Security Adviser winced. As well he might. The President, then the serving Vice-President, had almost failed of election due to that mess-and Jensen's predecessor had lost his job.

Having made his point, Hughes eased up the chill and went back to his usual affability. "Look, George, here's the simple truth, bitter as it may be. My people are civil servants. Strip away their training, skills, and the fact that sometimes their job puts them in dangerous situations, they're not much different from your neighborhood postman. You want Jeffrey Berkowitz? Fine. Reinstitute the draft and conscript him. Failing that-no? you don't want to open that can of worms, either? didn't think so-then I wish you equally good luck getting him to accept this assignment. We're talking about a man who has three children still living in his home. You want Morris Knight? No sweat. Just find an instant cure for his wife's kidney condition and somebody to take care of his two kids. Do you really think you-or me, if I was stupid enough to try-could talk either one of them into leaving their families for a period of several years, at least two of which they won't even be on the planet Earth? And if they refuse, then what are you going to do? Neither of them are under military discipline and we're not at war, anyway. They'll just quit. With their skills and background, I can guarantee you they'll have jobs within a week that pay them twice as much as they're making now."

Jensen's jaws tightened. After a moment, he turned to face Madeline.

"And what about you, Ms. Fathom? Are you willing?"

While the director and the NSA had been having their little contretemps, Madeline had been pondering the same question. Not so much to find the answer-that was pretty much a given-but simply to find out how she felt about it.

She was…

Excited as all hell. Mars!

"Yes, sir," she replied stoically. "I'm willing."

The next ten minutes or so were taken up by a long lecture from the National Security Adviser explaining to Madeline the imperative necessities of national security, the supreme importance of her assignment to the fate of the nation, and the sublime nature of that nation itself.

Madeline put up with it, easily enough. Early in her career, she'd spent considerable time at public ceremonies and she knew the little tricks for getting through a long blast of hot air with no damage, when she had no security duties to keep her mind occupied. The one she favored most, which she used on this occasion also, was reciting the ingredients to her favorite recipes for bouillabaisse. She was partial to bouillabaisse, so she had eight of them. Enough to get her through most episodes of pointless windbaggery.

Throughout, of course, she maintained The Expression flawlessly. The one that she'd learned as part of her training and later experience in the field, and, like all agents she knew, considered every bit as essential when dealing with politicians and bureaucrats as body armor was in dealing with desperate armed criminals. The Expression combined Personal Probity of Character and Concern for the Public Welfare in equal proportions, with a generous admixture of Calm Certainty That We Can Do The Job and just that little needed soupcon of Eagerness To Tackle The Assignment.

When Jensen was finally done, his earlier hostility toward Madeline seemed to be on vacation for a while. A short holiday, at least. She was not surprised. From long experience, she knew that the period immediately after giving a pompous and officious speech was as relaxing and satisfying for bureaucrats of Jensen's type as the aftermath of orgasms was for most people.

He rose, nodded to her, and left the room. He did not, of course, offer to shake hands.

"What a prick," she said dispassionately, after he was gone. She made no attempt to keep the director from hearing. She knew full well that his own opinion of Jensen was no higher than hers, even though he'd never said anything explicitly. The entire current administration, for that matter, was held in no high regard by Hughes.

The director just smiled at her. "Ah, Madeline. Think what a disaster your career would have been if you'd gone into the Foreign Service and tried to become a diplomat."

"Could have been worse. I could have followed my first inclination and joined the Secret Service. Then spent my whole working life listening to speeches like that. And maybe-fate worse than death- had to take a bullet to let the windbag keep prattling."

He laughed softly. "Aren't you glad, now, that I saved you in time?"

"Pretty much. I've still got a bit of a grudge over Antarctica. I don't mind horrible conditions, and I can accept wasting half a year of my life. Putting the two together was a bit much."

"Well, look on the bright side. This new assignment will take a lot longer chunk of your life, and the conditions could definitely get worse than even Antarctica. But whatever else it'll be, it won't be a waste of your time."

"No, it certainly doesn't sound like it. How much authority will I have?"

"As much as you need."

She cocked her head skeptically.

"No, Madeline, I mean it. The reason the National Security Adviser insisted on sitting in on this meeting was because your assignment will be specifically authorized by the President. We're not going to have to work through the usual cut-outs on this one."

She pursed her lips in a soundless whistle. "I'll be damned. I would have thought hell would freeze over first."

"Don't overdo it. Whatever else, they are not stupid. They can't afford to play games with this one, and they know it. Even if the knowledge is making them choke a little."

The director picked up a large envelope on his desk. "This is your confirmation as head of security for the entire project. It's already got the President's signature on it. Jensen was here in case he decided to yank it at the last minute. Which-ha! by the skin of your teeth, you disrespectful hoyden-he didn't. I'll see to it that General Deiderichs gets a copy."

Madeline nodded. "All right. I assume you want me to start immediately."

"Magnanimously, I shall pretend I didn't hear that. Your flight to Albuquerque is already booked. Five hours from now, so don't dawdle."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 17

Joe leaned back in his chair and gave vent to a long-drawn sigh of relief. "Not a single malfunction!"

"You expected some? In our peerless experiments? Why, Fearless Leader, how could you ever have gotten the impression that anything could go wrong?" Lee Grimes' voice drawled from the other side of the Ares control center. His prosthetic leg was propped up on the console in front of him, encased in one of the Western boots Lee preferred. "It's not as though anything's ever gone wrong here."

Joe laughed. It made him feel twice as good that Lee was not only still here, but able to joke about the accident that had cost him his chance to go to Mars as well as his leg. "Of course not. Still, that far away, it'd be a little hard to tweak the valves if something froze up."

"Told you to send me along. If I left my leg behind, I'd just about have made the weight limit."

"Yes, but there was the issue of air, food, water, that kind of thing. Pirate didn't carry any of those, remember?"

"Hmm. Okay, you could have just sent my leg."

"It's your head that I'd need to send."

"Ouch! No, I think I'll keep it where it is. Still, it's nice to watch everything running. Just look at that! Ferris will have a couple ingots made before we have to shut down."

"And there'll be water in the tanks and fuel to burn before long," Anne put in. "We're on target for Pirate's return launch. Chibi-rover is happily surveying the landscape in Melas Chasma, too. One hundred percent success."

"Well, we don't know that for sure yet," Joe cautioned. "First, it ain't really over until the return launch and recovery. Second, A.J.'s Faeries have to pull off their miracle."

He frowned. "Speaking of which, I'm getting a little worried about that, actually. We haven't heard anything from him in four, five days."

"Oh, stop fretting, Joe." Reynolds was looking over his shoulder at some of the readouts, even though he could have pulled them up just as well on his own personal data center. "You know how A.J. gets. He runs until he drops, wakes up, and then starts running again. I'll bet that if we just take a look out on the Net there's a ton of stuff on the Faeries now."

"Probably." To satisfy his curiosity, Joe opened a connection and sent out a general search. A few minutes later, Lee caught the deepening frown on Joe's face.

"Something wrong, Fearless Leader?"

"I'm not sure," he said slowly. "Anne, Lee, why don't you try pulling up something on A.J.'s progress with NASA."

A few minutes passed.

"That's… interesting," Anne said finally, with the tone of someone having discovered a nest of wasps just above them at a picnic.

"A.J. couldn't have dropped the whole ball that badly, could he?" Lee muttered. "I mean, he's an insufferable prick sometimes, but he's earned it, if you know what I mean."

"We helped him on those designs, guys. One, or even two, of the Faeries might have gone bad, but there's no way all of them did. We know the release went just fine, our own telemetry showed them separating and going their merry way."

Joe was frowning at the displayed information, or rather lack of information, as though it might suddenly change if he just glared at it enough. "But there's not a single pic here from later than, oh, I guess about six or seven hours after the Faeries were cut loose. And none of them are showing anything particularly close up."

"'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,'" Reynolds quoted.

"Marcellus to Hamlet, Act I, Scene 4." That came from Lee, as he continued a search for more Phobos data.

Ren looked startled. "I didn't take you for a scholar of Shakespeare, Lee."

"I'm not, really. But I did do some acting, years ago, and Marcellus was one of the roles I played." He shook his head. "Definitely rotten in the state of NASA, anyway. They've been giving out exactly diddly-squat since a few hours after the Faeries flew. No announcements, some vague talk about analyzing data, a few pics dribbled out that could have been taken a little earlier or later than the last official ones. But there's nothing giving us a real grip on what's happening."

"That makes no sense," Joe protested. "Even if somehow it all went wrong, there's no reason for them to clam up like this. They'd just try to slant it to make it look like we screwed it up."

He told his phone to dial A.J.

The phone screen lit with A.J.'s grinning face. "Hey, Joe, how's it going?"

"Fine, A.J., but we-"

"Ha, fooled ya! I'm not here or I'm too busy with my many fans to talk to you right now, but if you'll leave a message I'll-"

There was an audible click as a somewhat nettled Joe cut the connection. "I hate it when he sets his 'away' mode to that annoying little message. Fine, I'll ping him direct."

A few moments later he sat back, scratching his head. "He's not on-line."

Anne, Lee, and Reynolds all stared at him. "That's crazy talk, man. A.J. is off-line about as often as the Pope is Protestant. Okay, he's sometimes blocked or not answering, especially when he's sleeping, but off-line?"

"I'm not finding him."

Anne ran her own check along with Lee. "Looks like you're right. In fact… looks like he hasn't been on-line at all since about four in the morning the day after the Faeries flew."

Joe stood up. "That does it. This is all too weird. I'm going over to NASA to find out what's happening. What the hell, it's less than a two-hour drive."

"Well, okay, Fearless Leader," Lee said, after a moment. "But keep in touch. Or this might start to sound like those summer horror movies, you know?"

"Don't worry." Joe headed for the door. "I won't go into the basement, that's all."

"This way, sir," the guard said to Joe, opening the door to a stairway leading down.

Joe was a bit puzzled already. When he'd seen extra security at the entrance, he'd feared the worst. But instead they'd simply checked his ID and waved him through. And when he'd started to ask where to find A.J., they hadn't even waited for him to finish but had just said: "We'll escort you there, sir."

Come to think of it, he hadn't even gotten to A.J.'s name. Near as he could remember, he'd said: "Can you tell me how to find-"

He followed the guard down the stairway, through a well-lit hall, and finally through a set of double doors which opened into a large conference room.

"Joe! Glad you could make it!" A.J. said cheerfully. He was sitting on the other side of a long conference table in the middle of the room.

"Um, so am I. What is it that I've just made?"

His friend didn't answer immediately. Instead, he turned to the black man in a colonel's uniform sitting at one end of the table. "Pay up."

The colonel-he looked familiar to Joe, but Joe couldn't quite place him-gave a resigned smile, pulled out his wallet, and tossed a twenty to A.J. "It's a bet I'm glad to lose."

"I told you he'd be here," A.J. said. "I told them you'd be here," he repeated unnecessarily to Joe. "I knew you'd get here pretty quick, too."

"How the hell did you know I'd be coming? I didn't even know myself until a little while ago!"

"Because," A.J. said in his lecture-room tone, "you attempted to call me, but hung up without leaving a message. Several talk requests tried to ping me. Two people from Ares tried to access my NASA contact info within the same time period. I knew you guys had finally woken up to the fact that something funny was going on. And knowing you, I was pretty sure you wouldn't sit around waiting to see what happened."

"Very well, Mr. Baker, you have had your-admittedly deserved-moment of triumph," said a new voice from behind Joe. "Would you please sit back down? And Dr. Buckley, please take a seat as well."

Joe turned and saw that the speaker was a tall man with brown hair, just starting to gray slightly, also wearing a uniform. He came through the same door Joe had entered from, and moved toward the opposite end of the long conference table from the colonel. Behind him came a number of other people, who filed quickly into the room and took their own seats. One of them was Jackie Secord.

"All right, sir," he said, squinting slightly at the man's uniform. He was suddenly glad he'd said "sir," as he recognized the general's stars. Three of them, no less. "Will someone tell me what's going on?"

"Don't worry, Dr. Buckley. You are not the only one in this room who needs a briefing, although you are, admittedly, the only one who has no information at all. Everything will be made clear in a few minutes. I believe some introductions are in order. I am Lieutenant General Martin Deiderichs. I have been put in command of this operation, at least for the time being."

He indicated a petite blonde woman to his left. "Madeline Fathom, security liaison. You are already acquainted with Mr. Baker and Ms. Secord."

The Fathom woman smiled brilliantly, an expression Joe couldn't help but echo.

She's one cute package. And I think she knows it. And if she's doing security liaison, she's not just ornamental, that's for sure.

"Ms. Diane Sodher, Information Analysis." The redhead in the lab coat waved.

Was that the one A.J. mentioned? If so, I'm impressed-I don't think I'd be keeping my mind on my work with her flirting with me.

"Dr. Satya Gupta, Senior Engineer." Dr. Gupta gave a courteous nod, his dark eyes studying Joe.

A.J. called him right. Face like a prophet, eyes like magnets. He's got that presence thing going.

"Dr. Wen Hsien Wu." Dr. Wu was a young, round-faced Chinese-American who resembled a youthful Buddha or an Asian cherub. He smiled and bowed slightly from his seated position.

I think Jackie said Wu is the top contender for physician on board Nike. He must be hell on wheels to be that good at his age. He can't be much older than A.J.

"Everyone, Dr. Joe Buckley, Senior Engineer at Ares." Joe was torn between a nod, a wave, and a bow. He wound up more or less doing all three at once, which probably looked incredibly stupid. Fortunately, no one laughed.

"Colonel Kenneth Hathaway, Acting Director, Project Nike," General Deiderichs concluded. The name immediately brought Joe's memory in focus. The colonel was one of the best-known and most experienced astronauts in the U.S. space program. Joe had seen his photograph several times, although this was the first time they'd ever met in person.

The stocky Hathaway smiled at Joe and gestured for him to sit down. Joe realized he'd reached a seat, right across from A.J. and Jackie, but hadn't sat down yet. He did so quickly.

"Now that we are all introduced," the general continued, "let's get to business. I know most of you have some idea of the subject of this meeting, but in my opinion it will not hurt to go over it again, and this will bring our new members up to speed. Colonel, if you would?"

The general seated himself, and Hathaway took over. "As we all know, the ISMs-Independent Sensor Modules, what Mr. Baker calls his 'Faeries'-were released at a distance of slightly over one hundred and sixty kilometers from Phobos at 1600 hours local time on the 14th of this month. ISM-1, code-named Ariel, reached Phobos vicinity at 1745, the other three arriving an hour or so later. A survey to map possible water vapor outgassing sources from Phobos was begun as planned at 2100 hours. This survey indicated two potential sources for this outgassing, as seen here."

A 3-D projection appeared in the display at the center of the table, showing a false-color plot of vapor concentrations and likely emission points.

"Verifying the existence of native sources of water is deemed to be of great importance for the Phobos Base component of the Nike mission. Accordingly, at 0130 on the 15th, Ariel was directed to examine both locations to determine the possibility of tracing the source of the outgassing material. The first location was a small crack in the surface of the moon, but the second proved to be a much larger fissure-sufficiently large to permit one of the ISMs to enter. As all other ISMs were functioning properly, Mr. Baker decided that the potential risk of losing one of the four was outweighed by the possibility of verifying the existence of water sources within the moon, and possibly discerning other important information about Phobos' structure and composition. Therefore, at 0335, Ariel descended into the interior of Phobos to search for the source of outgassing."

Joe noticed that even though no one else had been speaking, the room seemed to have gone even quieter. Whatever the others knew, they seemed to be almost holding their breaths.

"A little more than two hours later-to be precise, at 0552 local time-Independent Sensor Module-1, named Ariel, recorded this image."

The central display blanked, to be replaced with a large, detailed color image of a bronzish, three-sided plaque covered with strange symbols.

Joe just stared at the image for a moment. "What the hell is that?" he muttered.

"Precisely what we would like to know, Dr. Buckley," the general said bluntly.

"Well, in one sense we know exactly what it is," A.J. stated. "It's an artifact of a nonhuman civilization. Yeah, we don't know if it's an underground street sign, their equivalent of a historic marker like 'George Washington Alien slept here,' or a radiation warning. But the important thing is that we didn't put it there, and it's been there a really long time, and it's not natural."

Joe knew he sounded slow, but he couldn't help it. "Hold on. You found an alien artifact on Phobos?"

Dr. Wen Hsien Wu apparently shared his reaction. "I had known something unusual had been discovered in the survey, but this… General, why is this not in the news? It is not at all a matter for debate, as I see it. This is wonderful news! We are not alone! Why are we not broadcasting this image for all to see? And what other images have we acquired? Why-"

General Deiderichs raised his hand. "Dr. Wu, you are not alone in asking these questions. In fact, it is specifically to address these issues that we have called this meeting. Ms. Fathom?"

Madeline Fathom stood. "First, Dr. Wu, I'd like to make clear that in an ideal world, and in my own heart, I'm of your own opinion. I'd like nothing better than to throw the informational gates wide and let the world see it all. But this isn't an ideal world, and neither General Deiderichs nor myself are free to act just on what we feel."

She made a smooth, rippling gesture which Joe found jarringly familiar. After a moment, he recognized it as very similar to A.J.'s, when he was using a VRD display interface for controlling various peripherals. The display in the table's center faded to show a slowly-moving tunnel scene.

"The wonderful nature of this discovery, unfortunately, has become part of the problem. What we appear to have here is a fairly intact alien space installation. A.J. Baker, and others, are of the opinion that it's very unlikely any of the actual devices we may find there will be functional. However, many of them may be intact enough to be studied."

"And it wouldn't do to have just anyone studying such things, would it?" A.J.'s voice was heavy with sarcasm.

Fathom sighed. "Mr. Baker, I understand your hostility, but would you mind terribly much not directing it at me? Please? We're not making these decisions."

As A.J. opened his mouth, she interjected: "And if you make some smartass geek comment about 'just following orders' in a stupid German accent, I will actually get annoyed."

A.J.'s mouth snapped shut. Joe's estimate of the delicate-looking blonde woman shot upward. It wasn't easy to cut off A.J. at the pass, but she'd done it.

"The simple fact is that unless these aliens did everything exactly as we do, and never got past our own level of technology, the potential discoveries awaiting us in that base are revolutionary. We may not be at war with anyone, but we also have had many reasons to suspect the completely benign intentions of many other countries. Not to mention any number of paranational organizations. Therefore this project now falls under the category of a national security matter."

Joe shook his head. "Sorry, Ms. Fathom, but you know that's not going to work very long. You can't fake up the data that good. Hell, I got here because I knew something funny was up."

That unexpectedly brilliant smile flashed out again. "You're quite correct, Dr. Buckley. Some of the truth-most of it, I imagine-will be revealed immediately. But critical information must be controlled, and that is where I come in. General Deiderichs will be directing the overall operation, but I've been assigned to help sort the released information into categories we can release and those that will be kept restricted, at least until careful study has been concluded."

Joe nodded slowly. If done by someone who really understood how the different investigations of the projects were carried on, it just might work, at least for a while. There would be knowledge of the existence of the alien base, but the artifact analysis could take an indeterminate amount of time.

"We were debating how to contact Ares and discuss the situation, when Mr. Baker informed us that you were coming over here. While, in a way, we might have preferred to talk to Glenn Friedet, the two of you actually constitute a considerable proportion of the 'guiding lights' of Ares. So we will at least discuss the basics with you, and then get into details with the rest of the main staff later. I think you can understand that, at this point, the government can no longer afford the risk of independent private flights in a potential security situation such as exists on Phobos."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 18

Joe and A.J. both stood up. A.J. looked so threatening that General Deiderichs seemed about ready to rise from his own seat. To her credit, the diminutive security official did not so much as twitch.

"You are not saying what I think you're saying," A.J. snarled, before Joe could get out something similar. "I did not design and build the Faeries, map out Phobos, and walk through a fucking fire storm just to hand it over to the government to screw up. You can't stop us!"

"Mr. Baker, we most certainly can stop you; and if we have to, we will." Fathom's voice was calm and level. "But we would much rather work with you."

"And just how do you think that's going to happen? No offense to some of the people here, but NASA's brand of 'build the worst compromise we can think of' is exactly what we're trying to avoid."

Joe cut in to prevent A.J. from expressing something in even stronger terms. "Ares' approach is completely contrary to NASA's, Ms. Fathom. And it shouldn't matter to you, anyway. Ares really, honestly, has no interest whatsoever in Phobos. If you want to declare it off limits, that's fine with us. We're going to Mars."

"How I wish it were that simple, Joe-can I call you Joe? That's a very nice argument if we look at it narrowly, but the government can't afford to do that. To be blunt, we have no idea where these aliens came from-or come from, since for all we know they're still around. Maybe from Mars itself. And even if they weren't, there's no reason they might not have settled Mars. At this point, we have to assume that Mars may also be a critical site for investigation, at least pending our full exploration of this base."

Joe opened his mouth to protest more, as did A.J., but neither of them could get a word out. The ludicrous idea that Mars-an entire planet whose surface area was equal to that of all land masses on Earth combined-was a 'site for investigation' simply beggared speech. Phobos itself was potentially huge, depending on how many aliens had lived there, and how many tunnels they'd carved over their time of residence. Putting Mars off limits because there might be something down there was like an Egyptologist insisting that no one visit North America because it happened to be on the same planet and might have vital Egyptian relics hidden on it… somewhere.

But it was equally clear that the decision had already been made-probably not by Fathom, or Deiderichs, but someone else. Fathom might even understand how ridiculous it was, but she wasn't about to say so.

"Well," he finally said, glaring at A.J. to keep him from detonating. "Look, then, what the hell are you offering? From what I'm hearing, you're telling us to shut down."

"That, Joe, is because you and Mr. Baker didn't let me finish anything I was trying to say."

When the two blinked and looked slightly apologetic, she gave about a half-power smile and continued. "Gentlemen, Ares is in this thing already. And this is the real world, not an idiotic conspiracy theory novel. Even if the U.S. government wanted to, we couldn't make people like A.J. just disappear."

Again, the full-bore smile. Despite the animosity of the moment, Joe was a bit dazzled by the woman. And he couldn't help but notice the easy charm with which she'd just managed to segue into getting even A.J. on a first name basis.

"If you think the government manages the space program ineptly," Fathom continued, chuckling softly, "I can assure you that it manages conspiracies even worse. Or have you forgotten Watergate and-" She waved her hand, still smiling. "And all the other-what was that marvelous expression of yours, A.J.? Oh, yes. And all the other brilliant conspiracies built by the worst compromise the conspirators could think of, which have dazzled the American electorate over the decades. Not to mention turning two Presidents out of office."

That drew a laugh, even from A.J.

Fathom shook her head. "So, please relax. Yes, we're having a dispute. But let's keep the melodrama out of it. As I said, even if the government wanted to, we can't 'disappear' a single individual like Mr. Baker or Dr. Buckley-let alone the entire Ares Project. Not without producing a fire storm, for a certainty. We need your cooperation, people, not your antagonism. We can't let you keep going exactly as you were. But we can do something else."

She paused briefly. "Think, everyone. What is going to happen when this is announced?"

"Uproar from every quarter of the world," Joe said. Similar comments were heard around the table.

A.J., for once, didn't say anything, but his expression was that of someone having bitten into a chocolate-covered grasshopper and finding it didn't taste nearly as bad as he thought it would. His blue glare was fading-or perhaps sharpening-to a speculative stare.

"You are all touching on the initial reaction, but missing the practical point," Fathom said. "What will happen is that every nation with even a pretense to a space program will, as you say, 'want in' on the investigation. And to make sure that no one beats us there, I think you can rest assured that there will be a quite unprecedented increase in NASA's budget, a streamlining of its mandate, and an elimination of a great deal of the political wrangling that is normal business in this realm. We will not be sending a relatively few people to Phobos and Mars to demonstrate that we can beat private industry. We will be sending an investigative team to stake out the entirety of that moon and wring every tiny secret we can from the remains of that alien base. We will want, at the very least, to make a start at investigating the planet that they, evidently, found of interest as well. And we will be doing it as fast as we possibly can, with a virtually unlimited budget."

She smiled anew. "And as there is one other American organization that is already ready and able to prepare for landing on both Mars and Phobos, with trained and skilled personnel, we will naturally want to expend some of our budget in recruiting the assistance of the Ares Project."

Fathom turned to face A.J. squarely. "A.J., how would you like to go to Phobos yourself-on board a new, much bigger Nike?"

The expression on A.J.'s face almost made Joe laugh out loud. So that's what someone looks like when the Devil offers them their heart's desire for that little, insignificant trifle of a soul.

"You can't promise that." A.J.'s voice was weak.

"Not quite yet," Fathom conceded. "But I think we can if the new budgets we expect get passed. And if you keep giving us results like these"-she indicated the tunnel scene, where a closed, enigmatic doorway etched with unknown characters was just passing from view-"and can promise better on-site… I think you could bet on it."

She looked down the table. "Unless you have an objection to the idea, Colonel Hathaway?"

Hathaway had been quiet, just observing for the most part. Addressed directly, he shook his head. "In principle, no. It's true that

A.J. Baker is no longer in prime physical condition, since the accident. But if, as you imply, we make Nike a much larger vessel with a larger crew-which means we can afford some redundancy in personnel-that shouldn't be a major consideration. Especially since his demonstrated skills clearly make him the best choice for sensor work."

"Very good." General Deiderichs spoke up, taking control once more. "Thank you, Ms. Fathom. Ladies, gentlemen, you now know the basic concept. The government recognizes this story will break, and break very soon. When it does, we intend to pressure the legislature to give us the budget, priorities, and authority to proceed at maximum speed to assemble the hardware and personnel for a full-scale expeditionary mission to Phobos. We consider this to be of paramount concern for the security and interests of the United States and of the world at large. The Ares Project will provide its specific expertise in rapid and efficient independent missions to assist NASA, not only in designing Nike and her auxiliary systems, but in designing, assembling, and launching multiple supply missions for both Phobos and Mars destinations. Am I correct in assuming, Dr. Buckley, that with a sufficient budget you could prepare and launch a number of large-payload missions which would reach Mars within a year to a year and a half?"

"That would depend on how 'sufficient' the sufficient budget was," Joe said cautiously. "But if we make certain assumptions, and could hire adequate numbers of people, and have access to launch facilities without having to spend three months just getting the clearances… Yes, I think so."

Deiderichs nodded. "In a week or two we will arrange a meeting with yourself, Director Friedet, and your financial officer-Hank Dufresne, isn't it?-to determine the details of the contract work involved. By that time I believe we should have some reasonably firm numbers to work with."

He's serious, all right. They've got this one planned out. Joe now found himself regretting, a bit, his sarcastic thoughts about A.J. It turned out that he was no better at resisting temptation, when the Devil offered the spoon.

"In the meantime… Dr. Gupta. You and Ms. Secord will have to brief the rest of the engineering staff. It is my intention to send a crew of at least thirty, and possibly as many as fifty, people to Phobos. Can such a version of Nike be built?"

The sonorous, impressive voice replied immediately. "Can it be built? Undoubtedly. In fact, it has already been partially designed. The engineering department has often speculated on the need for larger vessels, and so such designs have been considered many times. There are tentative blueprints for ships twice the size, even ten times the size, of Nike as she currently stands. Is this not true, Ms. Secord?"

Jackie smiled. "Yep. Me and several of the guys worked out preliminaries for several Nike-based designs. A couple of them would be right around that size. With modern design software and no budget restrictions, I could get you a brand new set of blueprints good enough to start work on in a few weeks. But-"

Gupta took the cue as smoothly as if it had been rehearsed.

"-But, as our colleague Dr. Buckley says, whether it will be done depends on a great many things. So many assumptions which must be made to give you an answer. If, as you have implied, the launch is to take place approximately eighteen months from now…"

He frowned. "I must say that it can only be done-can only be done-if your promises become truth. If we must worry about the slowness of the bureaucracy, if we engineers must pass a dozen review boards for every new shelf design, then no. If these things change, then yes, I believe it will be done."

General Deiderichs gave his first smile, a tight but sincere little grin that flashed out and vanished. "I think you will find that bureaucratic roadblocks will begin disappearing very quickly, Doctor. The authority for this mission comes straight from the top, and for once there wasn't even any significant debate about it. As of now, priority requests for the Phobos Mission will override everything else. You can consider yourselves to be working for what will amount to a new Manhattan Project, though with some unavoidable public component to it. Assuming you agree?"

A wave of nods swept the room, ending with A.J.'s.

They've reduced him to speechlessness! Will wonders never cease?

Aloud, Joe said, "Conditional on the implied cooperation on NASA's end, yes. And conditional on Glenn and the rest going along with it. Me and A.J. may represent a large chunk of Ares, but it's not like we own it. I can't really see the rest of them turning this down, especially since I'd guess that if we did, Ares would just get shut down somehow. As long as you're not putting in an actual claim to Ares itself. We're a private concern, and we won't be absorbed into the government."

A quick glance flashed from the general to Fathom. Joe wasn't quite sure, but he thought that the blonde woman gave-not a nod, exactly, but a slight movement of the head indicating assent.

Now that's interesting. If I did see that, the General was waiting on Fathom's approval? Good Lord. The woman can't be older than her mid-thirties. Where is her authority coming from?

The exchange was all very quick. Others in the room might not have caught it, as several of them were obviously distracted by their own thoughts. In any case, the general's answer came smoothly enough.

"No need to worry, Dr. Buckley. NASA has been working with private companies since its inception. I am sure there will be no need to force you to abandon private industry status. I'm not sure we could do it legally, anyway, even if we wanted to. All we insist upon is that you have to agree to work within our security restrictions until such time as that's no longer necessary."

"Okay, then, I don't see a problem."

"Good." Deiderichs seemed to relax very slightly. "Well, ladies, gentlemen, I believe I've given you all more than enough to think about for the time being. Now, I'm afraid, I have a number of private meetings with various staff scheduled, and quite a few later on with members of Congress in the relevant committees. Ms. Fathom will be remaining here, as any new information will obviously be coming from this installation until further notice."

He rose from his chair. "Unless there is anything else at the moment, this meeting is concluded. Thank you all for your attention and assistance." He left, accompanied by Fathom.

A.J. still looked shell-shocked, until Jackie poked him. "Hey, A.J. Think about it. Now you'll get to design the sensor suite for the Nike. And ride a nuclear rocket to Mars."

"Yeah." A.J. was perking up, but there was still a wary look on his face. "So why am I still looking for the catch?"

"The catch," Hathaway said, getting up, "is that you'd better keep producing. Haven't you got some real work to do, A.J.?"

A.J. glanced at the corner of his virtual display and suddenly scrambled for the door.

"This is why I hate meetings!" trailed after him, as he ran out the doorway.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 19

"Bracing calculations, check. Geometry, check. Force configuration, check."

A.J. glanced over all the parameters once more. He'd checked them a dozen times already, but he was still nervous. Three Faeries were about to try to pry open one of the doors, and if something went wrong, he could potentially be cut down to two ISMs-which wouldn't be able to transmit while exploring any distance inside the miniature moon, as at most they'd have only one other for a relay.

He'd told Jackie that he wasn't likely to lose the Faeries. That was true, in a sense, because just blowing the manipulator arms wouldn't be likely to cause trouble. The fact remained that prying on something in zero g carried other risks, especially if something broke. The sudden release of forces and fragments of broken prying arms flying around in close quarters could easily do damage to any of the Faeries. They had been built to survive launch and travel stresses, but only in specially-designed cradles in Pirate's equipment bays.

Once he hit the transmit code on this one, there'd be no stopping it; the three little probes would follow their directions to the electronic letter. He ran another simulation. Too many unknowns. They might move the door, or break the Faeries, or anything in between.

At least he was sure there was something to find behind there. Despite the amazingly dispersive and absorptive characteristics of the door-and, apparently, the wall material on the other side-he had managed to gain an idea of the size and layout of the chamber beyond. Shadowy blobs hinted at other objects inside the oval room, which was about twenty-five meters long. He'd been able to get some idea of the composition of the door's exterior, which was an odd alloy of iron, copper, beryllium, and apparently mercury and silicon in small quantities. But the precise alloy wasn't known-and whatever was inside wasn't the same material. It might have a core of some sort of insulation, with the exterior clad in the aliens' version of armor plate.

"Well, are you going to just sit there all day, or are we going to get some action around here?" As usual, Diane's tone suggested a double entendre.

A.J. ignored it. "You wouldn't be in a hurry to push the button if it was several million bucks of your money. And if you'd spent months making the things."

Jackie looked up from her nearby workstation. As she was stuck at the command center until the news broke, Hathaway had set both Gupta and Jackie up with engineering design stations in the center. Gupta was currently off at the main engine facility, working with the others to determine if they wanted to make a larger engine design or just use several more like the prototype.

"Relax, A.J.," she said. "You've already gotten more than your money's worth out of them. I know they're like your babies, but do you want to wait another couple of years until we can get Nike out there to look?"

"No. Hell with it. All systems and calculations check. Implement Routine Prybar."

The "go" code shot out into the nonexistent ether, to stroll its leisurely way across the intervening millions of miles. Now that the decision was made, he relaxed, took a deep breath, and looked around. Suddenly he chuckled.

"What's funny, A.J.?"

"I wish I was in Hollywood."

Jackie looked puzzled. "Why?"

"Because in Hollywood, after I sent the 'go' command, we'd watch the results right away, and I'd have an emergency stop button on hand to keep things from going wrong."

"Video links at the speed of plot," Jackie chuckled, nodding sagely. "But it's just as well. If you were in Hollywood, you wouldn't use your emergency stop button in time. If something went wrong, the Faeries would go up in huge explosions-they're nuclear powered, remember. And if they did get in without mishap, an alien energy being would possess the probes and then download their commands to our computers and kill us all."

Diane's screen suddenly showed some animated robotic drones running through Phobos' corridors. "Resistance is futile-if less than one ohm" scrolled across the bottom as a subtitle.

"Hey, that's pretty good," A.J. said. "Did you do that just off the cuff?"

"Well, sorta. I had these little guys drawn up a while back, but I had to get the computer to kick in and draw the animations pretty quick, once the conversation turned in that direction."

"Cute. Well, it'll be a little bit more before we get telemetry back to show whether we've still got Faeries or if Peter Pan will need a new sidekick. So I'm going to run down and get me something to drink. Anyone else want something?"

"Coffee," Jackie said immediately.

"As if I couldn't have guessed. Diane?"

"Well, I'd like a Margarita, but I'll settle for a diet Coke."

"One coffee, one diet Margarita Coke. Got it."

A.J. jogged to the cafeteria; while he could've gotten the drinks nearer to hand, he wanted munchies too. About fifteen minutes later, he trotted back into the control room, balancing the drinks in one hand and a large plate of cheese nachos in the other.

"A.J.! You can't bring that in here!"

"That theory has been falsified, as I obviously have brought this in here. Here's your substitute Margarita." He put Jackie's coffeedead black, no sugar-in front of her as Diane continued her protest.

"Well, you're not supposed to bring food into the center."

"If you read the rules," he retorted, sitting himself before his workstation again, "I think you'll find that you're not supposed to have drinks in the center, either. Which is a bigger problem around electronics than food, usually. And it's one of those rules that I'll lay big odds was disobeyed about fifteen seconds after it was first enacted at the first computer workstation in history."

He gazed down cheerfully at his nachos. "I always clean up after myself, anyway."

"Aren't you supposed to be in training?" Jackie demanded. "That's like about a billion calories, mostly fat." She eyed the golden mass, sprinkled with deep green peppers, with a combination of clinical contempt and instinctive longing.

"I am indeed in training, but there's nothing wrong with my weight, thanks very much. I have an iron stomach and intend to keep it that way."

"Allow me to hope that you are right, A.J." Hathaway's voice came from behind them. "But I've known several guys with iron stomachs on the ground who spent their first time in real weightlessness fighting every second to keep from blowing their groceries all over the interior of the spacecraft."

"Well, I'm not a complete idiot. I don't plan to eat much before my first experience. Got a lot of other training to do first. Lots of suit practice."

A.J.'s conciliatory tone was then replaced by his usual theatrics. "Glad you could make it, Colonel! We're about to try to open up and see what's behind Door Number Three."

"Actually, Door Number D-11," Jackie corrected.

"Well, darn. Janice was always behind Door Number Three. D11 just has alien artifacts behind it."

"A.J., you're not old enough to remember that show," Hathaway snorted. "Hell, I'm not old enough to remember that show."

"Old shows never die. They live on in sound bites and cultural references for generations."

Movement showed on the screen. A.J. instantly focused all his attention on his VRD-enhanced display. "Grab a seat and don't spill your popcorn, ladies and gentlemen. It's showtime!"

The display showed four separate images in the separate quadrants. Three were image streams from their respective Faeries; the fourth was a constructed representation of the view of a hypothetical observer standing in the corridor, watching the three goggle-eyed metallic probes trying to open the ancient door.

"You people should appreciate just what's going into this show. Even with all the advances in the past few years, there's severely limited bandwidth available for Ariel to use in transmitting this back." A.J. watched tensely as the three probes slowly took their positions in the corridor, using their manipulator arms to brace themselves first.

"Can't be all that limited if you're sending us three streaming images," Diane pointed out. Then she frowned. "But… I know the bandwidth you specified. You can't be putting three image streams down that, not even with compression. Not even with the fact that we're using a much more capable relay satellite to handle the Earth transmissions directly."

"Not with ordinary compression, no. But what I'm doing here is not ordinary. There's an entire neurofuzzy expert system in each Faerie dedicated to smart compression, and I can specify methodologies if I need to. First, they take the main images and scans. Then they chop out all the stuff not in the immediate ROI except for a really general representation. Remember, in any given frame of video, very little usually changes; so you only need a small amount of data to represent it. Then, for people watching it, much lower resolution will do, so you can drop that. You can encode the picture even more by being able to have an encoded representation of the presented image concept. For instance, sending the image of the Faerie itself is a matter of just sending a listing of the current condition of the Faerie, something I can squeeze into very few bytes and then generate here based on the original design, with updates from later pics if needed. If we ever need the raw data, the Faeries can send that on demand later. They actually give me reminders to check data for importance before I erase it. Then I-never mind, here we go."

The three ISMs were now positioned in such a way that they were locked together, almost entangled but in a very carefully calculated manner. Each Faerie had two manipulator arms. Three of these, adjusted to maximum power, were hooked in the just-barelyaccessible crack where door and wall met. The vacuum deterioration of the seal had helped in that respect. Had that not happened, the manipulator arms would never have been able to get a significant grip on the door. The other three arms were configured to give the Faeries support, leverage, and stability, since in microgravity there was no assistance to be had from weight.

The three Faeries synchronized their systems as directed by A.J.'s programming, and then began to pull. For long moments, nothing happened. Indicators showed the stress on parts of the Faeries rising; then, passing normal limits, entering the danger zone.

A.J. was barely aware of the tension in his own arms. His hands were literally white-knuckled as he gripped the console, lifting and pulling in sympathetic unison with his own creations.

Titania suddenly fired its chemical thrusters.

A.J. hissed. That was an attempt to utilize leverage and inertia to drastically increase the force on the door, for a brief moment. But he'd programmed that maneuver as a last-ditch effort, and the reason Titania had used it now wasn't immediately obvious to him.

The downward thrust pushed on the temporary structure formed by the Faeries in such a way as to use it as a fulcrum. Manipulator arms bowed alarmingly under the pressure.

Suddenly, the view from Rane spun crazily. The others followed suit, the emulation showing that something had broken and the three Faeries were trying to recover. Telltales blinked on.

"Damn! Lessee… Rane's broken both manipulators, must've gotten twisted around… One of Titania's still works… Oh, fufarging hell, something banged into Tinkerbell's left lens!"

Rane's images steadied and she turned her cameras back. A piece of manipulator arm bounced lazily across the field of view. But the image also showed a yawning dark patch at the base of the door, fully two feet high. Large enough for a Faerie to pass through.

"Oh, yeah!" A.J.'s momentary annoyance and concern vanished. It would have been worth the loss of at least two Faeries to get that door open, in his view, and he hadn't actually lost any of them. All three were damaged, but none of them in a way that would render them useless or even tremendously impaired in their main function.

"Well, let's hope there's something in there worth looking at. I sure can't pull off that trick again. Knowing how these things go, we've probably just succeeded in breaking into the alien equivalent of the broom closet."

Rane was not able to retract or fold the remainder of its manipulator arms, meaning that it was much more likely to snag itself going through narrow spaces. Tinkerbell's loss of an imaging unit made it less effective for surveying.

That left Titania. Fortunately, the status indicators and a visual survey by the other ISMs showed that the nonfunctional arm was in fact completely missing-it had broken cleanly off at the joint connecting it to the Faerie's main body. There was nothing to prevent Titania from surveying the now-accessible room.

Nothing, that was, except the inevitable verification and programming delay engendered by the many millions of miles between Earth and Phobos. After Prybar had concluded, the change in the ISMs' status had been more than sufficient to require them to wait for instructions from A.J. on what to do next.

"Take a break, people," A.J. said, absently. "I'm going to be designating new instruction sets and getting the Faeries redistributed to maximize the bandwidth feed when I send in Titania. This intermission will probably run you about two and a half hours. If someone would like to thank me for producing this Oscar-winning film, they could grab me a couple of hotdogs with mustard and relish and a large OJ in an hour or so."

Two hours and forty-seven minutes later, A.J. sat back down at his workstation, having taken a quick bathroom break. He noticed a large number of new people had arrived to watch what was happening-some of the new scientists added to the project recently, and Madeline Fathom.

"The show should be starting any minute now, ladies and gentlemen. In… five, four, three, two, one… action!"

There was now only a single viewpoint, that of Titania, as the little ISM carefully maneuvered itself down and through the gap. It eased through and then activated its full-power lights.

There were faint gasps of indrawn breath throughout the room.

A.J. could not quite restrain another whoop of triumph. "Not a broom closet!"

"Closet, hell," Hathaway said in quiet awe. "That's a control room."

The large oval room was a study in curves and ramps and triangled paneling. Even though constructed by completely inhuman minds and manipulative members, the layout was something hauntingly familiar. A sort of dais, with scalloped indentations at the edge that must correspond to seating arrangements, was located in the center. Around the perimeter of the room, on the side opposite the door, there were a series of tripartite panels. They were clearly separated yet related in groups of three, each with what appeared to be some kind of display panel or viewing screen above the central of the three subpanels.

Other dark, indefinable shapes were barely visible, sharp-edged but confusing, casting eerie shadows on the walls behind them. Titania began its preprogrammed survey of the room, in a counterclockwise direction from the entrance-which, naturally, took the other shapes out of view.

"Damn! I flip a coin and it chooses the wrong direction."

"We'll get to that area eventually," Jackie pointed out reassuringly. "How long?"

"You can't survey the room too quickly, especially if you don't want to hit anything. I'd say it's another half hour before we get our second look. Getting other data in now and… Yes, it's what I thought. There's something in those walls that was messing with the readings earlier. They're all much clearer now."

A.J. was still not paying a great deal of attention to the other data. Like everyone else, he was watching the slow revelations of Titania as she carefully surveyed the great control room.

"Look at that," one of the newcomers whispered. "More symbols on those keyboard-type things."

"How do you know they're keyboards?" challenged another.

"I don't know. But if we assume this is a control room, then it stands to reason that these things are very likely to be something like a keyboard."

"Size argues that they must have been using a phonetic alphabet rather than one oriented to meaning, like ideograms," someone else put in.

"Unless they had developed a symbology that included a method of representing meaning."

"Well, it could be mathematical… But look there, that one. I think some of those symbols are the same ones on a couple of the plaques we've located in the corridors."

"Not just mathematical, then. Unless they discussed hallway-style directions in mathematical terms."

"The hallway signs don't have to be directions. They may have known directions instinctively. Perhaps they were reminders of significant equations…"

The discussion continued in low tones with the participants examining in detail the specific frames in question. The rest of the spectators continued to be glued to the new images flowing in from Phobos.

"There, that station, it's bigger," Jackie said. "And the ramp that leads up to it flattens out into almost a platform. It's got more than one of those display-type screens above it, too. A captain's station?"

"Could be," A.J. allowed. "Or chief researcher or engineer."

After a pause, he added: "Okay, people, here we go. We're getting back to a FOV that ought to show us those whatever-they-weres towards the far side."

The darkness lightened. The mysterious shapes began to clarify again. Something like a small, black-brown bush with a thick, jagged stem drifted by the imager.

"What the heck is that?" Diane wondered aloud.

Suddenly, sliding into view almost as though it had lunged from the left-hand side, a far larger shape loomed on the screen. Three long, sinuous projections extended towards Titania, with the glittering of something smooth and whitish showing between them. Behind these projections bulked a massive body extending several meters back into the darkness, shadows and light playing on it and hinting at more detail.

As Titania continued onward, the shape emerged more clearly, coming into profile: an almost sluglike body, three stout projections on the far end mirroring the longer ones at the front.

"Holy mother of-" A.J. began.

"That's-" Jackie said.

"Bemmie!" they both finished simultaneously.

"Bemmie?" Hathaway repeated. "What the hell's a bemmie?"

Madeline Fathom looked just as puzzled as Hathaway. A.J. and Jackie turned to both of them, started talking at once, and went through several cycles of "Okay, you tell them, no, you, no, go ahead, you say it, no…" before A.J. finally claimed the floor.

"Colonel, I think we have a new crew member for you. Because,"

A.J. said with a wicked grin, "we know someone who's already spent two years studying our aliens."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 20

Helen Sutter stared around her in confusion. Now that she saw the buildings in front of her, she knew where she was. At various times, Jackie had sent her postcards with pictures of the installation-that part of it, at least, that wasn't restricted for security reasons. But it wasn't a location she'd ever really expected to be at, and she still had no idea of what she was doing here.

"Now that we've arrived," she said to the Marine next to her as they entered the NASA complex, "is someone finally going to tell me what the hell is going on?"

"The general will brief you very shortly, ma'am," the sergeant replied. "I'm not cleared to say anything about the situation at this time."

"Brief me?" she repeated incredulously.

This was surreal. The whole thing was like some kind of bad thriller script. She'd been sitting out at the dig, cataloging some of the fossils found in the past few days, when all of a sudden a huge military helicopter had come whup-whup-whupping over the ridge and landed so close to the camp that it damn near blew over the tents. From it had emerged an Air Force captain and this sergeant- Sergeant Ney-along with several other soldiers.

They'd told her they were there to pick her up, and made noises about national security. After she scanned their papers-which all looked very official, but weren't warrants and thus as far as she was concerned meant they had no hold on her whatsoever-she'd called Director Bonds. The museum director had informed her that he also had been contacted, that as far as he knew she wasn't in any trouble, but someone wanted to talk with her very, very badly and was apparently willing to pay for any inconvenience on anyone's part. She'd also gotten the impression that there was probably an implied, genteel threat on the other hand-that if she didn't go, the government might make things sticky for the museum.

So she'd gone, finding herself bundled politely into the chopper and flown out with Sergeant Ney-while the captain and the rest of the soldiers stayed behind, apparently to prevent anyone from calling out about her semi-abduction!

Sergeant Ney had been completely uncommunicative throughout the entire trip down here to New Mexico. And now here she was, at NASA of all places!

The sergeant stopped at a large door and gestured for her to enter. "The general is just inside, ma'am."

The room inside was a good-sized office, which had hastily been made over into the unnamed general's headquarters. It looked as if it had been used by a senior researcher up until maybe a few days or a week ago.

As she entered, the uniformed man behind the desk stood up and crossed the distance between them with a few quick strides.

"General Martin Deiderichs," he said, shaking her hand. "Welcome to NASA, Dr. Sutter. I apologize for the extremely urgent and I'm sure inconvenient way in which you were brought here. But once you see the situation, I think you'll understand."

She returned the handshake mechanically, but managed a reasonable smile. There was no point in being impolite. "Well, that will probably depend on the situation, General."

"No doubt, Doctor. You were brought in at the suggestion of some of the people currently on this project. The situation is…"

He seemed to be at a loss for words, for a moment. "I think it's probably just best to show you. Please, follow me."

Helen shrugged and did as he asked. At least it seemed as if this was neither a practical joke nor the result of some kind of terrible mistake she'd made. Though what would an Air Force general care about her mistakes at a paleontological dig, anyway?

After a short walk down a hallway, they entered a far larger room, one whose layout she recognized from many images: space mission control. At a centrally located screen ahead of her, she also recognized a tall, elegantly-dressed figure with slightly tousled salt-and-pepper hair.

She slowed involuntarily, then stepped forward. "Dr. Glendale!"

Nicholas Glendale almost jumped. His attention had been so riveted on the screen that he hadn't heard their approach. "Dr. Sutter- Helen, you've made it here. I arrived myself just two hours ago. Fortunately, I was in California when I got the summons."

"What, exactly, have I made it to?" she demanded. "And why in God's name is NASA summoning paleontologists in the first-"

Glendale stepped aside and around her, and with gentle pressure guided her to a seat before the console. "Please, Helen. Just take a look."

She looked.

She needed no one to tell her what the central object in the image was. She had done so many reconstructions, sketches, and 3-D models that no possible method of displaying it would have slowed her down for a moment.

"Bemmie?" she whispered.

No one said anything. Slowly, she became aware of the background to the image. Sharp-edged shadows falling across distorted-looking panels, everything oriented at odd angles as though a clumsy amateur photographer had been trying to take artistic pictures and failed. The viewpoint progressed around, staying focused on Bemmie, but revealing other things in the process. Walls of some kind of metal and rock. Those weird highlights and shadows on Bemmie and the background-they weren't like anything she'd ever visualized. Well, except…

A chill ran down her spine. She saw gooseflesh literally spring out across her forearms. This couldn't be a practical joke. But if it wasn't, then the only thing that could possibly, conceivably connect her, NASA, Bemmius secordii, and these images in front of her was "This is Phobos!" she blurted out.

"Correct, Dr. Sutter." Deiderichs' voice carried a pleased tone. She got the impression he appreciated people who were quick on the uptake.

"I hadn't heard from A.J. in a while, but I knew…" She looked up at the general. "His Faeries found this inside the moon, didn't they?"

Deiderichs nodded. "Mr. Baker recognized Bemmie immediately, the moment he saw the thing. So did Ms. Secord."

She stared at the screen. It was still too much to grasp. "Bemmie

… came from Phobos?"

"From somewhere in space, certainly," Nicholas Glendale said. "It couldn't possibly have evolved on Phobos itself, of course."

She turned to look at him, to find the famous grin even wider than normal.

"Helen, if I recall correctly I said that I'd have to change my position if you'd found a fossilized repeating shotgun. Instead, you had your friend go and find an entire base, complete with a second fossil. Not even that-a mummified body." He gave her a very old-fashioned little bow. "You were entirely, completely, and inarguably right in every particular. I cannot imagine the vindication you must feel- or will feel, when you finally grasp it all."

He turned to Deiderichs. "I am immensely honored that your people thought of bringing me on board. But I'm a bit old to be considering space travel. And in any event"-he pointed to Helen-"I really think Dr. Sutter is the only reasonable choice. She can now claim, with perfect accuracy, to be the world's first-and only- qualified xenopaleontologist."

He flashed the grin at Helen again. "Besides, I have a large helping of crow to consume, and a great deal of catching up to do on the work Helen did already."

"Space travel?" Helen repeated inanely.

General Deiderichs cleared his throat. "Yes, Dr. Sutter. We will want someone on the expedition which we are currently planning who can conduct what amount to autopsies and studies on bodies mummified for millions of years. And with your training and background, you may have other insights into things such as base designs and so on."

"Me? Go into space?" She flashed back to her childhood, staring at the moon and wondering what it was like. All the TV shows she'd seen, including some of the ones A.J. was so fond of. A dream that had been diverted when she found her first fossil in a nearby park.

"You're kidding. I'm too old."

"You had your fortieth birthday just a few months ago, Dr. Sutter. Popular mythology about daring young men and women aside, the fact is that forty is just about the right age for an astronaut. John Glenn was forty-one years old when he made his orbital flight; Yuri Gagarin, only a bit younger when he made his. Thirty-seven, as I recall. And Neil Armstrong was just two weeks short of his thirty-ninth birthday when he was the first man to set foot on the moon."

A smile came to Deiderichs' stern face that made him abruptly seem more human. "You certainly don't appear old, if you'll pardon me saying so. Had I not known otherwise, I would have thought you to be a woman in her mid-thirties. Furthermore, Doctor, we did a quick check of your medical records which are publicly available and you seem to be already in excellent condition. People who know you confirm that impression. 'Strong and stubborn as a mule' was the way Mr. Baker put it, as I recall." The smiled widened a bit. "I should add in fairness to Mr. Baker that he spent considerably more words assuring me that you didn't look like a mule."

Helen couldn't help but laugh. "Well, I hope so! Him? Comparing anyone else to a mule? He should talk!"

His face serious again, Deiderichs continued: "In short, unless a thorough and careful examination shows some hidden problems, there is no physical reason you cannot go into space. Unless you have some mental disability we don't know about. Perhaps claustrophobia?"

"What?" Helen shook her head, somewhat absent-mindedly. "No. Nor agoraphobia, either. Space?"

"Space indeed!" A.J.'s voice shouted from behind her. He'd just entered from the other side. "What's gonna be up, Doc, is you. Several million miles up. And me! And Jackie, and Joe!"

It was finally starting to penetrate, and for a moment Helen Sutter felt something that she hadn't since she was seven years old. Coming down the stairs on Christmas morning to see a vast expanse of wonders laid out before her and realizing that they really, truly, were all there for her.

But, no, it was something she hadn't felt even then, it was something most people only have in their imaginations. Helen's exhilaration didn't stem from childhood fancies of being an astronaut. Those had long ago faded away. It stemmed from her life as an adult. All those long hard years of work and study, now come to as triumphant a conclusion as anyone could wish for.

Bemmie really had come down from the skies sixty-five million years before and fought for his life beneath the crackling skies of a bolide impact. His people had watched the solar system from a great base built inside a twenty-mile-wide asteroid. And she herself would step foot inside the first alien structure ever discovered by mankind!

"Well," she said finally, her voice sounding almost conversationally inane in her own ears. "Where do I sign up?"

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

PART IV: BLUEPRINTS

Design, n: an outline, sketch, or plan, as of the form and structure of a work of art, an edifice, or a machine to be executed or constructed; the combination of details or features of a picture, building, etc.; a plan or project.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 21

"That's his missing hand."

"Yep. Though calling something with eighteen branches a 'hand' seems pretty weird to me."

"He'd say the same about a clumsy paw with only five branchings, I'm sure."

"Well, which one of us is sixty-five million years freeze-dried, and which one of us is sitting here still using his hands? Ha! Don't have an answer for that one, do you?"

"You're such a wiseguy, A.J." Helen studied the 3-D model, derived from multiple spectra of imaging combined. "I wasn't half-bad in my modeling."

"Taking into account water loss, damage, all the other good stuff, some of your reconstructions were damn near perfect. You couldn't get all the internals, but the externals are good. The colors would be more earthy, though."

"How can you get colors out of this? I'm not even sure if the external skin or whatever it is has just dehydrated or gone through a hell of a lot more changes in the time it's been here."

"Guesses, but pretty good ones. We have some idea of the chemical processes that go on in vacuum now, and I can run simulations. If I take the chemical constituents I can derive from my various sensors and run a simulation of what it would've looked like before sixty-five million years of space exposure, I get something with a sort of warm brown tint. Like good leather."

"Interesting. Still, with all the variables, I'd say it's more like a wild-assed guess."

"Give me half-assed, and you have a deal."

Helen snorted. "No one gets half my ass."

A.J. should have made another comment at that point, but he was silent instead. Giving him a sideways glance, Helen saw a rather dramatic blush just starting to recede.

Well, now, that's cute. I guess a wiseass answer occurred to him that took him in a direction he wasn't ready to go.

She paused mentally at that point. It dawned on her that she was skirting an area that she wasn't ready to go. She been working alongside A.J. for three days, ever since she'd agreed to participate in the planned expedition to Mars. Almost every waking hour, in fact. The experience, she now realized, had just driven home the impressions she had gotten in the two years since she'd first met the man.

Don't kid yourself, woman. For whatever reasons-God only knows how and why it works-A.J. Baker really and truly turns you on.

She shook her head slightly. She was still twelve years older than he was-always would be-and she was still not ready to go there. Probably never would be.

Before she could start blushing herself-at her age!-she hurriedly went back to the subject at hand. "Are there any other rooms you can get into other than this one and the water room?"

A.J.'s tone seemed just a bit hurried, too. "A few, yeah. There's only one major room we haven't looked into yet. Its door is opened a little bit less than this one, but it was clearly jammed tight and no way we were going to lever it open. So now that we've done all the heavy work we can with the Faeries, I'll probably be trying to get one of them into that room. It might get stuck, though; it's going to be really, really tight. That's why I hadn't tried until now. And we've got a few more side corridors to go into first."

"What do you make of those things over there, that look like, oh, triangular plaques?"

A.J. studied the thirty or so glittering bronze-tinted plates that were piled in ages-old shallow drifts against the wall, probably due to Phobos' rotation. "My guess? Printouts of important data."

"Printouts? But they're metal. And they don't appear to be stamped or inscribed in any way. So why do you think they're printouts?"

"Hard to prove it right now, but on some wavelengths, just at the edge of maximum enhancement, I get hints of structure. Remember, these guys were sitting in a pretty limited environment here, so you gotta think about it. If they did prefer using hard copy, like we do, how're they going to do it? It'd be insane to bring along masses of paper, and it's not like you're going to be growing trees here. Or papyrus reeds. So you need something else.

"What would be ideal would be something sorta like an Etch-a-Sketch that doesn't go away at a shake but only at a specific signal. It'd be a physical display, but one you could use over and over again. And with a lot better resolution and control than an Etch-a-Sketch, of course."

Helen nodded. "Okay. But how would that work?"

"Remember when you first met me? My halo?"

"Yes. So?"

"Well, if you have miniature active agents like my sensor motes, only a lot smaller-real nanotech like they've been working on for years-you could make the surface of some object, like those plates, be composed of these agent-motes. They'd be networked together on the local level and could rearrange the surface physically to conform to whatever you wanted to display. Then, when you wanted to change the surface, you'd send another code to have them move around again. Properly designed, it could be pretty energy efficient. Everyone would be able to have a few of these little babies and they'd have permanent records without physical waste. If you ever really decided that a book or whatever wasn't needed any more, you just erase it."

He pondered a moment. "The things probably would scavenge power from transmissions in the air. You might even be beaming out some signal that was harmless to you and that didn't interfere with your other devices, just in order to keep 'em powered. Of course, once the power failed, the motes shut down. And by now, they're almost certainly vacuum-welded into a single mass. Not to mention that with sixty-five megayears having gone by since then, radiation probably hasn't done 'em any good either."

Helen thought about the bronze-colored tablets having a surface mutable as water, changing and freezing on command. It was a nice image, and it did make sense the way A.J. put it. But it was awfully speculative, based just on a faint trace of microstructure.

"Do you always jump to conclusions on that little evidence?"

"Well, yeah," he said, grinning a little sheepishly. "I like having a guess at anything I run into. Besides, I have a reputation to maintain." More seriously: "But they do seem to have a lot of the symbols on the keyboards and signs, and other things that might be sketches or something. So the tablets look a lot to me like sorta triangular clipboard type things, but they're also pretty much solid."

"I think I understand you," Helen said slowly. "Unless we postulate some odd religious requirement, it's hard to imagine they were spending their time carving or casting metal symbol-plates like this. It's not like they had to write in cuneiform. So you're saying that if they used these things as you're guessing, then obviously the tablets couldn't be as simple as they look."

"Right in one, Doc. Hey, here we go, the first stereo imaging of the interior of a Bemmie."

The combination of wavelengths the Faeries could scan in had given A.J. an extensive array of methods for analyzing the interior of just about anything. Helen didn't understand how it worked, but she knew that when A.J. was dealing with an organic, mummified target, he could tailor the approach for exactly that sort of object.

The image that materialized on-screen was a detailed, layered outline of structures down to a fraction of an inch in size, all done without having to touch the specimen. That was a good thing, too. It was quite possible that at least parts of the sixty-five-million-year-old Bemmie would disintegrate at a touch.

"There it is!"

The "it" Helen referred to was a large, three-lobed organ protected by the bony structure they had long since decided was effectively a skull combined with part of a rib cage-sort of a cephalothorax. The tripartite object bulged towards the front of Bemmie and extended back a considerable distance. Lines of tissue branched from it at regular intervals, and it swelled again about halfway down the body and then trailed off.

"Well, no one doubted Bemmie was smart," A.J. commented. "Still, that's a hell of a brain. Great for zombies, though. Brrraiiiiins!"

The idea of a Bemmie zombie was creepy, Helen thought, since they were actually looking at a mummified corpse. "Look at all these other organs. That must be the digestive tract. Right there at the mouth and going down-"

"How do you know that's not his respiratory system?"

Helen could tell that was just a contrarian question. But she answered anyway, tracing the complexities revealed with her eyes, trying to wring every last bit of information from the image.

"First, because the area it comes through has a number of structures that look like they were made for cutting and crushing-a mouth, just like we thought when we looked at the fossil. Second, because the structures trailing down here look an awful lot like flattened intestines. And, third, because I think these are his respiratory system."

A.J. looked at "these," which were a pair of structures extending from slitlike areas on each side of Bemmie. "Okay, yeah, I'd probably agree, at least at a first guess."

"You'd damn well better. Who's the professional reconstruction expert and who's the glorified photographer here?"

"Fine, lemme give you another daguerreotype for your collection."

Another view of Bemmie shimmered into view next to the first, this one done in different wavelengths.

"Oh, now there's some nice structure! That must be the equivalent of cartilage and connective tissue. Look how it layers along the shoehorns. Weird, it seems very heavily set, though. A lot more than I remember the limbs of the fossil being."

Helen gnawed on her lower lip for a few seconds. "I think I know what caused that. Drying out retracted the arms. I'll bet the extension and contraction tissue was pretty hydrophilic, even for living tissue."

"I dunno. Depends on the mechanism. As I recall, you've been arguing with yourself for the past couple of years on just how it managed the 'extend' part of that movement. Memory molecules, crystal structure, all that kind of thing."

He glanced back at the other view. "Getting back to the digestive and respiration systems, there's one area he was built better than us, if you're right. Bemmie never choked to death on a chicken bone. If they ate chickens. I wonder what he did eat? Was Bemmie vegetarian?"

"I severely doubt it, unless it was from personal conviction or ideology. His eating mechanism doesn't look all that much like ours at first glance, naturally. But my gut reaction-pardon the pun-looking at his, um, dentition, and the internal structure you've got here, is that Bemmie was an omnivore, like us."

"Just a guess though, right?"

"Yeah. An educated one, but still a guess. We don't have any idea what plants or their equivalent were like on his homeworld, or what other species existed besides themselves. But there are also these structures on the arms. I found some of them in our fossil Bemmie, but I couldn't be sure what they were. Looks like one of my guesses was right, however. They exist on the inside of the arms or tentacles in the front, and I'll bet the lumps of tissue under them indicate that they can be raised and lowered. Sort of like a cat's retractable claws."

"They do look kinda like claws. Or shark teeth even, or thorns."

"And where they're located indicates they were used to grab something and prevent it from moving away. And not gently, either. That looks to me like a predatory creature's design. Squid have some similar hooked structures on their tentacles. The length of the digestive system, though, is really over the top for something that's an obligate carnivore. At least here on Earth, the digestive tracts of meat eaters tend to be significantly less complex because, well, you're trying to convert meat into meat, rather than plants into meat."

"And that funnel sort of thing around the mouth. Like lips?"

"Yes, I think so. It's got more structure around it, though, from what I can tell. I'm not sure, but I think that it might not look so simple if it were still alive. Maybe not like pedipalps or other side organs, but not just a smooth funnel of tissue, either."

A.J. was studying other external features. "They didn't wear clothes, exactly, but they did have sort of harnesses and other things. I'll bet that's either jewelry or else some kind of communicator badge up there."

"Embedded in the skin? Well, I guess that tells us that they did have pretty tough skin."

"Not necessarily. After all, we get ears and other body parts pierced just for vanity. Still, at that size it probably did have pretty tough skin, like a rhino or elephant."

"Ugly things, weren't they?" Diane said from over their shoulders.

Helen opened her mouth to defend Bemmie reflexively, then grinned. "I did name him Bemmius for a reason, you know."

Diane frowned.

"From the old science fiction term, Diane," A.J. explained. "Bug-Eyed Monster, BEM."

Diane laughed at that, and smiled at A.J.

Helen wasn't surprised. She'd noticed already that when Diane acted just a bit clueless, it was whenever A.J. was nearby-and always about something A.J. could explain.

That annoyed her intensely, for some reason. Perhaps just the natural feminism of a woman in a man's profession. Or… She chewed on the problem for a moment, and was a little disturbed when she realized that the annoyance was something very old-fashioned. Archaic, even.

Pure and simple jealousy. Argh!

She shook it off. "Yes, I don't think I'd have wanted to meet Bemmie in a dark alley, to be honest."

"Or even in a lighted one," A.J. concurred. "He would've weighed in at, um-"

"Something over a ton," Helen supplied.

"-right, something over a ton, and had a hell of a reach to boot. If you're right about those thorn things… Well, the thought gets ucky. He could do quite a number on you."

Diane winced. "And probably eat you afterwards."

"Doubtful," A.J. said. "If he could catch you in the first placeBemmie was obviously not built for speed-he probably didn't have chemistry within light-years of ours. Couldn't eat us, anyway."

"You never know," Helen said, getting a surprised glance from

A.J. "Preliminary analyses from the fossil site… well, it's hard to be certain, given all the time that's passed, bacteria, and so on. But it appears that Bemmie was based on DNA or RNA rather like our own. We eat an awful lot of things that aren't very closely related to us-mushrooms, for instance-and some of them are pretty darn nutritious. But I'd agree that there's a matter of more orders of magnitude involved in this probability."

"That argument didn't go over with you well a few years ago, Helen," Glendale pointed out from the consultant's station he'd been given at Helen's insistence. "What's a few orders of magnitude between friends?"

"Well, to turn your own argument back-and hope that I have to eat my words, so to speak, like you-if you can find a set of dinosaur bones with knife and fork marks on them, I'll agree that Bemmie's people could've found us tasty eating."

Glendale laughed. "Fair enough. And I agree, it's damned unlikely."

"I wonder if they were hostile or friendly types?" Diane mused. "I mean, if we'd been able to meet them."

"Maybe we still can," A.J. replied. "They certainly didn't come from this solar system."

Diane looked at him. "What? How can you be sure? Maybe they were Martians."

"Because-oh, let's let the expert explain." He glanced at astrophysicist Larry Conley. "Larry?"

The big, slightly portly scientist shook his head. "No way."

"But I thought Mars had tons of water way back then."

"Not that recently, Diane. Hundreds of millions of years-and please note the plural-back to maybe a billion or two. Mars wasn't much different in the age of the dinosaurs than it is now. And if Dr. Sutter's right, Bemmie started out aquatic, so… No. I doubt very much that even if we had magic space drives we could meet any of them today. It's been sixty-five million years, remember. If they still had any interest in this place, they'd not only have been here, they'd have taken everything over. No, by now, they've evolved into something completely different, or gone extinct altogether."

Despite the fact that he'd summoned the expert opinion himself, A.J. choked at it. "Hey, now, that's a couple of big-ass assumptions. I thought evolution stopped once we started controlling the environment."

Conley raised an eyebrow and ran his fingers through unruly dark hair-which, unfortunately for him, looked much more sloppy and less "artistic genius" than did A.J.'s mop.

"That's one theory-we came along, invented civilization, and when we found out about Darwin said 'oh, we won't be having any more of that!' But, as other people have pointed out, what we've really done is just created a new environment with new pressures. And even tiny, tiny pressures, over sixty-plus million years, will add up to one hell of a lot of change. And so far no civilization we've had has lasted recognizably more than a few thousand years. You want me to believe these aliens made one that lasted ten thousand times longer than that? I don't think so."

He pointed to the screen. "That shows they had not just intelligence, but curiosity and the energy and focus to want to go to other solar systems. I'd have to assume that they'd probably have completely colonized this solar system long before now. And we definitely would've found traces of an advanced civilization from even that far back. If they stayed on Earth at all, they only built a few relatively small bases. Otherwise we'd have found something."

"Still, I wonder what they would've been like. Maybe they were really peaceful types, having worked out all the crap that we still have to deal with. Crossing light-years of space would take a hell of a lot of work."

"Ah, the old 'more advanced and wiser civilization,' eh, A.J.?" Glendale's voice was amused. "I don't believe so, and I think your image there proves it."

"Huh?" A.J. glanced back at the image. "Um, he's kinda dead. And just because he wasn't a vegetarian doesn't prove anything. Dogs are carnivores, but they're pretty friendly most of the time. And if they overcame any violent impulses, like Helen said, they could all be vegetarians at this point. Well, at the point this guy got freeze-dried, anyway."

"They could indeed," Glendale conceded. "Yet not, I think, through being tremendously peaceful. Consider that object shown under the, ah, left arm. It wasn't easily visible in the earlier images, being so close and under the arm that it was in permanent shadow."

The object in question looked something like a large laundry detergent bottle with the bottom cut off combined with a ridged bowling ball stuck on the end of a plunger, the handle of the plunger stuck through the bottleneck. It was made mostly of metal with some odd ceramic and possibly plasticlike bits and held by some kind of strap or holster affair with the open "bottom" end out. Rotating the model showed that the "plunger handle" was a hollow pipe or tube with fairly thick walls.

"My fossilized shotgun," Helen finally said, after a long silence.

"Well, I would say it is more of a pistol. Possibly also a shotgun in terms of its operation, but if I understand the nature of the cutouts on the side there, essentially what you have is a weapon intended to be used one-handed. If we may use the term broadly."

"So what?" A.J. demanded. "We knew they had weapons. That's no surprise. And the original Bemmie needed 'em, too. If he'd had a few friends with guns along, he might have gotten out alive."

Glendale smiled, a bit sadly. "A.J., you're quite right he needed one where he died. But our friend here-where was he?"

The sensor specialist froze for a moment, then sighed. "Yeah."

"Exactly. Our specimen is armed while in the control room of a base on an airless rock, uncountable miles from any possible hostile wild creatures. Why would he be carrying a weapon in such circumstances? It seems to me obvious that it was considered possible that he might need one, even there. One does not ship something across light years which one does not expect to need at some point. Now, it may be that he is something like a security officer, and that most of his people are not armed. But the need for such an officer still points to the potential for violent disagreements."

"It could be a symbolic weapon," Diane argued. "Marines still have dress swords, don't they?"

"Yes, but-correct me if I am wrong-I believe all such ceremonial weapons are associated with groups that on occasion must fight other people, yes?"

A.J. surveyed the Net. "Not quite all… But I won't argue, I'm convinced. Yeah, you don't generally carry weapons when you're a long way from anything that would ever require a weapon to deal with. So much for the enlightened peaceful aliens."

He shrugged. "Let's see if I can verify your guess, Dr. Glendale."

"Nicholas or Nick, please. Not-" He flashed a warning glance at Helen, but too late.

"-Nicky!" she interjected.

"Okay, Nick," A.J. acknowledged through a grin. "Let's take a look at the data on some other wavelengths. Peel away the layers of Bemmie to get at this thing here… hmm… enhance… nah, too coarse, let's try another… Ah, yeah, there we go. Damn, these guys used some funky materials! I think I can tell General Deiderichs and Madeline that, at the least, we can get some neat materials advancements out of this base."

Helen found the rapid transition of the security official from "Ms. Fathom," A.J.'s potential nemesis, to "Madeline" annoying also. She was quite sure that if Madeline Fathom had been male he would still be "Mr. Fathom" and A.J. wouldn't be at all concerned about whether he was pleased or not.

Jealous-again?? Stop this, Helen!

"What do you think of that?" A.J. demanded.

The main display showed a hugely enlarged version of the alien artifact, shadowy like an old-fashioned X-ray image. Inside the sculpted, ridged "bowling ball" were three well-defined hollows. Two showed nothing inside them, but the middle one was nearly full with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny dots. Small lines ran from the empty hollows to the base of the hollow tube, which had some kind of complex mechanism at that point. The mechanism also connected, via a much larger opening, to the central hollow.

"Looks very interesting," said Glendale. "What exactly do you think we're seeing?"

"Well, the first important point is these little dots. If I blow one of them up a bit and check the scale, how large do you think they are?"

No one said anything for a moment. Then Helen smiled.

"four point six five millimeters?"

"On the nose."

"Ah, yes." Glendale nodded. "The mysterious 'pebbles' that Mike Jennings argued were cysts of some kind in several papers. Shotgun pellets, then?"

"Right. And these two chambers-they were using a binary propellant design, probably two liquids that have leaked away over the ages. This mechanism meters the amount of propellant and ammunition-I'll bet you could adjust it for volume of fire and so on. I suppose someone else might find another explanation, but I wouldn't bet on it. This is a gun. Nothing else I can think of that would fit."

Glendale looked at Helen. "And this verifies one of your other hypotheses, if I'm right."

"What? Oh, yes. We tend to use large single bullets rather than shotguns, but with the way Bemmie's muscles and skeleton connected, or rather didn't really connect, something like a shotgun would be a lot more devastating to them. So it makes sense that their side arms would also be based on shotgun designs. Unfortunately for poor Bemmie, an elephant gun or even a thirty-ought-six would have been a better choice for blowing away raptors. The shotgun hurt them and eventually killed them, but not fast enough."

"Neat," A.J. said. "I hadn't thought of that before. Guess I didn't read your papers carefully enough. Anyway, let's see what else we can get out of this before I have to go off to today's training session."

"Right!"

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 22

Helen gave vent to a mild curse as she realized her hammer had slid away from her. She leaned reflexively to get it and found herself floating away, scattering sample containers and her other tools in a slow-motion catastrophe across the room. "Oh, dammit, not again!"

The voice of Walter Myles, the microgravity operations training expert, spoke in her ear. "Sorry, Dr. Sutter, but you should be past simple mistakes like that. I'm not resetting it. You'll have to clean up and recover."

"Yes, I know. It's just so hard to remember."

"Well, ma'am, you have to learn somehow. Phobos has barely any gravity, around one two-thousandth that of Earth. That's enough to make things settle eventually, but from your point of view it might as well be nothing. Tidal effects are actually noticeable on that scale."

Helen didn't answer, as she already knew the numbers. The problem wasn't on the intellectual level, but the level of instinctive reflex. She was trying to retrain a body that had spent four decades in a one-g field to properly react in the almost total absence of gravity.

Helen checked herself against the far wall, absorbing the impact and grabbing one of the handholds spotted about the room. Thus secured, she was able to survey the situation and decide the best method to address the scattered clutter.

"You know, in the real situation, I'd have tools and things attached to me, right?"

"Correct, Doctor, but you'd also be in a real microgravity situation instead of a simulation. We would prefer that you learn to do your work well enough that you won't notice, nor care, whether the tools are attached to lanyards or not."

"Simulations are pretty damn impressive these days, though. I have to admit that I can't really tell I'm not on Phobos, except that if I concentrate I can tell up and down. But you confuse that by making 'up' be in the direction that it looks like one of the walls should be, instead of the ceiling."

In actuality, Helen was floating in a huge water tank inside the NASA training facility. The tools and such were, relatively speaking, real; but the exact way she perceived them, and the background against which the action took place, was all being generated for her inside the watertight spacesuit she had on. The spacesuit was also attached to actuators to assist her in moving in a fashion that would feel fairly close to the way real microgravity would feel-minus, as Helen had noted, the absence of an internal method for referencing up and down. That she'd get to experience later.

Having assessed the situation, Helen pulled a butterfly net from the wall, where it had been held by a magnetic hanger arrangement, and launched herself slowly across the room. It took several minutes, but eventually she had rounded up everything except her pen.

"Where the hell did that get to?"

Myles being non-helpfully silent, Helen started another slow survey of the room.

Nothing.

All right, she thought, let's reason this through. Which direction would it have been scattered in?

She thought back, then looked carefully along the rather broad arc that it might have gone in.

Nothing.

Then she smacked herself in the head, or rather tried to. The spacesuit thunked obligingly. She called up the record of her mishap and replayed it in slow motion, watching the pen as it slowly, gracefully, somersaulted through the air.

And slowly, gracefully, somersaulted into the megayears-old ventilation duct.

There was only one appropriate response to that level of stupid accidental coincidence. "D'oh!" she grunted. "I suppose I am now the solar system's first interplanetary litterbug, as there's no way I'm getting that one back myself. Maybe A.J. would be able to send in a drone someday."

"Well, not the first," Myles said, his tone amused. "Several other trainees have lost objects effectively permanently before. I will say that yours was the most elegant method for losing something on Phobos I've yet seen."

"Thanks. I think. Give me another pen and let me start this over."

"Certainly." The simulation shimmered out of existence, leaving a large tank with objects roughly coinciding with the Phobos control room layout set inside it. "Actually, go get yours back; it's over where the vent would be."

"Got it." Helen retrieved the pen and prepared to start the research simulation again.

It's amazing how you can sweat so much in a climate-controlled spacesuit, Helen mused later, as she finished toweling dry. I hope we have a lot of thought put into creature comforts for this cruise. It's going to be a hell of a trip.

At least the second half of the practice had gone well. If she could keep it up, she'd be ready to try real microgravity soon. They'd already tested her acceleration tolerance, which had been surprisingly high-at the same level, in fact, of trained fighter pilots. Only Colonel Hathaway had scored better.

She wasn't looking forward to weightlessness, though. A.J. had come back from his first experience looking about three shades paler. He hadn't quite lost his lunch, but apparently it had been a near thing. Still, he'd gotten over it and done his first orbital two weeks ago.

Joe, on the other hand, apparently hadn't even blinked when he first went weightless. Hopefully, Helen would have the same reaction.

That reminded her-Joe should be coming back from his first orbital flight soon. She checked the time. Yes, if she hurried she could be there for the landing.

She opened a voice channel to A.J. as she dressed. "Hey, A.J.!"

"What's up, Doc?"

"I'm going to go see Joe land. You coming?"

"I'm already on my way. Meet you there. Then we can all go out to eat before it's back to the salt mines."

"Sounds good to me."

She finished dressing, jogged down to the parking lot, and got in her car. She was careful to keep the windows rolled up as she exited. That wasn't to ward off the late autumn chill, it was to ward off reporters. Following the announcement of the discovery and the upgrading of both Nike and Ares, news crews were always hanging around the exits.

She let the window down after she passed the news people and headed for the landing strip, a couple of hours away. Her blond hair whipped in the breeze. The air was a little chilly, but the sensation felt good after all that time in a spacesuit.

She had a sudden vision of driving like this on Mars, the terraformed Mars that Ares envisioned. The New Mexico landscape she was driving through was even somewhat similar to that on the Red Planet. Now wouldn't that be cool? Well, not something I'll see, but maybe three generations from now.

Eventually she pulled through the security gate, parked in the lot, and headed for the landing area. The vastness of the dry, dusty plain shimmered in the desert sun. The landing strip, a darker ruler-straight road built to a giant's scale, seemed to waver slightly. Off to the left, the control and support buildings threw sharp shadows against the hardened soil, but their somewhat illusory coolness wouldn't allow a good view of the landing. Instead, a long, open pavilion with chairs sat not far from the control area, with a large flatscreen monitor installed in its own weatherized enclosure to one side to provide alerts and alternative views of the landing.

About thirty people were there already. As Helen got closer, she noticed that they seemed unusually quiet. Many were standing, huddling closer to the monitor instead of watching the sky.

"What's going on?"

"Chinook is in trouble," A.J. answered grimly.

Chinook was the orbital craft Joe had gone up in. "Oh, no. What's wrong?"

"Not sure yet. They were getting funny responses from the hydraulics, and then she went into reentry blackout. We should've heard something by now, but…"

"Jesus." Helen knew what that meant. The likelihood was that Chinook had disintegrated on its way down. Joe would have known maybe a few moments of panic, and then…

"There she is!"

Helen's head snapped up. High in the distance was a pinpoint of white. It moved slowly and started growing as she watched.

"Still no communications from Chinook," one of the controllers said over the PA. "Craft is still roughly in descent path in apparently controlled glide. Not on optimal approach."

"Mother of God," A.J. muttered, staring at something only his VRD could show him. "Chinook is on fire!"

A moment later, A.J. tied in his enhanced feed from the multiple cameras along the glide path to the publicly visible screen that Helen and the others were watching. Instead of just a tiny dot of an approaching object, Chinook was an ominous daylight comet; a dot with a contrail of white, gray and black smoke, and tiny, grim flashes of flame-orange.

"We have a signal!"

A hiss of static on the PA was suddenly broken with a distorted but mostly comprehensible voice. "-trol, this is Chinook. We are in an emergency descent. Systems mal-"

A roar of interference obscured the signal. Then: "-arginally functional. Landing gear will not deploy. Re*buzzz* foam and emergency crews. Calling on suit radio. Do you copy?"

Helen recognized the voice as that of Major Bruce Irwin, the Chinook's pilot. His Australian accent was unmistakable.

"Roger, Chinook, we copy. What is your fuel status, over?"

"Tried to dump remaining fuel, no go. Still have*frrrz* percent remaining. Fire hazard definite. Suspect exterior fire."

"Confirming exterior fire. Repeat, presence of fire visually confirmed. Can you land?"

Major Irwin's voice held a note of dry humor. "Control, I am positive we can land. Not sure if it will be a good landing, though. Must concentrate on that part. Chinook out."

"How the hell could he even joke about making a good landing? Obviously he won't." That came from Jackie Secord, standing on A.J.'s other side. Her hands were clenched tight to the back of the chair near her.

"He has to," Ken Hathaway said quietly. "The oldest and clearest definition of a good landing is one you can walk away from. And if he doesn't manage that with this…"

Chinook was much more clearly visible, streaming black smoke as it wobbled in towards the landing site. It was obvious that the craft was reacting sluggishly to controls, recovering from a tilt with an aching and frightening slowness.

"Come on, come on… " A.J. muttered. "You're almost there. Come on, almost there…"

Chinook was shedding velocity as well as altitude-that much, at least, was as everyone wanted it. The rumbling boom of its earlier transsonic passage echoed faintly across the desert.

"Chinook now three miles downrange, speed two-fifty-two and dropping-"

"Oh, shit."

Something had finally come loose on the nose. Debris showered up and over, black smoke streaming across the cockpit. The damage spread as though pushed by the winds, and suddenly the cockpit seemed to disintegrate. Inky smoke spewed into the air and Chinook heeled slowly over, executing a dreamlike cartwheeling pirouette in the sky before thundering down to impact on its side, ironically directly in the center of the runway. The orbiter bounced up, spinning and shedding fragments of wing and tail everywhere, and the spectators dove for cover.

Chinook's second landfall was squarely on the tail section, and with a whooshing roar it ignited in an orange-red-black fireball. Something had sheared through the fuel cells. Now nothing but a moving holocaust, the remains of Chinook seared their way down another several hundred yards of runway before shuddering to a flaming halt. Emergency vehicles, already scrambled, skidded to a halt around the wreckage and began trying to extinguish the blaze.

A.J.'s head was bowed, as was Jackie's. Helen tore her gaze from the blazing wreckage that had been bringing Joe Buckley home just moments before. As if she might find understanding and solace, somehow, she traced the trajectory of Chinook back along the trail of smoke.

What was…

"A.J.? A.J., Jackie, look!"

A white dot showed in the air. As they watched, the dot descended and grew.

"Parachutes spotted," crackled from the speakers. "Visual confirmation that it is the ejection pod from Chinook."

Helen and A.J. were already sprinting towards the likely landing area, somewhat to the right as carried by the wind. The emergency vehicles passed them, of course, and by the time they arrived the ejection pod had landed and Bruce and Joe were emerging from it.

A.J. bulled his way through the EMTs. "Joe! Joe!"

Joe grinned, painfully. "I tried to tell them it was a no-smoking flight, but nobody listens to me."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 23

Ken Hathaway's eyes widened a bit. "A radius of one hundred and forty-six meters-almost a thousand feet across?"

"Or more," Dr. Gupta said, nodding. "Half again as far across if we assume a rotation of once per minute. And farther across, much farther across, if we also wish to generate Earth gravity instead of merely something close to Martian."

The Air Force colonel scratched his head, looking doubtful. "A rotation of once every forty seconds or so still seems awfully slow. I'm sure we could spin up to considerably more than that and remain well within tensile safety limits. Look at what we can do with suspension bridges and all."

Gupta let Jackie field that one. "If it was just a matter of engineering, Ken, we could build it to be any size you want it to be. We could put you in what amounts to a washing machine or one of those carnival rotor things. But the problem is that a lot of people run into disorientation problems when they hit rotation over about two or three RPMs. For flights with small handpicked crews, you can ignore that problem to some extent. But our crew is much larger and is being selected for a much wider range of functions. Some of the members will be only marginally space-worthy."

"Tell me about it," Hathaway grunted, smiling rather crookedly. As an officer accustomed to the rigorous selection procedures of the military, he was still trying to get used to the much wider latitudes being applied to picking the Nike's crew. No one who suffered from really critical medical problems was being accepted, true. But Ken felt the definition of "critical" had been stretched to the breaking point. There was one member of the crew who was sixty-three years old, and another who was at least forty pounds overweight.

Both of them, however, were also universally considered to be among the world's half-dozen top specialists at deciphering languages-and they were the only two who were willing to make the trip. So, aboard the Nike they would go, when the time came, whether the ship's captain was happy about it or not.

Jackie continued her explanation. "Now, we're not taking anyone who's a complete groundhog-they're going to have to be able to take acceleration and no gravity and all that-but Dr. Wu is firmly of the opinion that if we don't use slower rotation for our artificial gravity we will have problems with a significant portion of the crew. On the bright side, he's also firmly of the opinion that one-third gravity will be sufficient to maintain bone mass and prevent the other problems associated with long-term null-g situations. Ten years ago, we wouldn't have been able to be sure, but he says the most recent experiments have been consistent and clear and he's comfortable with a one-third gravity setting."

"Okay, okay. I agree, there's a lot to be said for a big ship. We should be able to make her pretty roomy, which God knows we're going to want. Still, even if I stop her from spinning, that's a hell of a lever arm I'm trying to turn with. Wouldn't want to break it off."

Jackie laughed. "Don't worry. The supports are designed to take anything you'll be able to dish out, even with the engines we're giving you. Here, take a look at our first main design model of Nike."

The 3-D imaging view lit up and, suspended in space, a model of Earth's first interplanetary ship materialized.

"Thank God for modern design technology," Ken mused, staring at the image before him.

"No kidding. Without state-of-the-art automatic modeling and simulation testing and expert design packages, plus actual years of in-orbit construction experience, we'd need years to reach a workable design."

Ken knew the truth of that. Many people didn't realize how difficult it was to design a new machine of any type. In the days before computers offered Computer Aided Design/Computer Assisted Modeling packages, design was a matter of physical construction of prototypes, testing of configurations, and iterations of these processes that could take years.

Even after the start of CAD/CAM in the late part of the twentieth century, the designs still had to be built multiple times and tested physically for a number of purposes. The computers back then simply weren't capable of modeling the full range of complex interactions the real world would throw at a device in a high-stress environment. That applied twice-over to spacecraft, which would have no safe harbor, no "side of the road" to pull over to, and which would be entering and exiting Earth's atmosphere under the greatest "environmental stress" imaginable. There was insufficient experience in the design of multiple types of space-suitable devices, in the assembly of spaceworthy habitats and vehicles, and related problems to permit the designers to make any useful assumptions.

In the past two decades, however, things had changed. Just as an old-style CAD/CAM package had permitted one person to equal the design production of a dozen or more old-style designers, modern CDM (Computer Design and Modeling) packages made one person trained in their use equal to a department of old CAD/CAM users, plus an entire testing lab. The modern CDM packages integrated modeling software equally advanced from its predecessors like MATLAB-capable of modeling and testing a designed part to a degree never before possible. Components were automatically checked for their capability to endure the stresses inherent in the design intent, while the designer continued the main design work based on broad conceptual designs. The specifics could be modified at will, and the entire design reworked to fit new specifications, all in a small fraction of the time earlier generations would have needed. With the firm empirical knowledge derived from thirty years of the International Space Station and its successors in orbit, such CDM packages now routinely produced new satellite designs, new living modules, and so on for space use in mere days-designs that worked.

Ken's hand reached out, tracing the ghostly outline of Nike. The main ship's body was one and a half times as long as her fully-opened span-about fourteen hundred feet. From slightly forward of the halfway point, a great wheellike ring encircled the ship, glittering with hints of both metal and transparent windows.

"That's the habitat area, of course," Ken said, pointing. "Do you realize how huge this thing is? I mean, good God, it must be nearly three thousand feet around!"

"We certainly do. And we'll all be discussing the logistics with everyone later. It can be done, though, with the priority that the government's put on it. The size is pretty much necessary, to give us room to operate in as well as to give us the gravity we need. We may be living in Nike for a year or more."

Jackie circled one area of the hab ring and a separate view zoomed up. As it did so, the ring seemed to fragment into multiple identical segments with the profile of a sort of squarish croissant pastry that was being slightly bent in the middle.

"The main structural elements here, and in the main body, are standardized units that lock together. The internals can be customized almost limitlessly around a set of standardized modular connection points. You'll have hallway sections that basically have nothing but empty space, and habitable sections that are in the center of a bunch of supplies like water which help with shielding. The same, as a rule, with labs, dining or rec areas-and all of them based on the same support and maintenance structure. The main body has its own standardized assembly parts. This allows us to crank out a lot of the ship from a relatively few assembly designs, then fill it up with what we need. The fuel areas, of course, are basically subdivided tanks."

Ken nodded, continuing his visual tour. To the rear of Nike, six great blocky assemblies, arranged in a pentagonal rosette with the sixth in the center, ended in the unmistakable vents of nuclear rockets. Front and back ended in smooth curves, the forward end coming to a graceful point. Colored areas indicated windows and sensor mountings.

"You've streamlined things along the front to back contours," Ken remarked absently. "Why? She's not going into atmosphere."

"Are you objecting to her appearance, Major?" Gupta's voice was slightly nettled. "Can an engineer not also have some appreciation of aesthetics?"

"Oh, no, no, not at all. She's beautiful. It's just…"

Gupta accepted Ken's backpedaling with a gracious nod. "Still, it cannot be argued that there is effort involved in such design and manufacture. Perhaps making the ship less streamlined would be cheaper and more swift. Yet, there are other considerations."

He nodded once more, to tell Jackie to continue. Gupta liked to distribute explanations among all his engineers, rather than be the sole source of information.

"Publicity," Jackie said. "This project is going to get rammed through no matter what people think, but the better we can make it look, the better it will go over. And the ship itself is going to be one of our biggest advertisements. We want everyone who's got a shred of imagination to be able to visualize themselves aboard her. And.. . well, some of them would balk at a spaceship that looked like it was put together with an Erector set, even if it was perfectly safe and practical."

Ken looked up. "Believe me, I'm not complaining. That, my friends, is a ship. We've been sending out little rowboats up until now, but this time we are going in style. Does she have to be quite that large, and can she be that large-that is, can she be built that large fast enough?"

"Well, like we said, diameterwise the living quarters have to go out that far. The rest of the body is actually-relatively speakingeasy to build. It's going to be mostly storage space for equipment and consumables, and of course the main drive systems. Currently we have plans for one reusable orbiter/lander to be carried along, depending on our cargo capacity-we're going to want to bring a hell of a lot of instrumentation and analysis equipment to Phobos, so I don't know how much spare capacity we'll have."

She pointed to another part of the image. "The habitat ring will have some small attitude drives on it. The leverage advantage will allow you to adjust direction, or spin up the ship, efficiently from that point. But most of the drives, both main and secondary, will be on the main body. It's not something you can whip up in your garage, no, but the real complexities will be in designing the living spaces to hold the people, give us all lots of flexibility in what we see and do and where we can go during months in space. Even after we get to Phobos, it's going to be quite a while before we can live there. So I figure we've got to have living space that'll be comfortable for at least a year or two. Even with the rotation shuttle idea."

Ares' engineers, following up on their own designs, had pointed out that once they got several return modules sitting on Mars, they could easily set them up to return to Phobos and then continue to Earth. That would make it possible to literally keep up a rotation of people on Phobos Base, with people spending a few months to a year on Phobos and then ending up back on Earth in a few months. The returning launches of supplies could be alternated with replacement personnel, keeping Phobos Base fully staffed.

This was a far preferable alternative than to have to use Nike to go back and forth. Nike's vast power and resources were much more likely to be needed at Phobos. NASA had agreed with the basic concept, but added that the proper design approach should allow them to have reusable vessels which could act as orbital ferries. The first of these would be produced for Nike to take with her to Phobos; others would follow.

"Six engines? Are we talking about six like the prototype? Six million pounds of thrust?"

"And with a delta-vee of about twelve KPS."

"Holy…"

"That makes her mass ratio about four to one-3.89 and a smidge, actually," Jackie continued smugly. "Basically, if we take the trajectory we intend to, you'll be starting with about two KPS extra delta-vee. We wanted a lot of safety margin in there. Until we get safely established and the Ares processes kick in, there's no refueling for us."

"But why the hell so overpowered? I'd think a tenth that thrust would be enough. More than enough."

"Oh, undoubtedly." Jackie laughed. "It's overkill, sure-if our purpose was simply to move Nike from Point A to Point B. But this is also another political maneuver to satisfy at least three different purposes."

"Three…" Ken studied the design. "I get it. The five exterior engines and reactors can be unshipped, can't they?"

"Give the man a cookie. Exactly. Take them all off and Nike still has one big-ass engine that's a bit of overkill, but a little extra power never hurt anyone. The NERVA fanboys and fangirls, of which I confess to being one, wanted to play around with possible nuclear rocket landers. With Mars' weaker gravity and no real environment to worry about, it's an ideal test location for things like that. More importantly, separate nuclear reactors of that size offer the chance to have a lot of power-and even redundant power-available on Mars or Phobos. It's also a showoff maneuver. Nike will be a powerful ship, and we can design the ship to take that level of stress."

"In addition," Gupta chimed in, "if one such engine is sufficient for a vessel such as Nike, consider: We have here the chance to get several such engines built and sent into space. But only now-only now. The political winds are fickle, are they not? If we already have the engines-nuclear engines, which are the sort most likely to cause fear and caution to delay the launch-it makes it much, much more likely that additional large interplanetary vessels will be built. Would it not be desirable to have several Nikes, several large research and exploration vessels, while we indeed have the chance?"

"I see. Very clever, Doctors. Build a really impressive ship and put in incentives to build more just like her." A broad grin spread across Ken's face as he contemplated the possibilities.

"Sooo… if I floor her, am I going to make everyone black out?"

Gupta's rich laugh rolled out. "Alas, I feel that this is extremely unlikely. We are using nuclear reactors, which have so very much shielding, and must have multiple redundancies and failsafes, and are taking so very, very many people and equipment… Were we using Orion, ah, then we could promise to give you accelerations of such magnitude. But I do not believe, even with our best efforts, that we could give you much more than a gravity or so, even when the vessel is nearly empty. Still, when you do, as you say, 'floor her,' I guarantee that it will be felt by all aboard, and felt for quite some time."

To a space engineer or astronaut, these were numbers that weren't seen in real life; they were fantasies. Oh, Ken knew that any science fiction buff could dream of a "reactionless" drive that allowed one to tool about the solar system as if driving a car. But in real life a "burn"-the firing of an engine-was measured in seconds, the change in speed in a few hundred meters per second, and the transition from one planet to another measured in many, many months.

To save weight and space, energy and thrust budgets were worked out to the greatest precision possible. A spacecraft was generally hoped to arrive at its destination with just a tiny bit of reserve left in its fuel tanks for final positioning, as every ounce of fuel taken to the destination was an ounce of payload wasted.

The "mass ratio" was perhaps the most telling statistic. It was the ratio of the mass of the fuelled ship compared to the mass of the "dry," or unfueled, ship. By way of comparison, a chemical-fueled ship with the same "delta-vee"-which meant the potential to change the velocity of the ship, the power to speed up and slow down, measured in absolute total speed change-of twelve kilometers per second would have a mass ratio of fourteen or more.

Colonel Hathaway was pretty sure his face now looked like that of a child at Christmas. Jackie and Gupta both smiled back at him.

"You seem to approve," Jackie said finally. "Then would you like to get into details? We've got a lot to cover in this overview."

"Yes, please!"

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 24

"It's been a few months, now. Still having no problems?" asked Hughes. The Director of the HIA leaned back a little further in his chair. Since the swivel chair was something of an antique, it creaked a bit ominously.

Madeline shook her head. "That would be putting it too optimistically. On the positive side, everyone associated with NASA for any length of time takes it for granted that someone will be assigned to do security. So having me show up was expected, even though I think they're still sometimes startled at the extent of my authority. But that's probably working in my favor. I have a pleasant personality and knowing they don't have to wade through the usual security-inquadruplicate suits them just fine."

Hughes smiled. "'Pleasant personality.' So modest! Madeline, I believe I could drop you into a mob of devils in the Pit and you'd have them fawning all over you inside of a week. I assume the problems you're hinting at are coming from the non-NASA people. Of whom, unfortunately or not, we have a considerable influx. Many of them aren't even U.S. citizens, unlike the Ares crowd."

Madeline returned the smile. "Actually, the foreigners-so far, at least-are less cantankerous than some of the Ares people. A.J. Baker, in particular, has somewhat mystical notions concerning the spiritual essence of information."

"Ah, yes. The innate yearning for liberty possessed by data bytes. I've always wondered what Plato or Kant would make of that, from a philosophical standpoint."

"Plato would say that the actual information is a pale shadow of the Real Truth, so who cares if it gets suppressed? And if you can figure out two sentences of Kant, you're way ahead of me."

Hughes chuckled. "What about the other leading Ares figures? Friedet and Buckley, I mean."

"Friedet's practical enough. I've had no problems with him and don't foresee any. In any event, he won't be going on the voyage, so it almost doesn't matter. The real security problems will come after Nike reaches Phobos."

"True. That means Baker and Buckley. Baker is something of a given. I assume you've already figured out how to handle him if necessary."

Madeline nodded.

"And Buckley?"

"Joe?" Madeline considered. "He's less radical than his friend, but he's also the considered action sort. I think he's much more likely to follow along with rules so long as they don't violate some threshold of his, but if he decided to act would do so with a carefully worked-out plan. His apparent predisposition toward spectacular accidents appears to have made him more cautious when he does take action. Baker will act like the hero in a bad 'genius against wicked government' movie, which makes him easy to predict. I would actually be more concerned with Dr. Gupta."

"Due to foreign influence? Indian government ties?"

"Rather the opposite," Madeline contradicted. "He's certainly not someone who rejects his country of origin or its cultural traditions, but he seems firmly committed to his work and to the country he's become a naturalized citizen of since he emigrated. But his younger record is of a man with very techno-anarchistic leanings, and I do not think he has changed much in that regard. If he thinks information is being overcontrolled, he is not only capable of considering action, but as the chief designer and engineer of Nike, will be in a better position than just about anyone except possibly Baker to arrange information leakage without anyone catching him at it. Jackie Secord. .. I find her harder to read. Because of her longstanding and close association with Baker and Buckley, I have to keep her in mind as another potential risk. On the other hand, she's been with NASA for several years now and is accustomed to working under tight security restraints. And it's become clear to me that, at least on political issues, she doesn't share many of Baker and Buckley's attitudes. Especially Baker's."

"Do you think any of these people are security risks in general, or just risks of informational leaking?"

"Oh, the latter. I really don't think anyone on the project poses any sort of general security risk. The least enthusiastic people involved see it as a good job; the most enthusiastic are essentially religious about space travel. The problem isn't patriotism; not even with Baker, notwithstanding his penchant for making outlandish remarks on the subject. It's simply that-like most scientists-they chafe at the idea of knowledge being locked up. That problem is compounded, of course, with those of the scientists who aren't even American to begin with."

"Yes, naturally. What about Glendale?"

Glendale's addition to the staff of the Project had been something of a surprise, given that Helen Sutter had taken the xenobiological slot. "I was concerned about him at first, sir. We have little leverage of any legal sort we could use on him, especially with his reputation and high visibility. But, fortunately, it looks like he will be remaining on Earth, which means that he won't get access to the raw data at all. He will probably continue to be the project's science liaison-a position he's admirably suited for and which allows him to directly participate without going into space. Which he may be physically questionable for, even if he wanted to go, simply because of his age."

"I trust you had no problems with qualifying?"

"No. My official tolerances are well within range. I did my own orbital this week, in fact."

"What sort of indications do we have on what we might expect out of the venture? Anything more concrete?"

"Several things. Some of the materials the aliens used are clearly superior to ours in a number of areas. We're trying some reverse engineering, but if it's microstructure more than composition that makes it work we probably won't be able to actually derive the formula by remote sensors. Baker is confident that we'll get better stealth and screening materials, at least. Possibly stronger alloys for some purposes, and a number of nanotechnological hints which could be very useful. Their larger equipment he's not sure of. It will depend on how well we can study it without breaking something."

"What about the weapon?"

"The side arm was a disappointment. It isn't really all that different from our own weapons. But perhaps there are some things in which applying higher technology is mostly a waste."

She glanced through the notes showing in her VRD. "Overall, I would say that our original assessment holds. There is so much potential to learn in that base that we will almost certainly find something there which is of military significance. More likely many things."

The director sat up straight. "All right. All in all, everything sounds like it's going well, to me. Anything else to raise? Any other possible problems?"

"No, not that I can think of."

Madeline spent most of the flight back to Albuquerque staring out the window. Pointless, that, in a way, since night had already fallen and there was nothing much to see beyond the moon over cloud banks. But she found staring at nothing helped her focus her thoughts.

Doing her work while they were still here on Earth had been easy for her. It was going to be a lot harder in space. The most difficult task she'd face would be finding a method to arrange secure control as well as secure communications on a ship where there would be limited space, limited supplies, and every resource supposedly accounted for. That was going to require a number of tactics, all of which carried some element of risk.

She wasn't, of course, concerned about physical danger. Her mission wasn't likely to run into that level of threat. Even if it did, she had no doubt she could handle the matter. She was simply concerned at the risk of failure itself.

At first, she had thought it might turn out to be simple. The initial crew had all been American and, as such, subject to American laws. More important, in practice, was that half of them were military and the other half were civilians long accustomed to working in NASA's normal high-security environment. Unfortunately, with Nike being drastically enlarged, various political forces both at home and abroad had seen the opportunity to either enhance the international reputation of the United States or take advantage of it. Or both, for that matter.

Most of the expansion had involved bringing in scientists who were not in the least accustomed to considering security as an aspect of their work-a paleontologist, two linguists, several planetologists, and so on and so forth. Even many of the engineers added had been, from a NASA standpoint, outsiders. The military component of the crew was now fairly small-probably not more than one-fifth, when all was settled. Fortunately, those would all be Americans except for the Australian pilot, Bruce Irwin.

To make the situation still more difficult, a number of slots on the crew, about thirty percent, had been allotted to scientists or engineers to be selected from other countries. These people, obviously, were not subject to following the United States' rules and procedures with respect to security. Some of them, in fact, would be doing their level best to send as much information as possible back home.

That was only to be expected. But it made it impossible to cover the whole project with a blanket of secrecy. All the more so because these foreign nationals were, as a rule, well-acquainted with their colleagues from America. All of them would expect to carry on long, involved, and detailed conversations about anything and everything during the voyage and the later exploration.

Madeline had to find a way that she, personally, could control the communications from Nike-even in the face of considerable argument or resistance from other members of the crew. The worst part, she realized-with a sensation not far from shock-was that she didn't want to get into a quarrel. The problem was that these people weren't terrorists, spies, criminals-the sort that she usually dealt with. These people were astronauts and scientists and engineers, all of them trying to do their best. Their only potential failing was in a belief in a better world than really existed; one where you really could just tell everyone anything and there would be no political problems. A world where lunatic extremists wouldn't take advantage of new methods of destruction and blow people apart to make a statement.

But there were people like that. She almost shivered, remembering. Madeline knew that many of the HIA's other agents wondered- though they never asked-why she was so fanatical about her firearms and martial arts training, when her usual tactics on assignments were designed to minimize the chance of violence. A few of them probably guessed; and Director Hughes knew, of course.

She wasn't arming herself against the future, but against the past. She remembered being helpless and terrified. She remembered being subject to the whims of someone powerful, capricious, and insane. She made herself dangerous to keep the nightmares at bay. Now, sometimes, in her dreams, when he came back, she wasn't a helpless child any more, and she could fight. But usually the nightmare only really ended when the helicopters landed and the gunshots went off, and the soldiers came and made her safe.

She looked at her reflection in the airplane window, suddenly-haunted eyes staring back. Madeline shook her head and forced the grim past away. She was no longer ruled by that, and her job was to stop things like it from ever happening again.

And maybe, if she was lucky, she wouldn't have to do anything drastic. Hopefully, the critical people would understand what she had to do, or at least go along with it. She knew she was good at being persuasive. That was the only thing, besides her attractive appearance, that she'd inherited from her biological parents.

The minute the plane taxied up to the gate, Madeline felt more cheerful. Whatever problems she'd run into, the truth was that she liked this assignment. Even, with a few exceptions, liked all the people she worked with.

Early the next morning, as was her usual practice, Madeline headed for the gym. To her surprise, A.J. was there already. While he was clearly a man in good condition, she'd figured he usually either worked out in his own rooms or at odd hours of the day. She'd never actually seen him doing anything requiring physical effort greater than lifting a bottle of soda.

Today, A.J. was dressed in a gi and running through katas. Off to the side, the physical trainer was watching with a well-educated eye. Sergeant Skonicki was also the NASA installation's martial arts expert.

While Madeline warmed up, she studied the blond imaging specialist's movements. His file had mentioned that he did some aikido and some Shotokan karate, although apparently he hadn't been attending formal classes in some years.

He was quite good, she thought. The smoothness of his movements, the precision of the strikes, blocks, and counters, were something a novice, or even someone of intermediate skill, wouldn't be able to emulate. He wasn't a true master, but the source of his evenly-muscled build was now evident.

A.J. finally noticed her watching him. "Hey, Madeline. What's up?"

"Just coming in for my own exercise. Got to keep in shape."

To his slight credit, A.J. managed to restrain some comment involving shapes. While Madeline was skeptical of classifying people into types, she couldn't help doing so in some cases. A.J. was clearly the type of young man easily distracted by pretty women. True, that was a large class of males, but A.J. was of the subclass "geek" which meant that he was perfectly safe for the woman to be around, aside from the annoyance factor. And, as a rule, could be easily manipulated into following said woman's directions.

Sometimes it's just too easy, she thought wryly. A.J. wasn't the type of man whom she found attractive. But keeping him distracted played perfectly into her plans.

She did feel slightly sorry for him, but not much. There were at least two other women on the Nike project who evidently did think he was their type, and he didn't appear blind to them either. So any damage to his ego would be temporary.

"You into the martial arts, too?" he asked.

"For a few years now, yes. Care to do some sparring?"

"Sure."

At that point, Joe and Helen entered. Joe had recovered quickly from his misadventures in Chinook, and was getting back up to his normal form. Seeing A.J. and Madeline facing off, he sighed. "A.J., I see you've still got it all wrong. The expression 'hit on the girls' is not supposed to be taken literally."

"Oh. I knew I kept confusing things." A.J. turned to Sergeant Skonicki. "You want to call it, Stash?"

"Sure." He cocked his head, considering. "Okay. Madeline, you're going to be aka; A.J., you are shiro. I'll be using Shotokan rules, sorta-I mean, we don't have an official setup here. That okay, Madeline?"

"I can live with it. What about throws and such?"

"I'll count those as full points, if either of you gets one. Try to avoid rude blows, but you can take whatever targets you think you see; we won't force you to just hit the chest. First to three points wins. We set?"

Skonicki waited for both to acknowledge him. "Okay. Enter the ring area, please. Bow to the judge. Bow to each other. Ready… Hajime!"

Maddie sidestepped, watching A.J. critically. He was smooth, but cautious. He wasn't stupid. He didn't come charging in thinking that his size would automatically be an advantage. It would be, used correctly, but men against smaller women often made the mistake of using it incorrectly.

A.J. was waiting for her to move. She had to come past his reach, which was quite noticeably greater than hers, in order to get to him. She stepped up and tried several combinations, but A.J. blocked and countered quite efficiently, nearly nailing her once.

Time for a different approach. If he was thinking in Shotokan mode, especially Kumite…

Suddenly Madeline dropped to the floor, extending her body outward and sweeping A.J.'s legs completely out from under him. "Whoa!" she heard Helen say involuntarily.

A.J. fell poorly, having been caught completely off-guard. She rolled and hit him with a (checked) elbow smash before he could gather his wits.

"Yame! Aka, first point!" Skonicki called out. "She suckered you on that one, A.J."

The imaging whiz nodded, getting to his feet. "She sure did."

The two bowed to each other again. "Hajime!"

This time A.J. came in for the attack, starting with a kick-punch kick combination. Madeline blocked them easily enough, but when she tried to turn the second kick into a catch-and-throw found that A.J. had anticipated the move and barely evaded having her head kicked.

She was getting his measure, now. One advantage she did not enjoy was chivalry. A.J. might be easily distracted by her good looks normally, but in the ring he apparently didn't care who you were or what you looked like. He wasn't pulling his punches any more than he had to, so to speak.

Fair enough. She spent the next few moments surviving a barrage of attacks, measuring his patterns. Then she slipped inside his guard and punched hard.

The result was that she found herself flipped around and landing hard despite a reflexive tuck and roll, and heard Yame! called out. "Ring out! Shiro, point!"

Some schools didn't do points for ring-outs, but she wasn't going to argue. In real life, if you could take control of your opponent enough to arrange a ring-out, you could probably arrange something more painful.

Once more they faced off. "One point all. Hajime!"

A.J. scored again, this time with a kick that concluded a five-attack string which was designed to trick the opponent into thinking it was a four-attack string. The impact staggered her back but didn't hurt much. A.J. clearly didn't mean to hurt anyone, and had good control.

The next face-off was critical. If A.J. scored again, he'd win. Madeline focused carefully this time, and the next flurry of blows ended when her high side kick rapped A.J. (gently) in the head.

"Last point. Good fight so far, people, let's have a good finish. Hajime!"

By then, they had gathered something of an audience. Ken Hathaway had come into the gym, along with half a dozen other people.

Madeline was pleased. Perfect. I won't have to spread the story myself.

The two combatants circled each other. Madeline knew precisely how skilled A.J. was now, and he'd definitely gotten a healthy respect for her at this point. Exploratory jabs and kicks, attempts at throws and holds, nothing quite getting through.

All right, time to finish this.

She let a slight opening show, let A.J. take it and then dropped down to take out his legs with a different move.

But this time A.J. wasn't having any of that and his legs weren't there; one of them was in fact trying to deliver a foot to her face. She rolled gracefully away and blocked another kick and punch as she came to her feet, then drove in on the attack.

Once more the smooth, circular motion of aikido sent her sailing gracefully out of the ring.

"Ring out! Shiro, victory!"

A.J. and Maddie exchanged bows. He grinned at her. "That was a hell of a match. We have to do that again sometime!" His breathing was heavy and a slight whistling tone could be heard, but he wasn't exhausted yet. Despite the damage to his lungs, the man was in such good physical shape that he could maintain even something this strenuous for a fair period of time. A few more minutes of it, of course, would start taking a real toll.

"Definitely. I'll have to practice more, though. I didn't see that last one coming."

"Well, I am considered pretty fast. Still, that move relies on you coming in to me. You can avoid it if you watch carefully."

"I certainly will. You won't get me the same way twice."

A.J. laughed. "I wouldn't expect to."

"Well, I'd better get to my real exercises," Maddie said, sighing. "This was good, but I have to run through the boring routine." Sergeant Skonicki came over to help her set up the weights. "Nice dive," he murmured. "Top security," she murmured back. "Need to know-and you don't."

Skonicki chuckled. "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, that's me. Though I would enjoy being there if he ever discovers what's what."

She shook her head. "Hopefully, this will all be a waste of effort."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 25

"Is this really going to work, Dr. Friedet?"

The head of Ares Project shrugged. "It basically has to work, General Deiderichs. We're doing-by far-the largest construction project in space anyone's attempted. Without factories operating out there, we have to throw everything up there, and that's not an easy task. In fact, it's exceedingly hard, which is the reason that both NASA and Ares exist. In the past twenty years, we've added reusable first-stage heavy-lift vehicles and upped the cargo capacity of the shuttles. But the fact is that even if we ignore the fuel, we are trying to assemble a ship in orbit that masses two thousand tons. Fueled, Nike will mass nearly four times that. It's immense, General. So we need all the tricks we can get in order to get that much stuff into assembly orbit in time to meet your deadlines."

General Deiderichs nodded reluctantly. The schedule Glenn Friedet presented had been generated by Ares and NASA's engineers working together to find a way to move that immense mass of "stuff" into space in as short a time as possible. Deiderichs found it a bit bemusing. Eight thousand tons was absolutely nothing on an Earthbound scale; freight trains carried that much. But then, trains could use seventy cars or more for a single trip. The situation for space was more like having to expend the same time, effort and money the railroads did per train-more, actually-except your trains could only move one boxcar load at a time.

"Basically," Joe added, "we're taking advantage of the one thing we have plenty of now. Money. We're preempting everything everyone else has even in other countries by paying penalty fees. Sometimes huge fees. We've got our own scramlaunchers, a few of the Shuttle-C mods, Europe's EUROLaunch-4, and Japan and China's launch capacity too. We're negotiating with India now, though they're not going to be able to add that much. Still, every little bit helps. Fortunately, pretty much everyone has reusable first-stage stuff these days, however they do it. So if you're willing to spend money like water, you can get respectable turnaround times."

"If I read this right, we're looking at something like eighty to a hundred flights." The general shook his head. "The logistics will be a nightmare."

"General, you knew this was going to get ugly when we started," Friedet said. "That limitation comes from the payload capacity on each ship. Even the big ones only manage to approach two hundred tons at a shot-and none of them actually reach that number. The average is more like one hundred and forty tons per launch."

Joe rubbed his chin. "The actual limitation is size, more than mass. It'd be impossible to do this in any reasonable time if we were still limited to, say, things the size of the old Space Shuttle cargo bay. We'd have to send up some things in eight or ten separate pieces that would have to be put together, instead of two or three pieces. Some of our scramlaunchers can manage dimensions more than twice that now, which makes it-barely-doable, if we're really smart about what we ship so that we take maximum advantage of the payload capacity on each launch, and if we are ready to start assembling as soon as stuff gets up there."

"Still. That's an average of almost two launches per week. And assembling it will…" Deiderichs waved his hands, but Joe knew what he meant.

"Remote drones will be doing a lot of the assembly," Joe pointed out, "supervised on the ground and checked in orbit by experts. With A.J. and others helping to design the software that helps coordinate work like that-detecting the targets, translating the groundhog controller's directions into equivalents for space engineering, monitoring the assembly so that the drones can tell before they do something disastrous, projecting the feedback to the controllers so that they don't notice the time lag much, and so on-we can effectively have a far larger team in space. The first loads, of course, will be the manipulator drones."

Deiderichs winced. "I knew the idea was batted around for years, but we've only started to have good results with it, and there are so many debates about the designs. Are you going to get enough reliable drones for this kind of work?"

Ken Hathaway's face showed an interesting mixture of chagrin and pride. "Baker's Faeries have been performing amazingly well in far worse, less controlled conditions, including their manipulative capabilities-which I thought were such a waste when he designed them. We're going with modified Faerie designs for a lot of the construction drones. Not so many sensors and other redundancies that were absolutely necessary for things operating a hundred million miles off, more power, a bit bulkier, stronger manipulators and additional tool units to perform the work. But they're based on designs that have now proven themselves under fire-even when abused to near destruction-and that makes it possible for us to produce quite a few of them fast. We figure another month and a half and we'll be starting real construction, now that we have a nucleus of a space dry dock already up there."

"Modern design approaches and our testing of materials helps out too," Friedet pointed out. "For many of the internal components which aren't major structural load-bearing elements, we've developed flexible molding approaches. What that means is that we can send up a few mold forms and tanks of solidifying foam material and create a whole bunch of things like interior partitions and furniture-without having to ship the things up, pack them with extra space, and all that."

General Deiderichs pursed his lips as he examined the schedule again. "I still don't see any way we'll make the original deadline."

"Probably not," conceded Joe. "But given that under normal circumstances this would've been something like a ten-year effort, falling behind by about three to five months isn't something to gripe about. You have to allow for some problems, some wiggle room, some testing and reworking. Once Nike launches, everyone on it is absolutely and one hundred percent dependent on everything in her working right. Even with redundancy. I know you understand this, General, but I'm not sure how clear it is to other people. You might be old enough to remember the Columbia disaster?"

Deiderichs nodded. "Yes. I remember it quite vividly."

"I don't remember it personally, but if you read the stuff from around that time, there were so many people trying to argue that they should have "done something"-gone to the International Space Station and waited for rescue, stayed in orbit until someone could get there, fixed the ship somehow, and so on. These people just didn't grasp that it wasn't like someone getting stranded on a mountain top or out at sea. To them, the ISS was in space, the shuttle was in space, so obviously the shuttle should be able to just go over to the ISS and wait for rescue. We know that it's not like that-that the Columbia simply, physically, could not reach the ISS from that orbit. All the other so-called solutions were just as impossible or impractical. I don't know if some of our enthusiastic funders grasp that once Nike is under way, there will be nothing man-made that can catch her, and absolutely no way for anyone to help if something goes wrong."

"You may well be right. I'll do my best to convey that to the President and the Cabinet when I present the current plans. Personally, I agree with everything you say. Three months off is nothing at all compared to what we're asking you to do. But I'm still going to have to make excuses to the guys who are writing all the checks, and some of them are peeved enough that they're being made to support this at all."

"And I have to go back to Gupta and Baker," Hathaway said, "and let them know if they should start or not. And remember what Gupta's going to say if the answer is 'wait.'"

"I do indeed. And I sympathize, Major Hathaway. Dr. Gupta is undoubtedly the right choice for the job, but I do not envy anyone trying to give him bad news." The general frowned for a moment. "Tell them to proceed with designs, but to order no actual construction until I get back with the authorization. Technically, I shouldn't even allow them to begin design work, but I'm willing to take that much on my own responsibility."

"I'll try to make them understand that, General," Hathaway said.

"And I'll get right to it." The general stood up. Much as he hated having to shuttle back and forth to Washington, the President and his top people preferred in-person meetings on matters of importance, despite all the technological advances in remote communication. And if he was going to be conveying news of mixed impact, he definitely wanted to be there physically.

He stopped a moment. "Oh, yes, I almost forgot." He signed a paper that had been lying on his desk, then placed it in its envelope. "Dr. Buckley, would you do me a favor and deliver this? Thank you." He strode out of the office.

Joe looked down at the envelope. "What…? Ken, it's addressed to you. Why the hell did he give it to me?"

Hathaway stared at the envelope as though it was a viper. "I think I know. Damn."

"What?"

"The final selection for the command crew of Nike was being made sometime this week. You know General Steve Goldman was campaigning hard for it. He's got space experience too, and a lot of connections."

"Oh. And Deiderichs didn't want to be here when you found out."

"Yeah." Hathaway sighed. "Well, might as well get it over with."

He took the envelope from Joe, opened it, and read:

"Kenneth B. Hathaway, Colonel… yadda… You are hereby informed that you have been…"

He trailed off, and then suddenly bellowed: "COMMANDING OFFICER OF

THE UNITED STATES INTERPLANETARY SPACECRAFT NIKE!"

"Congratulations, you dreaming son of a bitch!" came Deiderichs' voice from the other side of the door, which opened to reveal the general grinning at them. He came over and shook Hathaway's hand, which seemed somewhat limp with shock. "Now get your team to finish building it. Hold on, though."

He reached into his desk. "Goldman was right about one thing. You do need the rank to command a mission as important as this one." He opened the case, revealing different emblems than those currently on Hathaway's uniform. "Congratulations again, Brigadier General Hathaway."

Hathaway was clearly having trouble keeping his voice under control. His eyes looked suspiciously shiny.

"I would have sworn they wanted Goldman," he said huskily.

Deiderichs looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "At first, they did-and so did I. But that was before I got here and had a chance to see the situation. I know better than to take a team with a commander they already listen to and trust, and replace him just because it might be politically expedient. If I went and got someone else, they'd have to spend a year just building the same rapport you have with your team now. If they can build one at all. Just do me a favor and prove that I made the right decision."

"Sir!" Hathaway saluted. The general returned the salute, nodded to the others, and walked out the door.

Ken finally came out of his daze. "I am going to go tell Gupta and

A.J. and then I am going to go get a pass, and then I am going to go party like I have never partied before! And you're all invited!"

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 26

Helen glanced away from the handwaving explanation A.J. was giving, over to the nearby table where voices were rising angrily.

A.J. followed her gaze. One of the scientists-Dr. Mayhew, was it? Linguistics, anyway-was pointing to something, probably an image only she and her opponent in the debate could see. He was another linguist, a much older man by the name of…

A.J. keyed in a quick query and the VRD answered him.

Right. Rich Skibow. Ken's party was a major success, and it sounded like these two had been knocking back a few drinks before they got into their learned argument. As he hadn't been paying attention, he wasn't clear on what they were arguing about, but he could see that it was getting pretty heated.

And very annoying, he suddenly realized, as Helen abruptly left the table to join the arguing linguists. He'd been enjoying her company very much, especially after their other dinner companions had deserted them at least temporarily for the sake of the dance floor. And now these loudmouthed specialists had to go and interrupt.

Not one to yield the battlefield, he followed Helen over.

"-identical symbols, I tell you!"

"No, no, no, not identical at all. Spacing over here, and-"

"Excuse me."

Rich Skibow and Jane Mayhew looked up irritably, but their expressions moderated when they saw Helen.

"Who-oh, Dr. Sutter."

Mayhew's face showed a sudden awareness of how loud they'd been getting. She pushed her prematurely graying brown hair out of her face with an embarrassed gesture. "I'm sorry. We didn't mean to disturb-"

"No problem at all. I heard part of the debate, and thought I might be able to help."

The two looked at each other doubtfully. A.J. could practically read their thoughts. What would a paleontologist know about linguistics?

Dr. Skibow shrugged. "Okay. Take a look."

The slender academic put his portable in the center of the table and it projected several images of various inscriptions found around the alien base on Phobos.

"Obviously, we don't have a lot to work with, but the aliens do seem to have used images something like we do. We've been trying to make some guesses as to meanings from location, image context, and things like that, and assigning tentative roles to various features seen in the writing. For instance, like us they seem to use spacing to separate groupings which may be words, sentences, or paragraphs. Which of those it is, however, is hard to know without having some idea of what the things are trying to say."

"Though at the moment we think the groups we see commonly separated are probably words," Mayhew added. "It seems unlikely you're going to put what amounts to three or four pages of text on things that we think are hallway signs, so these spaced groupings along the curves are probably words."

"The problem is that we've been coming across what looks like the same word used in situations that make no sense for the vague meaning we thought it might have."

Helen and A.J. studied the images for a while. The pictures were actually derived representations, cleaned out and with the "letters" and all other features outlined and marked up to make them clear. Helen tilted her head slightly as she gazed at the enigmatic symbols, then activated her own portable and put on her VRD. Soon thereafter, she brought up her own display, which gave her the same areas but from A.J.'s actual images, just enhanced slightly for better viewing.

"Take a look carefully at these now," she said. "Especially look at the different versions of the word."

At first no one said anything. A.J. didn't expect to notice anything significant, but the two linguists looked puzzled too.

Then, suddenly, Dr. Mayhew sat up straighter, a startled look on her face. "Rich, maybe she's onto something! Look. Here and here; and here and here."

A.J. followed her indications, and then it dawned on him. Colors. They'd often remarked on how even after all this time they could see colors on some things. The black and gold and other colors in the various texts found were perhaps the most clear-cut examples.

Dr. Skibow nodded. "Yes… that could be it. They may be using color as a modal change or something like it. How did you think of it, Dr. Sutter?"

"I recalled some of our original speculation, and it fit with the basic anatomical analysis I've been doing. Bemmie has a number of features roughly analogous to our cephalopods. In other ways, of course, his structure is more analogous to something like a crab. But one thing I'm sure of is that he evolved relatively recently from a water-dwelling species. His body shape is still awkward for land travel. In that respect, the way he's built reminds me of primitive amphibians-given that he started from a completely different Bauplan."

Seeing the frowns, she explained: "'Bauplan' means basic body shape. 'Body plan,' if you will. Bemmie's locomotion must have involved a combination of slithering on his belly and 'walking' with his elbows to support his front weight. Then there's the skin structure we were looking at, right, A.J.?"

"Yeah-okay, yeah, I see. We've been finding a lot of skin cells that looked kinda funny for normal skin, but they could be for color control-chromatophores."

"It's been well established that squids and cuttlefish often use shifts in color to communicate. So I wondered if the color element was being neglected, which it was."

"Hmmm… Well, it does seem to divide things up more neatly," Skibow admitted. "But there still seem to be problems. Some things just don't seem to space properly."

A.J. looked at the image he was indicating. It was one of the illustrated plates they'd found in the control room. He remembered that particular one rather clearly, because he'd been trying to analyze its structure.

"I think I can solve that. Give me a color that isn't being used, as far as you know, in any of the things you've seen so far."

Skibow and Mayhew looked at her other. "Pink," she suggested. Skibow nodded his agreement.

"Right. Pink it is." A.J. inserted pink into the color table, bound the variable, then transmitted to Helen's portable. "How about that?"

The two linguists stared at the new image. In some places, right where they were having difficulty resolving the relationship of the symbols, new symbols had suddenly appeared. Bright pink, but otherwise looking like many of the other symbols.

"Where the bloody hell did those come from?" Mayhew demanded. "Sure, that looks like it might make sense, but we can't just pull stuff out of our arses in order to make it work."

A.J. glanced at Helen. "Watson, you know my methods. I simply started with your own deduction."

Helen was thoughtful for a moment. "Elementary, my dear Holmes. We have no reason to think that Bemmie saw in precisely the same spectrum that we do. Ergo, you checked for symbols visible in something other than what we call 'visible light.'"

"Excellent, Watson, excellent. In point of fact, they appear to have seen somewhat higher into the spectrum than we do. That stuff's highly visible in the near-UV, but darn near invisible even at close inspection in visible."

He made a bow to the two and took Helen's arm. "I trust this resolves your little conundrum. We're going back to our table."

As they left, Skibow and Mayhew were once more discussing the symbols, but much more quietly and with no animosity.

After Helen and A.J. resumed their seats at their own table, she smiled at him. "That was very nice teamwork, A.J."

"Well, I had to do something. You were solving the whole problem on your own and that would really hurt my rep as the resident genius. It's really not fair anyway, that you should have all the brains and all the looks too."

She laughed quietly. "Yeah, right. Madeline and Jackie aren't losing any sleep over my competition in that arena, I assure you."

"That's bullshit, Helen!" A.J. blurted out, before he could think. "They probably aren't losing any sleep over it, sure. But that's just because they aren't playing in the same league you are."

The look she gave him brought home the fact there'd been a hell of a lot more emphasis in that line than he originally meant to put in. He was suddenly aware that his face felt very hot, but he managed to keep from looking away.

"I mean it," he said quietly. Then, not being able to help himself, swallowed.

Her expression was serious; at least she didn't think he was being funny. A.J. damned the lights in the place, or rather the lack thereof. He couldn't tell if she looked, maybe, like she was blushing too.

"A.J., are you making a pass at me?" she asked, just as quietly as he'd spoken.

His first impulse was to toss out his usual cavalier remark. Something inside him grabbed that impulse, slammed it to the ground, and beat it desperately into unconsciousness.

He dropped his gaze to the table, then looked back up. "Yes. Damn, yes. I… Okay, I know, I'm loudmouthed and arrogant and way too young for you and I'm sure if you wanted to have anything to do with me that way you'd have let me know a long time ago and Joe would probably have been a better choice if you wanted someone around my age and I'm sure there's plenty of other guys waiting in line anyhow but yes, I am, and I think you're gorgeous, did even when I first met you, but you're a lot more than gorgeous, you have like ten times the class of everyone else and…"

He was babbling. Babbling, babbling, babbling.

He clamped his mouth shut. Then, cleared his throat and said: "Anyway. Yes."

Instead of laughing, like he expected, Helen…

She was blushing. Even the dim lighting couldn't disguise it. The color in her cheeks made her look even more beautiful than usual.

Helen cleared her own throat. "A.J…" she began, then stopped and looked aside. A rueful little smile came to her face. "I don't actually know what to say. How odd. I'm never at a loss for words."

He took a deep breath and squashed the part of his mind that had gone runaway on him. "You don't have to say anything, Helen. I know how stupid that was. You don't have to spare my feelings." He started to rise. "Look, I'll go-"

Her slender, tanned hand locked around his wrist and pulled him back down.

"Oh no, you don't, Mr. Baker." Her voice was a soft growl. Nothing at all like the even tone he was used to hearing.

"A.J., I don't…" She took a deep, slow breath. "Oh, baloney. I know exactly what to say. The truth is that I've always found you extremely attractive. It's just that I figured the age gap made for an insuperable barrier and so I shoved the notion out of my mind. I've kept it in a box under a tight lid for… what's it been? Two and half years, now."

Throughout, she'd still been looking aside. Now, her eyes came to meet his directly.

"I take it you don't find my age a problem?"

He started to make a wisecrack, but the same drill sergeant portion of his brain made the smartass do two thousand pushups in…

One second.

"No. Actually, it's… Well, to be honest, I think it's part of the attraction."

Seeing her cocked eyebrow, he sighed. "Look, Helen, I'm not stupid. I know I often act like a jerk. I don't even mean to, really. Well, not most of the time, anyway. It's just… I don't know. Defense mechanism. Whatever. But it never seems to bother you and I figured out a long time ago that's because you're old enough that you just don't care about stuff like that any more. If you ever did at all. So I can relax around you in a way that I almost never can around women my own age, unless they're just good buddies like Jackie."

He swallowed again. "And that's important to me. The thing is, no matter how much I act like the opposite-and it's mostly all talk-the truth is that I'm not a very casual person at all. No matter how I act. Not really about anything, and sure as hell not about, uh, well. .."

"Sex. Love. Romance." The cool, relaxed, mature smile that A.J. treasured came to her face. "In whatever order," she added, waving her other hand breezily. Her right hand was still clamped around A.J.'s wrist.

"What the hell," she said, suddenly rising to her feet and half-dragging A.J. up from his chair. "Let's start with sex. And we'll see where it goes from there."

Their departure from the room did not go unnoticed. Joe and Jackie had followed the progress of the discussion between A.J. and Helen almost from the moment it began. They were sitting too far away to have heard any of the words. But the facial expressions and body language had made the subject matter obvious enough-even before Helen more or less hauled A.J. away. Not that he seemed in the least unwilling.

Joe drained his glass and set it down on the table with a solid thunk. "Well. It's about time, if anybody asks me."

For her part, Jackie bestowed a triumphant grin upon the other people at the table. "See?" she demanded. "I told you he wasn't my boyfriend."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 27

Dr. Glendale, is it true that you will not be going on Nike yourself?"

"Dr. Glendale, is this mission really necessary?"

"Dr. Glendale, please tell us about the latest results! I understand progress is being made in translating the aliens' language!"

"Dr. Glendale-"

He raised his hands, flashing the smile he knew worked so well on camera. "Please, one at a time. This isn't my first press conference, even for this particular mission, and I know for sure it isn't yours."

"However," said Paul Morgan, "this is the first conference since any of the more concrete plans for Nike and her crew have been released. NASA's usually much more forthcoming than this, Doctor."

Morgan was the senior news correspondent present. There'd be no point in trying to evade him, even if Glendale wanted to.

"True enough, Paul. And please, everyone, call me Nick or Nicholas. I've been 'Doctor Glendaled' too much lately."

A patter of chuckles rippled through the large group of reporters.

"I know that all of you, especially the long-time space correspondents, are used to getting much better treatment. But there are all sorts of considerations ranging from national security to simple logistics that are involved here. To be frank, even I'm being kept busy enough that it's a bit of a stretch to take time and give interviews. And I'm by far the most superfluous person here."

He waved them into their chairs with a practiced gesture. "Before we go any further, though, would you please take your seats? Trying to answer questions from a mob of people standing around me is too much like being grilled by the police. I think. I've never actually been grilled by the police. But I am an expert on ancient predators. The velociraptors were pack hunters, you know. Surrounded their prey and tore them to shreds. Horrible business. Blood and guts everywhere."

That drew a louder round of chuckles, and the reporters started sitting down. Glendale was quite aware of his ability to "work" a group of people and guide them along the course he needed them to take, and was equally aware that this talent was one of the reasons he was now being the "front man" for the Nike project.

"Doc… er, Nicholas, tell me straight out: is this mission really necessary? And if it is, is the sheer scale of it necessary?" That came from Jake McNeil, a reporter for the generally antispace AccuNews Network.

"Jake, such a hard-hitting question right out of the gate? Aren't you supposed to soften me up first?" Smiling, Glendale shook his head. "Why don't we get a bit more specific than that. Bring up the points of the mission that actually bother you-or, I suppose, bother your viewers, to be more accurate."

Privately, he doubted that the viewers of any given network thought any more alike than any other. But it was a common enough conceit that he'd use it as convenient.

"All right. We're getting tons of data already from Mr. Baker's probes. Why do we need to risk fifty people-fifty of our very best people, from all over the world-just to do what the probes can do perfectly well by themselves?"

"Unfortunately, Jake, your last clause makes an assumption I'm not willing to grant you. In fact, it's patently untrue. The probes are simply too limited. They're physically too small; unintelligent by themselves; limited in their equipment; and, most of all, incapable of adjusting themselves to new situations the way a human being can as a matter of course. A four-year-old child-for that matter, a toddlercan figure out in a split second how to get around an obstacle that will completely stump an automated probe if it's not specifically programmed to deal with it. And it can then take hours-days-before we can satisfactorily reprogram it from a distance.

"Certainly we could send more automated probes, but even today we simply do not have automated devices capable of the work that human beings can do in person. People like Helen Sutter and myself have careers for a reason, you know. It's simply not possible for an automated machine, even here on Earth, to perform a paleontological excavation, or to unearth an ancient artifact without damaging it. We use such tools, but in the end, it's still down to what we as human beings can manage to do. And this mission is the single greatest event in the history of the human race, in my opinion. We are performing what amounts to both a paleontological and an archaeological dig of an utterly unique character. We cannot afford to screw this one up, to put it bluntly. We need living, intelligent people on the spot, and we need them to be experts in many fields. Why? Because we haven't the faintest idea of what we might turn up while exploring what appears to be a truly immense installation."

"Are you saying," Paul Morgan asked, "that the alien base is even larger than you originally thought?"

"Yes, Paul. Another corridor was found behind one of the remaining doors being investigated, and some of Mr. Baker's sensor work shows indications of… Well, a lot more 'stuff' for us to find. Our current thinking is that this base is the size of a moderately large military installation-which means that even with fifty people on site it could take years to explore thoroughly. Probably will, I should say, if we take any care at all in our investigations."

"Years?" Michelle Wright of MSNBC spoke up. "Is that possible to do, Nicholas?"

"Oh, yes. We are already in the process of devising a schedule of resupply and replacement flights. We should be able to keep the Phobos operation supplied for several years, at least. That includes people being shuttled to and from the Earth."

"This brings us back to the question of necessity and potential waste, Nick," Jake said. "All right, I'll swallow that you've got to have people on-site. I agree that no machine can do as good a job as a person in any situation that requires flexibility. But look at the size of Nike now. I'm not even sure we can build something that huge in space, let alone that we should."

"She is pretty large, I'll grant you-about four hundred and thirty meters long, and the habitat ring is almost three hundred meters across. But the diameter of that habitat ring is necessary."

"Why?"

Glendale wondered if McNeil was really that ignorant of basic scientific concepts. But whether or not he was, the question served nicely to make an explanation to the general public that wouldn't sound patronizing.

"You all understand, I'm sure, that we can't send people on such a months-long voyage through space under weightlessness." He waited just long enough for a little wave of nods from about half the reporters present. "People did not evolve in null-gravity or micro-gravity conditions. We need a certain amount of gravity to keep our bone structure from deteriorating, and prevent all the other problems that years of research on microgravity have shown us turn up in people who spend too much time weightless. And, alas"-here he smiled wryly-"we do not have any of the methods of generating artificial gravity that the movie industry does. So, the only method we can use is to spin the ship and substitute centrifugal force for gravity."

"I understand all that," McNeil said impatiently. "All the more reason, it seems to me, to use a small ship. It'd be easier to spin."

Glendale gave him that long, level stare that he'd perfected over the decades. First, on bumptious grad students; later, on even more bumptious reporters. It was a stare that managed to convey, without being precisely rude, that Glendale was momentarily stumped because the question was so inane that he had to grope to remember the answer. As if someone had asked him, Dr. Glendale, how should one tie one's shoes?

"Indeed." He cleared his throat. "Let me respond with a question of my own-addressed everyone here. How many of you like going to amusement parks?"

Hesitantly, there was a show of hands.

"Any of you dislike the rides? Like the teacup ones, or the rotor, or other spinning ones? Any of you really hate them?"

A number of the hands stayed up. Glendale nodded. "That's a pretty typical response. As it turns out, there's a sizable percentage of the human race that will get quite disoriented in something that spins faster than, oh, about two or three times a minute-let alone once every second or two. Now, as anyone who's been on those rides knows, how much force spin puts on you is directly related to how fast the thing spins and how far out from the center you are. If you want to have a given centrifugal force-say, equivalent to Mars' gravity of about one-third Earth's-and you want to rotate slowly-less than three times a minute-you have to be a very considerable distance out from the center. About one hundred and forty-six meters out, to be reasonably exact. If you wanted Earth-level gravity, well, you do the math. A lot farther out, meaning a lot larger ring. Luckily for us, experiments indicate that one-third gravity should be enough to prevent the problems."

"But even granting that width as necessary, what about the rest of the ship?" asked another reporter.

"Well, a good deal of the interior of the main body is fuel storage. Remember, there are no filling stations along the way. Nike has an unfueled weight of almost two thousand tons-but she'll weigh almost eight thousand tons when we top off her tanks. The rest of the main body will have some considerable extra space, but who knows what she might be asked to carry once she reaches Phobos? And she will, of course, be carrying provisions for each person on board- which is quite a few tons per person, if you calculate it out. Not to mention scientific equipment of virtually every possible description, an SSTO lander-"

"A what lander?" That came from someone who was obviously not one of the regular correspondents.

"Sorry. 'SSTO' stands for 'single stage to orbit.' It refers to a lander that will be able to land on Mars with a mostly unpowered approach, and then take off back to orbit on its own, without needing a base station. Then, we have to carry construction equipment and supplies for making base areas on Phobos itself. And so on and so on and so on. You always need to remember that when you're a hundred million miles from Earth, you can't just send someone out to the nearest hardware store to get you that screwdriver you forgot to bring along. And these people will be out there for a year, at least, before they rotate back to Earth."

He fielded another question, from someone else.

After the reporter was done, Glendale shook his head. "Calling it a 'translation' is too strong a term. Our linguists are still not able to decipher the actual words of the alien language. But they are making progress in grasping how they wrote their language and some of its basic structure. To put it another way, they don't understand what the words mean, but they can now tell what's a word in the first place. According to Dr. Mayhew…"

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

PART V: NIKE

Insight, n: a clear and often sudden understanding of a situation; often in the context of reaching a comprehension or solution to a problem which had previously appeared insoluble.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 28

"Getting on close to two years, now," the director of the HIA mused, staring out the window. "I will say that this has been the smoothest operation you've ever run, Madeline."

She issued something that was a cross between a ladylike sniff of disdain and an outright snort. "That's because I'm working with a much higher class of clientele, so to speak. Compared to the usual run of lowlifes you stick me with."

He smiled, almost seraphically, and swiveled his chair back to face her. "I'm sure there's some saying regarding promises and rose gardens that applies here."

"It's helped-a great deal, I think-that A.J. Baker got involved with Helen Sutter."

Hughes cocked an eyebrow, inviting an elaboration.

"Helen's… Well, she's not happy about the security restrictions. Hard to blame her, since that's not something she's ever had to deal with in her profession. But she's a very level-headed sort of person, and I think she views the matter as not much different from the sort of practical limitations she's always faced. We're talking about a woman who'd make a damn good construction site foreman, if she ever had to start a new career."

Hughes grinned. "Is she still level-headed, after the blizzard of tabloid coverage?"

Madeline chuckled. "Oh, that's water off her back. She wouldn't pay any attention to it of any kind, if she didn't have to deal with the paparazzi. More precisely, if she didn't have to deal with Baker's reaction to them."

That brought an outright laugh from the director. A.J. Baker's scrapes with the paparazzi had become notorious. "But you think she's a good influence on him?"

"Certainly from our standpoint," Madeline replied. "Helen acts something like a coolant on a reactor, when it comes to A.J.'s public behavior. Well, leaving aside the paparazzi. Ever since they hooked up, I've had far fewer run-ins with him."

Hughes nodded. "Yes, I can see where she'd have that effect on the rambunctious young fellow. Part of the attraction she has for him, I imagine. I admit I can't quite figure out the flip side of that relationship."

"Why she's attracted to him?" Madeline shrugged. "I don't think that's hard to understand at all. Don't forget that almost all you ever hear about Baker from me are his… call them problem sides. But there are other things about the man-quite a few other things-that are very charming. I think that's especially important for someone like Helen, who's led a rather tightly regimented life because of the demands of her profession."

Hughes grunted softly. "Well. That's really none of our business, anyway. It's enough that she seems to have stifled his more anarchistic tendencies."

He sat up straight in his chair, placing his hands on the desk. "And… So. You'll be taking off day after tomorrow. Any last-minute issues we need to discuss?"

Madeline hesitated, for a moment. Then said: "Well, yes. Joe Buckley's become something of a problem."

The HIA director cocked an eyebrow. "How so? From the records, he's quite a bit less inclined toward the dramatic gesture than Baker. And that's your own assessment also, after eighteen months or so of working with him."

Madeline shook her head. "That's not what I meant. The problem is

…" She took a slow breath and let it out. "The problem is that, as the months have gone by, I've found myself becoming attracted to him. Personally, I mean."

"Ah. Is the attraction reciprocated?"

"Yes. He's been very gentlemanly about it. No ogling-well, nothing obvious-and I think he's too intimidated by me to do anything beyond looking and thinking. He's a rather shy man when it comes to women, anyway. But… yes. It's pretty obvious."

"Obvious to you." Hughes' smile came back. "I think you often underestimate how much more perceptive you are about such things than most people, Madeline. Another by-product of your unfortunate childhood, I suspect."

Madeline shrugged. She was never comfortable talking about that subject, even with the very few people in the world who knew about it in the first place.

Hughes swiveled the chair and turned to look out the window. After a few seconds, he said softly: "One of the reasons I'm very good at what I do is that I've never romanticized this work. In the end, for all its importance-some of the time, at least-it's still just a job. I've known very few people in my life who could be satisfied simply with their work. And I don't think you're one of them, Madeline, for all that you've tried so hard these past many years. And you're thirty-five years old now. Right about the age when dedicated single professionals start wondering what the rest of their life will look like. At the age of thirty, being a bachelor suits people like you just fine. By the age of forty… it has lost a great deal of its charm."

"Sir, you're my boss," she said, almost harshly. "Not my shrink."

He chuckled. "And you think there's that much difference, in my job? You might be surprised, Madeline, at the subject of many of the conversations I've had in this room with my agents. Especially my top agents, who've been at it for a long time. It's often a stressful life; almost always a rather lonely one."

He swiveled back to look at her squarely. "And I don't know anyone who has as much right and cause as you do to feel lonely."

"Sir-"

"Oh, hush. And save the 'sirs' for someone who cares about such stuff. Madeline, all I'm trying to say is that you are not, actually, superwoman. So if you find yourself getting seriously involved with him at some point, don't think it's the end of the world. It's not as if either of us thinks Buckley is an enemy, after all. He's a security risk only in the narrow sense that he might want to be able to talk openly about subjects we feel need to remain restricted. Just be rational about it, that's all. As rational as possible, at least-which is never easy, dealing with that subject."

She found herself biting off the instinctive retort. "I'd find a clearer explanation of that useful."

He shrugged. "I shouldn't think it's complicated. My advice? Do nothing, until the voyage begins. Thereafter, if you find the attraction remains, consider the fact that you will be in isolation from the rest of the human race for a period of at least two years. Quite possibly longer, in your case, since you may well not be rotating back as soon as most others will. So don't be an idiot. Yes, an involvement would certainly add a complicated and difficult curlicue to your work. But I think someone as capable as you are can manage to handle that, well enough. What I'm sure of is that trying to suppress your feelings under those circumstances will make you very squirrelly-and I have yet to meet a squirrel who makes a good security agent."

Madeline couldn't help but laugh. "Why do I think your answer would be considered sheer heresy by the heads of any other intelligence agency in the government?"

He smiled. "I'm sure it would. What I'm even surer of, however, is that not one of them has a tenure in office more than a third of mine-and precious few last even that long. Part of the reason is because they do romanticize the work."

Madeline's eyes almost crossed. "'Romanticize'? That's hardly how I'd describe the way Davidson over at-"

"Of course, it is." The director's voice took on a very nasal tone. "'My agents will give one hundred percent at all times. Anyone not ready for that-there's the door.'"

Madeline laughed. "Good imitation."

"It should be. I've had to listen to him talk, often enough. He's especially prone to giving that little speech to congressmen every time one of his agents gets fired for personal peccadilloes like padding the expense account-and usually gives the speech while he's junketing the congressmen and himself around on the taxpayer's dime. 'Romanticization,' Madeline, is just a way of covering the fact that we're all human by pretending they are and we aren't. Very satisfying to the ego, and very deleterious to our work. Why? Because we wouldn't be in business in the first place if people weren't all at least somewhat fallible. So I follow the old precept of setting a fox to catch a fox-and I don't pretend my fox is a virtuous vegetarian unlike all the others. Nor do I need them to be. A rational, reasonably self-controlled carnivore will do well enough. Better, in fact."

He stood up. "Enough saws from the old man, I think. Go forth, Maid Madeline, and smite the dragons. But note that I said 'Maid,' not 'Maiden.'" His accent thickened noticeably. "That's 'cause my mama didn't raise no fools."

Helen stared out the port. Her suborbital flights had shown her the Earth's curvature, but this flight was the first one where she could really see the Earth below her. The blue-brown-white sphere was familiar from images, of course. But it looked so completely different when you were in microgravity, looking down on it in real life.

"What's that?" A.J. said from her other side. He was looking ahead, and had been for fifteen minutes. "Is that…?"

"Yes," Major Irwin confirmed. "That's Nike."

The tiny point of light grew, and expanded into a great structure that looked as if it had been made by a giant metal spider with a love for sharp angles. But in the center of that structure was a long, sleek, familiar shape. The fourteen hundred feet of Nike shone in the sun with white and silver highlights that picked out the details of every ridge and window.

Helen felt gooseflesh spring out over her arms as it truly, finally hit her that she was getting into an honest-to-God spaceship, one that could have flown straight out of any of the science fiction movies of the past seventy or eighty years. For a moment, she thought she could almost hear theme music playing.

A.J. took her hand in his. The clasp was easy and relaxed, almost unthinking-as was the little squeeze she gave him in return. After a year and a half together-the last six months of it no longer bothering to maintain separate apartments-their relationship had settled into something quite comfortable. Amazingly comfortable, Helen sometimes thought.

She chuckled softly. A.J. glanced at her.

"What's so funny?"

"I was just… oh, marveling, I guess, at how well we get along.

Most of the time, anyway."

True love of his life or not-as A.J. insisted she was-his eyes were drawn back to Nike within two seconds.

Naturally. Helen didn't even sigh.

"Still pissed at me?" he asked.

By way of answer, she squeezed his hand again. "No. Not really. But I am glad we're not going to have to deal with paparazzi for a while."

Even as absorbed as he was in studying the Nike, A.J. had enough grace to flush. "Hey, look. I'm sorry I lost my temper, but even for paparazzi that guy-"

"I don't care. You should not have thrown him through a plate glass window. Especially that window."

A.J. winced. "Well, true enough. I still think the restaurant stiffed me on the cost of replacing it. But-ah-"

"But you weren't going to argue the point, seeing as how you were busy enough trying to keep criminal charges from being filed. Two days before takeoff."

A.J. would never flush for long. His grin was back. "Don't be silly." He jerked his chin forward, pointing to the Nike. "I knew I had a getaway. Talk about a fast horse out of Dodge!"

The surface-to-space shuttle Hurricane closed slowly with Nike. Very slowly, and very carefully. There'd be no slapdash or show-off approaches to what might be the most expensive object ever built by the hand of man, and was undoubtedly the most powerful vessel ever made. A.J. seemed constantly ready to jump out of his seat with impatience-a maneuver most strongly ill-advised in microgravity. But, finally, they could hear the transfer tunnel lock onto the external lock collar.

"We are docked with Nike," came the pilot's voice. "All you passengers can unstrap now. Just be careful making your way out. One person at a time through the lock."

A.J. let Helen go first, even though his first impulse was quite clearly to launch himself in a single leap through the connecting lock. She found his attempts to be courteous at once gratifying and amusing. A.J.'s single-mindedness generally made him semioblivious to other people, even Helen. But when he did focus that capacity for concentration on her, he was just as intense as he always was. If nothing else, she thought wryly as she went through the lock, it made for great sex.

Ahead she saw the other airlock door open, and someone visible on the other side. As she passed through that lock, she saw that it was Ken Hathaway, upside-down and hanging from the floor. Realizing that the captain of a ship probably knew the orientation better than she did, she used the convenient handholds to rotate around and match him.

"Permission to come aboard?" she asked, grinning, in imitation of who knew how many scenes in movies.

He grinned back. "Permission granted. Welcome aboard Nike, Dr. Sutter! And A.J.," he added, as the sensor specialist squeezed in behind her.

"So how do you feel about being called Captain?" A.J. immediately demanded. "I know that in the Air Force that's pretty far down the totem pole compared to brigadier general."

"Well, it was a concession to the Navy. My training twinges occasionally, but…" Ken's eyes flicked back and forth, as if searching for hidden spies. "Don't tell anyone," he half-whispered, "but the truth is I agree with the squids. Here, anyway. Someone commanding a spaceship just has to be called Captain."

"It's not customary for the captain to be present whenever crew arrives, though, is it?" Helen asked.

"When they're important civilian crew, of course. Politics, you know. And when they're good friends, you show up anyway. Besides, I want to be the one to show off my ship. No one else except Jackie and Gupta get to do tour guide duty. They're the only others that can really call it their ship."

"Most of the others are already here, right?"

"Almost all. The Japanese astrogeological specialist, Dr. Ryu Sakai, is coming in tomorrow. Madeline Fathom will be coming up with him."

"And we get moving a couple days after that?"

"If all the tests show positive, A.J." Hathaway's grin came back. "And if the cops don't arrive to haul you away for assault and battery."

A.J. flushed again. "Hey, look, the guy practically shoved his camera into Helen's soup. Goddammit-"

He broke off. Jackie Secord had entered the chamber.

She was an arresting sight. Partly because she was floating straight at them, her face leading the way; partly because she was oriented at a ninety-degree angle; but, mostly, because of her grin. She reminded Helen of a shark, nearing its prey.

Jackie was holding something in her hand, which she brought forward and extended toward A.J.

"Oh, puh-leeeeeeze, Mr. Baker, can I have your autograph?"

Helen looked down at the thing and burst into laughter. It was a copy of the front page of the tabloid in question. Half of it was a huge photograph of A.J., looking like an enraged skinny gorilla and glaring at the camera through the shattered window of a restaurant.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

A.J. in a Fury!

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

His Love Nest With Helen Exposed!

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

"At least they finally dropped the headlines about you," she chortled.

Jackie rolled her eyes. "Thank God! Bad enough when I was trying to convince the people who knew me that A.J. wasn't my boyfriend. Convincing half the world, with headlines like Jackie Green-eyed With Jealousy…"

She shook her head. "I think they had me on the brink of suicide for eight months straight. And, A.J., I still want your autograph."

"I don't have a pen," he grumbled. "And that's a terrible picture of me, anyway."

"I think it's pretty good, myself," Hathaway chimed in. He ignored A.J.'s glare and waved his hand toward the lock Jackie had come through. "But now-the tour!"

Having had her joke, Jackie folded up the copy and stuffed it into a pocket of her jumpsuit. She then added her handwave to Ken's. "You first, A.J."

As Helen followed him, she and Jackie exchanged a smile.

"Who woulda guessed, huh?" Jackie asked. "Bless you, Helen, for being the flypaper for the rest of us."

I never would have guessed, that's for sure, Helen mused. To her astonishment, in the year and a half since Glendale's press conference had made the Phobos expedition front page news, the crew of the Nike had become as famous as movie or rock stars. And-alas- it hadn't taken the tabloids more than a month to figure out that A.J. and Helen were the ideal target for their attentions.

A.J. claimed that was because of Helen's good looks. Helen herself thought that only accounted for-at most-two percent of the paparazzi's interest. Measured by any standard criteria, both Jackie Secord and Madeline Fathom were better-looking than Helen. Not to mention much younger.

No, most of the interest was in A.J. More precisely, the fact that A.J. could be goaded into saying or doing something publicly that made splendid tabloid headlines. Which He had. Many times.

But it was all over now, thankfully. Whether or not the Nike was a fast horse out of Dodge, it was for sure and certain a refuge from the tabloids. And would be, for quite a long time.

So, Helen put aside all thoughts of smashed windows-not to mention an awkward photo of herself wearing, well, not much of anything-and concentrated on Ken's guided tour.

Hathaway was leading them down a long corridor, floating from handhold to handhold with a grace that Helen envied. She hoped she'd be able to get the hang of that soon. A.J. wasn't as good as Hathaway, but definitely better than she was.

"Here you're seeing some generic hallway," Hathaway said. "The habitat ring is made up of sixty sections a bit less than fifteen meters long, about ten meters thick, and thirty meters across. These sections come in two flavors: twenty of them have viewing areas, ports, on them-although they can be sealed off and shielded from behind- and the other forty have no such provisions. The sections all interlock together firmly and are connected to the main body by a sort of bicycle-spoke arrangement. At intervals there are also direct corridors connecting us to the main body."

It was a measure of A.J.'s excitement that he didn't make a single sarcastic remark to the effect that Hathaway was telling them stuff they already knew perfectly well. By now, Helen could have drawn a diagram of most sections of the ship, from memory alone. A.J. could probably draw a diagram and a schematic of the electrical system.

Somehow it didn't matter. Seeing the huge ship in person was a completely different experience than studying it in images and blueprints.

Hathaway snagged a handhold and brought himself to a halt before a door. Expertly, he evaded Helen and A.J. as they failed to grab other handholds and had to stop themselves some distance farther along and return.

"This is one of the cabins-the one we are assigning you, Helen, in fact. Or the two of you, if you want to share it. No paparazzi to pester you here, after all." His wide smile was replaced by a caricatured frown of disapproval. "Not that that stopped you, I noticed- harrumph-from living in sin back on Earth."

The "cabin" was actually a two-story apartment, with the bedroom and study upstairs, and living room and small dining room/kitchen downstairs. Multiple fastening loops, velcro pads, and other provisions were made for using the apartment in microgravity. But the construction was based on the fact that, most of the time, the ring would be providing one-third gravity, with "down" towards the outside of the ring.

"The furnishings can be moved around, partitions put in, and so on. The shapes aren't very variable-we only have two types of chairs, for instance-but we've tried to provide lots of options for layout. Basically, it's like very fancy Lego building blocks. You can turn and lock the units into standardized fasteners below, and there are utility hookups laid out in a standard grid pattern that you can take advantage of."

"Me?" Helen shook her head. "Not likely. I'm a paleontologist, not a plumber."

"Well, okay, one of the ship's engineers. You wouldn't want to try doing any of this without training-you hear that, A.J.?-and even with training you wouldn't do it alone. But within some pretty broad limits, you can have a custom living space. Before too long, I don't expect any two cabins to be the same. The engineers even set up mechanisms to make sure balance is maintained, if by some odd chance everyone on one side of the ring likes apartments crowded with lots of furnishings and everyone on the other side likes wide-open spaces."

Again, Helen ignored the fact that Ken was lecturing them on stuff they already knew. She just shook his head and murmured: "It's… huge. I never imagined it would seem this big. I mean, abstractly I knew the designs-but they didn't convey the sheer impact of the thing."

A.J. turned away from examining the kitchen setup. "We aren't Napoleonic-era sailors and we're not going to work well cramped into tiny living quarters for a year or more. We need space. And fortunately, space they could give us, since the ship had to be big anyway."

"Can we see the labs?" Helen asked.

Hathaway chuckled. "Have no fear, Dr. Sutter. About half the ring is living space. The other half is for working. We have everything on the ring from full networked information systems to paleontological, biological, chemical, nuclear, and engineering laboratories. Data is stored redundantly in another system in the main body, and we can send backups of critical data to Earth if we need to. We have integrated microfabrication setups for prototyping, tool design and repair, and so on."

Since Ken was clearly not going to be diverted from his determination to reiterate what they already knew, Helen decided it would be polite to indulge him.

"Main control is in the central body, right?"

"The bridge," Hathaway corrected her, clearly preferring the classic terminology. "Yes, it is indeed located in the forward section of Nike's central body. We'll be visiting there too. Shall we go on?"

"Wow."

A.J. was simply staring around, grinning so widely that it looked like his face might split in two. "This is so cool."

Ken tried to look professionally proud, but that comment broke through the feeble attempt. He grinned back like a kid finding his dad had built him a three-story treehouse. "Yeah, isn't it?"

Nike's bridge was arranged in a manner strongly reminiscent of many a fictional space vessel's. It was a long, egg-shaped compartment, with duty stations spaced around the perimeter, and a central dais with a command and control console and chair-a captain's chair, clearly-which could swivel to survey any of the duty stations.

Dominating the bridge, however, was the tremendous viewport, covering most of the "ceiling" area. A span of pure velvet blackness showed through in the dimmed interior lighting, sprinkled with stars and crisscrossed with the argent webwork of the dry dock facilities around Nike.

"That's… a hell of a window," Helen said finally. She realized she wasn't as familiar with this part of the ship's design. "Isn't that a weak point in the structure? At least for radiation shielding?"

"Not really. It looks like clear glass, but that's actually transparent composite. It's coated with artificial diamond, and insulated with a foot and a half of optical aerogel with a high radiation shielding coefficient. The back section is similar but coated with an active-crystal matrix which can black it out-makes it reflective on the outside. And of course can be used to enhance anything you see through the port, or override it as a display, like a viewscreen. You actually have similar windows in your cabins; they just aren't open right now, so to speak. Because of the heating effects and the potential danger of people blinding themselves looking at the sun, we're keeping the window controls mostly to ourselves. We'll leave them open in the cabins whenever it's safe, once we're under way. You can always shut them off, though."

Helen waved her hand around the spacious bridge. "Let me guess. More political and publicity design compromises."

Hathaway nodded. "Not so much compromises as just overkill again. You could really run Nike from a single enclosed room, if you had to, with nobody at the controls. We don't really need a crew to fly this ship, although having one certainly acts as a failsafe. But… well, it just looks better this way. The public feels like they're getting their money's worth, and they ponied up a lot of it.

"The design is completely functional, too. You could in fact fly this ship on manual from the bridge, not that I'd ever want to see anyone try it. A.J., your station is right there." He pointed to a console area in the front and to the right.

As A.J. floated himself over to the indicated area, Hathaway added: "The equipment isn't a waste, either. Like almost everything else in the ship, it can either be used right where it sits or unshipped and brought down to Phobos."

"Hey, this thing already ties right in with my VRD!"

"Of course it does, A.J. They took the coding straight from your personal station at NASA."

"Neat! I don't even have to tweak it!"

Helen took another slow, admiring turn to examine the whole bridge. "I agree with you, Ken. It might be silly theatrical overkill in some ways-but this really is a ship. You can feel it."

"Yes, you can." Hathaway's gaze was focused out the huge viewport. "And she's about ready to fly."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 29

Nicholas Glendale stood out on the landing field where, almost two years earlier, Chinook had crashed while trying to land. He wasn't here for a landing, however. He was gazing upward to see a launch.

It was chilly on the flat desert plain, now that the sun had gone down. All the more so because they were well into autumn. Glendale pulled his coat a bit tighter. The garment was cut thin and sharply angled, which was nice from a cosmetic viewpoint, since it emphasized his slender figure. But he missed the reassuring puffy bulk of the coats he remembered from his younger years, even if the aerogel insulation of his current one made it just as warm.

Back at NASA Control, the countdown had begun. He could hear the murmur of traffic between the ground and Nike in his ear, and if he wished, his VRD would display any of a dozen views of the great ship or the control center. But for now he looked only with eyes. At an altitude of about two hundred miles, the fourteen-hundred-foot- long Nike stretched over 4.5 arc minutes-nearly a sixth of the width of the full moon. It was easy to spot coming over the horizon, if you knew where to look. Once it was up in the sky, of course, nobody could miss it.

Glendale knew where to look. He came out here often to watch her fly overhead.

He had never been interested in space travel, particularly. His own field fascinated him, and had since he was a teenager-the interaction of its personalities as much as the unearthing of ancient biological history. For whatever reason, paleontology had always seemed to attract some of the most colorful personalities ever to populate the halls of academia. Still did, for that matter.

Perhaps that very fact-having had no youthful fascination with space-had led to his current obsession.

"I was never inoculated against this," Glendale heard himself murmur. When a connection had finally been shown between Helen Sutter's problematica, Bemmius secordii, and Phobos, Glendale had been forced to really look at this utterly different field… and the space bug had bitten, hard.

It had not been easy, especially in the first few months after he'd realized he really was interested-intensely, passionately interested-in following the mystery of Bemmius to Phobos. For the first time in his life, Nicholas Glendale had found himself suffering-violently-from the hideous throes of professional jealousy.

Helen Sutter was, as he himself had said, the only correct choice for the mission. Not only did she already know far more about Bemmius than anyone else on Earth, but she was considerably younger than he was, at least as photogenic, and more athletic. Add to that the sudden romantic tie between her and the handsome young genius who had discovered the Phobos base-the tabloids had picked that up almost immediately-and only a complete idiot would try to bar her from the mission. The publicity alone would be worth millions in justifying the program to the public.

The fact had remained that Nicholas Glendale wasn't that old, he was well-known, respected, trusted-and, somewhat to his own surprise, he'd even passed the physical and psychological exams for space travel. Not with nearly as good a score as Helen or many of the other candidates, true, with regard to the physical tests. After all, he was sixty years old.

Still, physically, there was nothing to prevent him from going. Indeed, one of the members of the crew-the linguist, Rich Skibow- was sixty-three years old. Glendale had been astounded, and more than a little repelled, to find that he was actually entertaining thoughts of using his reputation and public leverage to force his way onto the crew. He had always detested scientists who tried to advance their personal goals over the needs of science, or over the metaphorical bodies of others. It was one of the reasons he had taken immense pleasure in dissecting that self-centered ass Pinchuk. Yet there he had been, thinking very similar selfish thoughts which would have, if indulged, resulted in shoving aside an undoubtedly more needed somebody off Nike just so he could joyride around the Solar System.

Coming up on visibility…

He glanced to the west, where Nike would soon appear, her orbital direction giving her an apparent retrograde motion against the stars.

Not quite yet. A few more moments.

He had managed to get his new obsession under control, finally, and he didn't think anyone else had really noticed anything. Once he had forced himself to accept that he would not be going, at least on this first mission, he had thrown his new fascination some bones. Reading voluminously on space travel-he realized suddenly that he hadn't even glanced at a paleontological journal in three months- and slightly abusing his position and reputation to get himself some actual orbital time and a visit to Nike.

NASA had given themselves, and Glendale, one other special treat, however.

There she was! A glimmer, growing into a brighter light, as Nike continued her orbit. The countdown was now nearing its end. If all went well-if nothing happened to delay or stop the countdown, now in its last seconds-Nike would begin her departure from Earth by firing her engines just about precisely above Glendale's head.

She would not, of course, be driving straight towards Mars. Instead, she would be using multiple short burns to take a more economical route by exploiting the power of the Earth's gravity well, firing subsequently as she approached perigee and building velocity in a slingshot maneuver before heading on a transfer orbit to where Mars would be in about three months. She was going to be showing off what she could do upon arrival, however. The current plans were for her to do what amounted to a brute-force braking maneuver that would park her near Phobos with a single long burn.

Nicholas Glendale would not be on board Nike. But he would watch her leave.

"I see you, Helen!"

Near orbit and increased bandwidth allowed some personal channels. "All go so far," Helen responded. "Jesus, Nicholas, I'm nervous."

"No reason to be nervous. Excited, though, that's just fine."

"That, too. I wish you were coming with us, you know."

"Not as much as I do. Perhaps next trip."

"Goodbye, Nicholas."

"Goodbye-and good luck, Helen."

The voice of Ground Control echoed on another channel. "Thirty seconds to ignition."

"Main engines all show green. We are go for launch."

"Ignition in twenty seconds from… mark."

Glendale blinked hard and stared upward. The sparkling not-quite-dot was almost directly overhead now.

"Ten seconds. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One

…"

Nike suddenly blazed brighter, six NERVA engines hurling superheated gases outward at a rate of tons per second. Nicholas knew that human eyes couldn't possibly see the effect of less than a quarter-g of acceleration on something already at orbital speeds, but his hindbrain insisted that the distant spacecraft had lunged forward eagerly and was already heading towards the horizon at an ever-increasing pace. He kept his eyes fixed on Nike as she silently accelerated on her journey to another world.

He couldn't say exactly at what point he could no longer quite see her. But when he finally admitted to himself that she was truly gone, he became aware of the tears streaming down his face.

Some of them were from keeping his eyes open too long.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 30

"Gee," A.J. said, fighting to keep his face straight. "That's tough."

"I appreciate your attempt at diplomacy, A.J." Dr. Wu took another deep breath. The paleness of his skin didn't decrease, but the sheen of sweat seemed to be fading. "Even though the attempt is feeble and ineffective."

"It is kinda funny, though. After everything we went through, and now we're on our way and you-the doctor-are getting spacesick?"

Wen Hsien Wu grimaced, holding down his lunch apparently by force of pride. "I suppose if I were in your position I might find it amusing. As it is, I have a very hard time taking it that way."

"Seriously, anything I can do for you? I mean, this is really just a scratch, I'll take care of it myself."

"A bit more than a scratch, judging by the bleeding. Yes, get me one of the blue pills from the container on the top right, marked 'Stabilese.'"

A.J. glanced in the indicated direction and floated himself over to the cabinet. "That's the antinausea drug?"

"One of them. This one works after the fact, unlike most. If I can keep it down for a few minutes."

A.J. got one of the pills out and handed it to the doctor. "Here you go. Look on the bright side. In a few more hours we'll be going to rotation mode. After that, we'll have about one-third gravity to work with."

"Yes." Wu swallowed the pill, seemed to turn slightly paler. Sweat broke out across his face again. Grimly he closed his eyes, then opened them quickly again to stare into the distance. A.J. said nothing, but handed the doctor one of the catcher bags in case his stomach won out.

Several more minutes went by. Slowly, color crept back into Wu's face, and he sighed with relief. "Well, I believe it is working. I still feel terrible, but not as badly as I did." He reached out. "Let me see that cut. Good lord, A.J., how did you manage to do that?"

"My reflexes are still on Earth. I was moving some of the equipment around in micrograv, got distracted, realized something was getting away from me, grabbed it, and lever action sorta whipped me around. Caught my arm on a bracket."

Wu shook his head. His hands shook slightly, too, but the instrument they held was still steady. "I think I can glue it together. I'd rather not have to go with stitches."

"Okay by me, Doc. I don't like needles myself."

A.J. noticed something about Wu as he carefully cleaned the wound and prepared to glue it together. To check on what he noticed, he flipped a bit of Fairy Dust onto the Nike's doctor.

"There we go. Yes, that will do."

"You know the old saying, 'Physician, heal thyself'?" A.J. asked.

"Yes, of course. Why?"

"You'd better practice it. You aren't spacesick, or at least that's not all of your problems. You're running three degrees of fever."

Wu stared at him, then put his hand against A.J.'s forehead. "Yes, you feel cold. How stupid of me. I felt exactly the same as I had in the earlier training flights, so I just assumed… Well, stupid, as I said."

He frowned. "This isn't good, at all. We have a very confined population here. If a large proportion of us gets sick, operations will be severely curtailed."

"It's probably just a cold or a touch of flu, Doc. What's the big deal?"

"Flu still kills people on occasion, A.J. And when you have only fifty people and relatively little redundancy, even minor illnesses can have a major effect. I will have to issue an immediate warning." Wu shook his head. "At the very least, unless we're so fortunate as to have this be a strain that only I am vulnerable to, there will be an awful lot of miserable people here, for a while. And you don't even want to contemplate what could happen to someone who suddenly becomes sick while on EVA."

Picturing what would happen to someone who vomited while inside a spacesuit, A.J. was no longer amused.

Jackie stared, bleary-eyed, at the screen. She really didn't feel up to this, but Dr. Gupta was worse off. The deep voice was barely a whisper, and Dr. Wu-still looking rather dragged out from his own experience-had Gupta on IVs.

He wasn't the only one, either; by now over sixty percent of Nike's crew had come down with the flu, and a few were in very bad shape. A.J. was the worst off. The infection had a respiratory phase as well as a gastrointestinal one, and the respiratory irritation had caused a violent sympathetic reaction from his already damaged lungs. The sensor specialist was in the small medical bay under constant observation. Wu thought A.J. was out of the woods, but it would be weeks before he'd be back to full strength. He barely had the energy to smile and exchange a few words with Helen when she visited.

Enough musing. Edwards was waiting for Jackie's instructions. "Okay. You'll have to unbolt the cover plate in front of you. It's held by four locking bolts with latches. The latches you can pop off with your screwdriver. Use a fifteen millimeter socket on the bolt heads."

"Understood. Fifteen millimeter. They all secured on the shaft?"

"Yes. Once you loosen them enough, you can swing all four out of the way. And they'll stay out of the way-there's a spring-loaded mechanism to keep them from flopping around."

"Roger that."

She closed her eyes and tried to convince herself the room wasn't really spinning. As the room really was spinning, at about two revolutions per minute, that was easier said than done. Tim Edwards was a good guy with a toolkit, but he wasn't an engineer. She'd have felt better about doing this job herself, if she'd been able to. But she still didn't dare get into a suit; and, unfortunately, all the other people who might have tried doing maintenance on the nuclear rocket engines were laid up.

Number Five engine had started having problems. The diagnostics pinpointed one of the valves involved in feeding reaction mass to the chamber. Fortunately, it was in a well-shielded area, because both she and Gupta wanted to replace the valve immediately and examine the old one to see what had gone wrong. If it was simply a defective part, fine. What they didn't want was to discover at the end of the trip that there was some underlying problem that had caused it to malfunction. By then, it might be too late to fix-and they'd need that engine for the braking maneuver.

"All bolts off, Jackie."

"Good." She forced her eyes to focus on the scene in front of her. "Okay, that panel was designed to swing up and out. It's on hinges, and there's a clip on the wall behind it which should keep it out of the way. Open her up."

Tim complied, slowly opening the access panel and locking it to the clip on the wall. "Got it."

"You should be seeing…" She trailed off, fighting to focus her memory. "There'll be three pipes in there. One has a bright red stripe on it, one a bright yellow, and one bright white."

"Yeah, you got it. Red, yellow, white."

"There should be two shutoff valve handles on each pipe. In between these shutoff valves are the control valve units."

"The shutoff valve handles are sort of like door handles, not like round spigot things, right?"

"Yes, that's right. They're open if they're in line with the pipe and closed if they're at right angles to the pipe. All of them should be open right now."

"They are," Tim verified, after a short pause. "You want me to close them?"

"Just the ones for the feeder line. That's the white-painted pipe."

"Gotcha." A few seconds went by. "Damn, this bugger is- whoa!"

Tim Edwards flailed a bit on the screen and started floating away from Nike. Jackie reflexively gasped before common sense caught up with her reaction. Just at that point, Edwards' safety line brought him to a mostly-cushioned halt and he began a very slow drift back.

"I'm okay, I'm okay! Don't worry. The one valve was sticky and I had to push pretty hard. When it gave I overcompensated."

Jackie's heart was pounding and her stomach roiled. "Ugh. Don't do that again, please. When I worry I get sicker."

"I'll try. Okay, both of these are now at right angles to the pipe. You're sure I'm not going to end up glowing in the dark?"

"You've got a rad meter on you now. Your major danger is from space radiation, not from our engines. The quicker we get this done, the better off we'll be."

"Roger that. I have the valves shut off on the white-painted pipe. What do I do next?"

"Now we have to remove-"

She stopped, appalled. "Did you say white-painted?"

"Yes. That was the one you told me to shut off."

"Jesus, I'm completely out of it. Please reopen those valves. That's not the feeder for the reaction mass, it's the coolant."

"That's bad, isn't it?"

"Not under these circumstances, actually. We've already got it shut down. But it would have been in other circumstances, and in this case it would've meant you'd have wasted your trip out there. The one you want is the yellow pipe. I did say 'yellow' this time, didn't I?"

"Yellow, as in yellow-bellied. Um. Perhaps a poor choice of words, given the way I'm feeling right now. That's the one we want. Are you sure this time?"

"Yes. I'm sure. Yellow. Put the ones on the white pipe back in line, then turn off the ones on the yellow pipe."

"Roger." A few seconds passed. "All right, Jackie, the yellow pipe now has both valves in shutoff position, at right angles to the pipe. The white pipe's valves are both in line with the pipe."

"Very good." She focused on the situation at hand. "All right. That boxy-looking affair between the two shutoff valves is the control valve we're interested in. Please do a visual verification that the two units-the one you have with you, and the one we are about to remove-look the same."

"Confirmed," Tim's voice said shortly. "Allowing for the fact that I can't see all of the one that's currently in there."

"Don't worry. We'll have a couple of other checkpoints along the way. How are you holding up?"

"It's a little warm, but I can always duck a bit down to cool off. There's shade handy, and the suits are pretty good at keeping us cool."

"Just let me know if you start feeling even a little bit off. I don't want you getting sick out there in the middle of this. We can always leave Number Five shut down for a while, if we have to. It's not like we really need nuclear drive right now anyway."

"Don't worry, Jackie. I don't want to find myself spewing in my suit. Or just passing out from heat exhaustion, for that matter."

Jackie smiled wearily. "Okay, then. Let's go on to the next part. On the four corners facing you, there are bolts…"

"I think we're finally getting back to normal," Hathaway said. "A.J.'s moving around and trying to catch up on his work, and no one else seems in any danger. We're down to only twenty percent of the crew being ill, and all of them are in the recovery stage."

The time delay was quite noticeable now, with millions of miles separating the Nike from Earth after a couple of weeks spent en route. Finally, however, the image of Glendale smiled.

"That's good to hear, Ken. Everyone was very worried. So you don't think anything major has been impacted by the epidemic?"

"No, Nick. The only real problem was the need to replace the control valve on Number Five, and that was really more of an annoyance than a major issue. Tim Edwards performed admirably even though this wasn't at all his usual line of work, and Number Five has been tested and works just fine now. After taking apart the original valve, it appears that some of the bearings had suffered minor damage, possibly during manufacture, and after a short period of use the wear started to cause it to stick. We're testing all the others now and looking for signs indicating whether or not we might need to do other replacements, but so far it's all negative. The integrated distributed sensors are working fine."

After another long pause, Glendale nodded. "Good. The medical people are looking forward to your data. This is the first significant epidemic of any kind in space, so naturally it's of great interest. And all the other recent readings-radiation and so on-should accompany those."

"Don't worry, we've got tons of data to send and it's all been carefully arranged. Madeline-Ms. Fathom-has gone through the material and approved it, too."

"Well, then, we'll let you get back to work, Captain. Our best wishes to you and your people, and please let us know if there is anything we can do for you."

"Thanks much. I'll pass it on, though aside from the moral support you're already giving I don't think there's really much you could do. Nike out."

Ken sank back into a chair, feeling heavy despite the one-third gravity. The last two weeks had taught him the full meaning of the old phrase "weight of command." It had seemed that everything rested on his shoulders. He'd been sick himself, but had refused to impose on the heavily embattled medical staff-which consisted of Wu, Janice Ortega, Madeline Fathom and Helen Sutter. The last two were not officially part of the medical staff but they were the only two on board who had never caught the bug and had a pretty good knowledge of field medicine. That turned out to be especially true of Fathom. In fact, she'd volunteered to remain a regular assistant in the medical department, since her own duties as security officer wouldn't really take up much of her time until they arrived at Phobos.

Ken couldn't afford to be sick. As his staff dropped like flies, he was the one who had to decide which of the increasingly small pool of healthy people filled which positions. No one else could really take the responsibility, and he wouldn't have given it up anyway. Even under these conditions… it was still his dream.

But a tiring dream. "System notification."

"Recording," the Nike's automatics replied.

"Captain is resting. Do not disturb except for emergencies."

"Notification posted. Expiration time?"

"Ten hours from now. Give me a wake-up call in eight hours."

"Wake-up call in eight hours. Understood."

"Thank you," he said reflexively as he moved towards his bunk..

"You are welcome, sir," Nike replied.

It may not really understand anything, Ken thought, as he lay down and closed his eyes. But whoever did the programming understands very well.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 31

Joe cleared his throat. Then, cleared it again.

I can't believe I'm even thinking about this.

"Would you like to come in?" he asked, a bit gruffly.

"Said the spider to the fly?"

Joe managed a grin of sorts. "I don't have a parlor. Besides, I watched you and A.J. If I had any dishonorable intentions, I'd choose someone who couldn't break my arm just by looking at me funny."

The answering smile dazzled him, like it always did. "And you don't find that intimidating?"

"No. I don't."

"Good. A lot of men have a hard time with it. Especially because I'm so small."

Joe watched appreciatively as the diminutive security specialist entered his cabin, moving with the slightly bouncy gait that seemed favored in one-third gravity. Which, in the case of Madeline Fathom, he also found fascinating. As religiously as she exercised, her figure was on a par with her smile.

Once she was in, he closed the door. "I look at it this way. If we were in the Renaissance working for the Borgias, I'd be a poisoner rather than a swordsman. Safer-and I'd know what I was doing."

Madeline's smile came again. "That's for sure! Even here, forget the Renaissance-since you're the man who's in charge of seeing to it we can eat real food."

Food. Joe had always been a gourmet, but he'd never once in his life imagined that his interest and skill with food would lead to.. .

This. Whatever "this" turned out to be.

To Joe's considerable surprise, once the voyage started he'd found himself the focus of attention of several of Nike's unattached female personnel. At first, he'd been most interested in Diane, who was intelligent, skilled at her job, had a decent sense of humor-and was certainly good-looking.

Alas, Joe had one admitted obsession. The redheaded information expert had run afoul of it when she had put ketchup- ketchup!-on the sesame-marinated filet mignon which had been the dinner he'd selected for their second date. He hadn't said anything about it, of course, since he wasn't rude and it was her meal to eat as she chose. But from that moment forward, he'd lost any real interest in the woman.

Okay, sure, he was a snob about food. But he figured everyone had their own area they were screwy about. Might as well ask Queen Victoria to get the hots for a caveman.

Madeline, on the other hand…

She'd approached him after her shift's dinnertime, three weeks into the voyage, and asked him about the recipe for the chicken tikka masala. Initially, he'd taken it for nothing more than Fathom's invariant politeness. Despite the fact that her position in charge of security put her in potential conflict with almost everyone else on the crew, Madeline had actually become one of the Nike's most popular people. Whether from her own temperament, or her training, or professional calculation-probably all three combined, Joe suspectedMadeline was just plain nice to people.

But it wasn't long before Joe realized that here was a woman who knew a great deal about cooking, and found the subject of real interest. A simple request for the recipe had become a conversation about cooking methods and preferences that caused him to be a half-hour late for his own shift.

By the time another month had gone by in Nike's voyage, that initial conversation had turned into a regular series of such-and ones which ranged far afield from cooking. Joe had always thought that Madeline Fathom was very good-looking, of course. Just about everyone did. But as the weeks passed, he found himself increasingly attracted to the woman's personality.

True enough, the phrase charming security official still struck him as an oxymoron. But… Madeline Fathom was no longer an abstraction. Whatever reservations he had about her occupation, by now he was pretty well bowled over by the woman.

Tonight, as had become their daily habit, she'd accompanied him back to his cabin after dinner. Madeline's own cabin was not much farther along the ring. Finally, after several weeks of that ritual, Joe had worked up the nerve to invite her in.

"So what's playing at Cinema Joe?" Madeline asked, her hands on her hips as she surveyed the cabin.

"Entertainments old and new. What's your pleasure?"

"Movies suit me fine."

"Not into the fancy gaming?"

Madeline shook her head. "That's definitely A.J.'s territory, not mine." She hesitated fractionally. "I prefer to let someone else do the entertaining."

"Genre? Time frame?"

"Well… " The unexpected blush looked especially pretty. "I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you."

"Unless you're about to profess a love for McDonald's cuisine, that would be impossible."

"Almost as bad. I like superhero movies, or anything where the good guys kick lots of butt and the bad guys are really bad." Madeline looked genuinely embarrassed.

Joe couldn't keep from laughing. "You're kidding! Usually that's the kind of thing the guys are supposed to like and the girl rolls her eyes at."

"Stop laughing!"

"Hey, I'm not. I may be a snob about food, but I'm no literary giant."

He flicked through his memory. "How about Nemesis Factor?" he suggested. It was one of his recent favorites, combining spy thriller with a super-martial-artist vigilante heroine.

"Oh, yes! I kept catching bits and pieces of that one, but never got a chance to see it."

The movie decided on, the two settled into the couch to watch. Joe started the usual male-on-a-first-date fretting about whether-andif-so-when he should try to slide his arm around the woman involved. But Madeline cut the whole obnoxious business off at the pass. Casually, but firmly-the same way she carried out her professional duties-she took his hand and put his arm around her. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do, leaned into his chest and nestled her head on his shoulder.

It might, just possibly, have been the single most thrilling moment of Joe's life.

While Madeline made a very nice armful, once the movie started Joe found she was far too much of a fan to just sit back and watch. It was actually more like watching a movie with one of the guys. She practically jumped up and shouted when a particularly cool set of moves was used, and she'd occasionally heckle the bad guys while onscreen.

But when the main villain, Valmont DuChan, got his major scene-using his unnaturally charismatic appeal to gather followers in a cultlike organization to use terror tactics against the entire cityMadeline went quite uncharacteristically silent. She then excused herself to go to the bathroom, and didn't come back out for a while. When she did, Joe noted she seemed rather pale.

"Madeline, are you okay?"

"Sure, why wouldn't I be?" she responded, almost curtly. She sat back down and, to his delight, leaned back into him. But almost as soon as she did so, he realized just how tense she was. The body that had seemed so soft and feminine earlier now felt exactly like that of a very well-conditioned female athlete. Not quite as hard as a rock, but awfully close.

Not knowing what else to do, he started the movie again.

"Could we watch something else?" Madeline asked suddenly.

Joe stopped the movie and turned to her. "Sure, of course. But look… What's wrong? Did I do something to upset you?"

She looked startled. "No, of course not. It's just…" Her eyes shifted to the screen, with its frozen image of Valmont DuChan's face staring out with a fanatic's gaze.

"God, I can't believe this. I haven't had that stirred up in years." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

"Madeline, come on. Give."

She was silent for a long time. Joe resisted the impulse to say anything. He just sat there, quietly waiting with a questioning look on his face.

After what seemed like hours, she sighed and nestled into him again. Then she spoke, almost whispering in his ear.

"I'm an orphan, you know."

"No, I didn't. I'm sorry."

"I'm not sorry at all. My biological parents…" She glanced at the screen. "Shut it off, would you, please?"

After Joe did so, she closed her eyes again. "You know who the villain in that movie is modeled after, don't you?"

"Hmm? Well, yeah. Washington LaFayette, I assume."

"My parents were with LaFayette. Order of the Seventh."

"Oh, God." Joe couldn't think of anything else to say, his mind racing back to recall what he knew of one of the darkest events in American history.

Washington LaFayette, while still quite young, had risen to prominence as a charismatic preacher and gotten himself elected to Congress. His handsome face was commonly shown in interviews, and he maintained the image of a reasonable and compassionate man, albeit perhaps excessively devout. After three terms in Congress he resigned, according to his claim, to devote himself fully to his ministry.

Image was all it was, however, for LaFayette was certifiably insane. In his private life, he was a radical "patriot" convinced that various "Un-American" forces serving the Anti-Christ were deliberately undermining the country through covert means. He built up an organization dedicated to "purifying" the country and "defending" it from these nebulous enemies.

Unfortunately, LaFayette was far more intelligent than most sociopaths. Even as his insanity grew, he was mostly able to conceal it, while tightening his grip on his own core group. LaFayette was able to gain total control over those most closely associated with him, who were divided into various "Orders," with the highest being "Order of the Seventh." They accepted everything he said and did, even when his personal habits as well as his political views became more and more extreme.

He designed a number of "purifiers"-his euphemism for targeted weapons of mass destruction-and was on the verge of actually beginning a strike against the most "contaminated" areas of America when one of the intelligence agencies finally realized what was going on. In a last-minute raid on LaFayette's compound, twelve officers of various enforcement agencies were killed and a number of others wounded. Four hundred and twenty-three of LaFayette's followers also died, the majority by suicide. LaFayette himself was shot before he could trigger the devices which would have destroyed the whole compound.

"Jesus. You couldn't have been much more than, what, eight?"

"I was nine." She looked up at the screen again, which was now dark. "Mike Dixon-the actor they chose-did an awfully good job. He even looks something like LaFayette."

A lot of things about Madeline Fathom that had always puzzled Joe now started making sense. "That's why you went into intelligence, isn't it, with a specialty in security? I wondered, since… well, you really don't seem the type."

She nodded. "They saved me. Killed him just before he killed all of us in the compound. My parents"-she spat the word out-"were ready to die with him. Did die with him, thank God, when they committed suicide. But they'd already stopped being anything like 'parents' to me by the time I was five. I knew they were grooming me to be one of LaFayette's so-called 'brides'-the bastard was partial to girls who'd just reached puberty-and I did everything in my power to avoid catching his attention. Which wasn't much. Fortunately, it was all over before that could happen."

The icy, calm way she spoke the words didn't seem to belong to a human voice at all. Joe groped, trying to imagine the self-control she must have started developing at an age that was normally the most carefree in a human being's life.

"I knew I couldn't fight him, that no one could fight him. But then the soldiers came, and they did fight him. And they brought me somewhere safe. I told myself when I got older that I'd make sure that people like him couldn't hurt anyone ever again, and that I'd help the people that saved me. And… that's what I did. I was training for it by the time I was ten. Never had any other career I wanted."

She took a deep breath, and stood up suddenly. "Sorry that I ruined things. Look, can I take a rain check on the evening. Please?"

"Sure, of course."

She smiled. "Thanks, Joe. I like you an awful lot, just so you know. But… this kind of thing isn't easy for me."

Joe rose also. "You want me to walk you back to your cabin?"

She chuckled, a bit darkly. "I think I can manage, even if this is the rough part of town."

"See you tomorrow, then?"

"Yes." She turned to go, stopped, and suddenly kissed him on the cheek. A moment later, she opened the door and slipped through, closing it behind her.

Joe stared at the door long after it closed, gently fingering the cheek she'd kissed.

"I will be good God-damned," he said finally.

As always in moments of stress or deep emotion, Joe's thoughts turned to food. Not eating it, but cooking it. Nothing relaxed him so much as working in the kitchen. Like most of the crew, wanting to enjoy the company and the conversations, he usually ate in the mess hall. But, needless to say, his kitchen was fully stocked.

The recipe he chose was a very tricky one. But that suited his mood-even more, his purpose.

Joe Buckley was not particularly experienced in the business of falling in love. But he was very intelligent. Falling in love with Madeline Fathom was going to be a lot trickier than any recipe, so he'd better start warming up.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 32

We are definitely making progress," Skibow said. "Oh, yes, quite a bit, thanks to you two," Dr. Mayhew agreed.

A.J. and Helen smiled together at that. They had rather warm feelings towards the linguists, who had catalyzed their relationship. "So do you want to share?"

"Well, of course, we do!" Dr. Mayhew said tartly. "Who wouldn't want to brag a bit?"

Her English accent gave her a schoolteacher air, especially with her prematurely gray hair pulled tightly back. "Take a seat and we'll give you a linguistic tour of what we've learned so far. We actually have some guesses as to the meaning of some words, which we'll get to in a bit."

"The first thing that strikes anyone when looking at these is that the writing is in curves, where we would use straight lines," Dr. Skibow began. "This seems to fit fairly well with the natural tendencies of Bemmie's manipulatory appendages and viewing arrangement. It's a bit more of a leap, however, to guess at the next level of structure. I believe we mentioned that we thought the various groupings of letters equate to words. This does rely on the assumption that the symbols are, like letters in English, basically phonetic in nature. That assumption, in turn, is based on the fact that so far we have found a very limited set of symbols used in what appear to be words-thirty-four, so far-plus a set of symbols we believe to be numerals in base nine. The very small number of symbols leads us to think they used an alphabet rather than a syllabary, although that's just a guess right now."

"For a short time," Mayhew picked up the narrative, "we thought that we had a larger set of words, and a rather confusing set thereof, than we did. However, one of the pattern-matching programs noticed that a lot of the words were mirror spellings of other words. After some comparison, we realized that our alien friends do at least one thing very differently from us. And by 'us' I mean any written human language. Where we write left to right or vice versa, they write outward from the center. The text in their approach is written something like this, if they were writing English."

She activated a display and wrote:

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary xof nworb kciuq ehT Jumped over the lazy dog

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

"So our initial survey would've had a total of nine words, when there's actually only eight unique words present, as 'the' appears twice. This method of writing brings up some very interesting questions as to just how our friends perceived things. Any human trying to read this way would start getting her brain scrambled pretty fast. Awfully dizzy, at least. In any case, we then were able to arrange a list of all the words and the order in which they appeared at any given point. That gave us a total starting vocabulary, if we could translate it, of about two thousand unique words from all sources, with a lot of those words being very common. Those are presumably the equivalents of 'the,' 'a,' and so on, but without knowing something of the actual meanings involved we're now getting out on the far fringe of guesswork.

"Once we had the clue of color to show us that we were in fact on the right track-and to bring up a whole bunch of symbols our visible-light images had missed-we attempted to assign meaning to some of the words based on context. If a word occurs in a particular context and not another, you can assume with at least some confidence that the change in context has something to do with the meaning of the word. Similarly, if you always see one word in conjunction with another word or symbol, you can guess that there is some strong relationship between the two."

"We have been going over the various 'noteplaques,' as we've decided to call them," Dr Skibow said, "and we hit some paydirt in the form of maps. Some of the maps we've been able to match up to known Solar System bodies, including Mars and at least a couple of the moons of Jupiter. Another one, we think, refers to Saturn and its moons."

Helen cocked an eyebrow. "You 'think'?"

Skibow shrugged. "Well, everything else matches quite well. But if that Bemmie map is accurate, Saturn had a moon about half the size of Titan, sixty-five million years ago. Which it certainly doesn't today."

"That's… possible," A.J. mused. "Even on the astronomical scale, sixty-five million years is a hefty stretch of time. An extrasolar body might have come into the system and yanked that moon out altogether. Or, for that matter, I've never been too satisfied with the current fashionable theory about what caused Saturn's rings." Somewhat grudgingly: "I admit, it's not my field of expertise."

Helen saw that Mayhew's plump face seemed to be undergoing a struggle of some sort, as if the linguist was trying to keep from laughing. When their eyes met, Helen smiled faintly, to show that she understood the source of the humor.

A.J. Baker? Publicly confessing he doesn't know everything?

For all of Mayhew's evident amusement, it was just as obvious that she wasn't irritated. People-including Helen-put up with A.J.'s unthinking intellectual arrogance, easily enough, because there was never anything mean-spirited about it. His attitudes didn't derive from personal competitiveness or a desire to belittle anyone else. They were just a side effect of the man's fascination with the universe.

Skibow continued. "We're hoping that in some of the other still-sealed rooms we'll get some more maps or similarly interpretable diagrams, because on the maps we found labels, just like we label our maps. We think we've got a handle on at least part of their system of measurement-on the large scale, anyway-and we're getting words out of it.

"Here's one. This word"-a series of Bemmian symbols shimmered in the display-"means crater, we're almost sure. That's because every time we find the equivalent spot on our maps, there's a crater right at that point. So far, at least."

"That'd mean an awful lot of repetitions of the word, across something like Mars."

Mayhew shook her head. "Not every crater is labeled, Helen- far from it. Only a few on each map. Presumably they were points of interest for our friends. Even on our astronomical maps we don't label every crater, only the larger ones. As these people were presumably actually landing on these bodies, I would therefore theorize that these were craters they landed on or had an interest in."

"Maybe not, though," A.J. countered. "Maybe the word isn't crater. Maybe it's mine or quarry."

Skibow raised an eyebrow. "Good point. It could, I suppose, also mean colony, if they were settling the area."

Helen made a face. "I see your problem. You're in the same position we were when we had the single arm-plate from Bemmie, trying to reconstruct something incredibly complex from almost no information at all."

"Yes. We hope that we can examine at least some of these craters and determine what it is about them that made them worth labeling. The puzzling part is that they certainly aren't the most spectacular and interesting craters. So perhaps A.J.'s guess is right: these are craters that had something interesting in them from a practical standpoint."

"Tell you what," A.J. said. "I'll have a couple of the Faeries pop away from Phobos for a bit and do some focused imaging and scanning on any of those craters that are in range. Combine that with the pretty heavy-duty info we already have on Mars, and I might at least be able to tell you something interesting about the ones you have labeled on the Mars maps. Do your maps cover all of Mars?"

"Oh, not even close," Skibow replied. "Perhaps twenty percent of the surface, and thirteen labeled craters in that area."

"Bring it up and let's see the equivalence on the surface."

The diagrams from the alien maps showed on the screen, and then faded. A map of Mars appeared, with part of what would be the tropical and subtropical portion of the northern hemisphere highlighted.

"Okay, I see. Yeah, I think the Faeries can get some decent images and ground penatrating radar shots on that, if the returns can be sorted out. I was getting some returns from Mars initially, but that doesn't mean that all parts of Mars will be equally good for GPR. The geometry might screw me up, too. But we'll see."

"Aren't you supposed to keep the Faeries researching Phobos?" Helen reminded him.

"I'm supposed to find out as much as I can about Phobos, the alien base, and anything else I can about Bemmie. These maps and the craters indicated are definitely related to Bemmie and his people. So I figure that if, by doing a little detective work, I can resolve our debate about just what they found interesting about those craters, I'll be just doing my job."

"True enough," Helen said. "I doubt anyone's going to argue with you anyway, not when you're basically our only source of on-hand investigation for the next couple of months."

"There are advantages to being virtually indispensable." A.J. grinned.

"Which is why you shouldn't be scaring us by getting so close to being dispensed with."

A.J. managed to keep his grin, but it faltered a bit. He'd quietly admitted to Helen that his recent brush with death had scared him, much more than his first, because this one had taken slow days to close in on him. The fire and explosion had been a few moments of pain and panic and effort, and then he'd woken up with the worst behind him. This time his own body had been slowly and inexorably shutting down, cutting off his air and energy.

"Yeah. Well, that's over, anyway. And we've taken a lot of steps to keep anything like that from happening again." He suddenly blinked and looked surprised.

"What is it?"

"Just remembered something I'd completely forgotten about while I was sick. I have to go talk to Ken."

"A problem?"

"Probably nothing, but he should know anyway." Helen could tell that there was more to it, but obviously he preferred to keep the information to himself.

She didn't press him. Part of the reason she and A.J. got along as well as they did was that they gave each other a lot of room. One of the few things she'd found amusing about the tabloids' obsession with her and A.J. had been their constant predictions that the two of them were on the verge of a breakup. In point of fact, their relationship had been remarkably free of much in the way of quarreling-quite unlike the marriage Helen had gotten into for six miserable years when she'd been in her twenties. The one and only photograph the tabloids had ever published that seemed to show them yelling at each other-which they ran endlessly, of course- had actually been a shot of the two of them trying to sing.

Something which neither of them could do worth a damn, and had proven it that day to their mutual satisfaction. Helen would also allow that part of the reason the tabloids loved that photo was that it had been taken while they were vacationing in Florida and Helen's bikini had been… Well, a bikini.

A skimpy one, at that, even by bikini standards. Helen had only worn it because A.J. had bought it for her and insisted-and she had never worn it since.

"All right," she said, half-smiling at the memory. "I imagine we've taken up too much of your time, anyway. Dr. Mayhew, Dr. Skibow-"

"Jane and Rich, please," Jane Mayhew interrupted. "There's only fifty of us. It would be silly to stay so formal, even if I do keep falling back into my bloody lecture-room habits."

"No problem, Jane, Rich. We'll be moving on."

"Our pleasure, Helen. Drop by whenever you and A.J. feel like it. Who knows, you may solve our problems again."

"Well, you helped solve ours!" A.J. said, with a wink at Helen.

On their way out, Helen said with great dignity: "We didn't have a problem. You did."

A.J. smiled but didn't even try to make a rejoinder. Clearly, his mind was focused on whatever problem he was taking to Ken. There was as much point in badinage with A.J. when he was in that mind-set as there would be trying to swap jokes with a beaver making a dam-or a five-year-old child absorbed in watching a cartoon.

Oh, well. They'd still foiled the tabloids, hadn't they? A feat which, with some experience, Helen had come to rank right up there with taking the gold at the Olympics or deciphering the Maya script. Or winning the Trojan War.

And-although she'd disapproved at the time and still did- Helen couldn't deny that she wished she'd had a camera herself once. To capture the delightfully shocked expression on a paparazzi's face as A.J. sent him sailing through a window.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 33

"And that's what I found."

Ken Hathaway felt a leaden weight sinking in the pit of his stomach, as he looked over the code and symbols A.J. was showing to him. "A back door?"

"Into the main controls. Covers the entire communications grid. I checked, and there's a similar one in the backup. Checked the rest of the systems-well, to make a long story short, someone has managed to compromise the entirety of our ship's systems. There's a back door into virtually everything on board that isn't completely standalone."

"How did you find this, and when?"

A.J. looked apologetic. "Actually, I found it a few weeks ago. Right when Doc Wu got sick, he told me how bad it might get, so I started trying to improve our automation. A lot of that being perceptual interpretation, I figured I could probably code it better than anyone else. I ran across a minor anomaly in the comm and sensor grid that led me to the first discovery, and then the others, until I realized that most of the ship must be like this. Then I got sick and

… Well, forgot all about it until today."

With anyone else, Ken would have been furious. How could you forget something like this?! For weeks?!

But… That was just A.J.'s nature. The flip side of his ability to concentrate-downside, often enough-was that he could become oblivious to almost everything else.

"The reactor controls?" Ken had a horrid vision of someone having the ability to cause the entire ship to blow up or melt down.

"No, actually." A.J.'s face showed some puzzlement. "That's clean as a whistle. Oh, with some of the other back doors, whoever it is could probably get control of the engines and the reactor. But they'd be doing it through the standard interfaces aside from their initial system entry."

"Any guess as to the purpose of all these compromises? If they don't want to just kill us off, what do they want?" Ken rubbed his scalp. "I've got to call Fathom in on this. We're dealing here with her specialty."

A.J.'s jaws tightened. "That's exactly why you shouldn't call her in."

"Huh?" The captain of the Nike stared at the imaging and data processing specialist. "But she's already got authority to access pretty much anything she wants. She's in charge of security, for Pete's sake. Why would she have back doors hidden in the system?"

"Well, I like the woman, myself. I can't think of anybody who doesn't, really. But then-if you were a security heavy, wouldn't you rather that everyone liked you instead of being paranoid about you?"

Ken thought about it for a moment. "Okay, sure, of course I would. Still-"

"And if you were a security specialist working for the U.S. government, you'd be unhappy about the fact that political horse-trading has made something like thirty percent of the crew foreign nationals, wouldn't you?"

Ken snorted. "Security specialist, be damned. I'm just a soldier and I'm not happy about it. So… yeah, I see your point."

"And if-note that I say 'if'-you were the sort that felt that clamping a heavy security lid on things was the best policy if we found something really strategically useful, wouldn't you realize that the scientists aren't necessarily going to shut up on their own?"

Ken saw where this was going. "And if you did, you'd want a way to make sure that you could just make everyone shut up. Even if it meant overriding every system capable of communication on the entire ship."

"Yep. Especially since you'd have to be worried that even other Americans on board might prefer the 'information wants to be free' path. And that the kinda apolitical captain might back you up… and, then again, might not."

Ken set his jaws. "That's pure bullshit. I'm not into politics myself, that's true. And it's also true that all the years I've spent hobnobbing with you scientific types has made a lot of your attitudes about the free flow of information and knowledge rub off on me. But the fact remains-don't ever doubt it, A.J.-that I'm a professional officer serving in the military forces of the United States of America. Madeline Fathom is the duly-authorized representative of our government in charge of security here, and I would back her up any time she acted in that capacity. Regardless of whether I agreed with her or not."

A.J. shrugged. "Fine. But you think like a soldier. In my experience-thankfully limited-I really don't think security people have the same mentality at all. So whatever you might know you might do, they wouldn't necessarily think you would. If that twisted grammar makes any sense."

It made plenty of sense to Hathaway. A.J.'s analysis, now that Ken thought about it, was a lot more plausible than even the imaging and data expert knew. Unlike the rest of the crew, Brigadier General Hathaway had known General Deiderichs off and on for years. While the general hadn't told him much, the way in which he didn't say certain things was a clear warning: Madeline Fathom carried one hell of a lot of weight, possibly even more than Deiderichs himself.

That meant that whichever intelligence agency Fathom was working for-and Ken suspected it was the HIA, which had more clout than any of them when it wanted to use it-she had what amounted to a direct pipeline to the President. Which, in turn, meant that if the back doors A.J. had discovered did lead back to her, she had the legitimate authority to have them and to use them. That was true regardless of what Brigadier General Ken Hathaway thought personally about the mind-set involved and its readiness to use duplicitous methods.

God forbid the right hand should ever tell the left hand what it's doing. He remembered a wisecrack once made by a fellow Air Force officer: The only difference between the nuts in security and the ones in lunatic asylums is that the security nuts insist their straightjackets have to have clearance and be stamped Top Secret.

"What a mess," he muttered. "All right, A.J. I won't tell Fathom until you do an initial check to see if she's the one who's holding the back doors. If she is, then it's a moot point. You and I know, and we just forget about it. But if she isn't the one, then we've got a real problem with security and I'm bringing her in right away. And in the meantime, we don't tell anyone else. I'm willing to stretch things that far, but I'm not willing to spread this to anyone except Fathom."

A.J. nodded. "No sweat. If for no other reason, I don't want Joe to know. Not from me, anyway. You wanna talk about a mess."

Ken grimaced. To everyone else's surprise-and A.J.'s astonishment-Joe Buckley and Madeline Fathom were often seen together since the voyage had started. By now the two were, if not an item, at least one of the strongest candidates for becoming an item on board Nike. If they were wrong about Madeline, a very nice friendship-or something more-could be torpedoed with no justification. Or, if Joe reacted the other way, A.J. could find his best friend alienated from him.

"Right. In any event, we need to check all the other alternativesand immediately. If Fathom's the one with the back doors, she has them on official authority. Which someone else wouldn't-and that would be an order of magnitude worse. We need to make sure, if we can, that that's not the case. In the meantime… Have you closed off any or all of the back doors?"

"Nary a one. But I've booby-trapped them. When someone activates one of them, I'll be able to catch 'em at it. And of course I can always override them now that I know what's going on. That's why you made me the DP head around here."

Ken gave A.J. a hard look, just short of an outright glare. "Understand something, A.J. If it does turn out that it's Fathom, I'll want you to remove the booby traps. I don't like the idea of her having those back doors, but what I don't like doesn't make any difference. She is in charge of security. But until we know one way or the other, keep them in place. If it's someone else, we do not want those back doors functional."

A.J. nodded, although Hathaway was quite sure that he had reservations. Reservations strong enough, in fact, that Ken would probably have problems with him if it did turn out to be Fathom.

But that was for a later day-which might never come.

In that respect, at least, A.J. obviously felt the same way he did. "Well," the imaging specialist said, "I just hope we never have to find out."

So do I, Madeline thought to herself as she shut off the recording. So do I.

Not that it would make a very big difference. She'd been expecting to hear that conversation, or one like it, right around now. A.J. was good, but he was only second-rate as a security specialist. More than good enough for basic civilian or low-level military stuff, to be sure, and he was probably a hell of a cracker if he wanted to be. But when you had the resources to draw on that Madeline did, a second-rater was only going to find what you wanted them to find.

Everything had to be a double blind whenever possible. One of the best ways of defusing effective resistance was to convince your opponents that they were smarter than you were, always just a step ahead. In this case, she'd arranged for fairly well-hidden back doors to exist-while burying her real back doors far deeper inside the system. It was the same strategy she'd used with respect to her martial arts capability.

Not quite the same strategy, she reminded herself. It wouldn't do to underestimate A.J. Baker. Her martial arts skills were hers alone, while in this case she was only about as good as A.J. in her own right. Not even that, really, given a level playing field.

But this wasn't a level playing field, not even close. The HIA could tap the best people in the world when it came to this sort of work. All Madeline had had to do was arrange access for one of them to assist in the coding. He'd done the rest.

Bugging Hathaway's office had not been difficult. It had been trivially easy, in fact, since no one had been expecting surveillance equipment to be installed aboard Nike. The military people and scientists who made up the crew just didn't think in those terms.

Now she had to decide if she'd gotten all the use out of the monitors that she could reasonably expect, or whether she should leave them in place. The longer they sat there, the more chance there was that someone would spot them.

A.J. was, once more, the major threat there. He scattered his Fairy Dust almost randomly at times. And, unlike those in use in engineering and other departments, A.J.'s sensor motes were not merely cutting-edge but bleeding-edge, customized in both their software and sometimes even hardware aspects. In fact, she had to grudgingly admit that they outperformed even the supposedly top-of-the-line stuff she'd been supplied for this mission. If A.J. ever decided to start looking for other sensor motes, she'd be busted. Martial arts was his exercise and computer systems his sideline, but sensor systems and detecting things that were hidden was A.J. Baker's expertise. He was probably the best in the world at it. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that she could no more beat A.J. on that battlefield than he could beat her in an honest fight.

So the decision wasn't to be made casually. She'd gotten excellent intelligence from them so far. But was the chance of getting more such information worth the risk that A.J.-suspicions already aroused by finding the back doors-might decide to sweep the ship for other unauthorized activity?

"No," she answered herself aloud. She was already tap-dancing on land mines. The monitors she had in place to maintain surreptitious surveillance of Nike's personnel were already stretching the letter of the law. Even the military members of the crew would be furious, if they found out. The civilian members would completely blow their stacks, negating at one stroke all of Madeline's long and careful work to build up their trust and cooperation.

There was no point in keeping around extra ways of detonating the mines if she didn't really need them. She sent out the signal which caused the motes to move into the air system and allow themselves to be filtered out with the rest of the dust.

Then, was surprised at the relief that swept over her. It was disconcerting to realize just how uncomfortable she'd become with her role in this mission. She hadn't gotten the usual satisfaction seeing how neatly Ken and A.J. had followed her script. It had been almost painful to listen to them voicing their suspicions about her.

Jesus! I'm actually feeling guilty about this whole thing!

She shook her head and sighed. She still believed in her mission, even if she'd slowly come to detest it from a personal standpoint.

The worst aspect of the situation was that if she wanted to avoid the eventual confrontation, she had to hope that nothing particularly exciting or revelatory was discovered on this trip. Which meant that either way things went, her friends were going to end up disappointed-either in what they found in Phobos, or in what they found in her.

And this was the first time in her life that Madeline Fathom had had real friends.

Even possibly-she started to shy away from the thought, but forced herself not to-a romantic involvement that went beyond a brief and casual sexual liaison.

Madeline couldn't conceal from herself that the worst part of that whole conversation was the thought of them telling Joe, and the relief she'd felt when they decided not to tell anyone. For the first time in her life, she had an impulse to just get it over with-go to Ken, tell him the situation, and drop the whole thing in his lap. She sat in the chair, feeling one-third of a gravity pulling on her more heavily than anything she'd felt on Earth since she was nine years old.

What am I going to do about Joe?

She had no answer. Or, at least, no answer she liked.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 34

"All rotation stopped. Habitats secured and locked. All personnel report ready for acceleration."

"Understood." Captain Hathaway surveyed Nike's bridge to make sure everyone was properly seated and strapped in. While they wouldn't be taking extreme acceleration, "up" and "down" would no longer be in their accustomed directions. And there would be varying levels of acceleration; enough to be anything from inconvenient to dangerous for the unwary.

He hit the PA button. "Attention all hands."

That sounded sort of pompous, but he couldn't resist. It also sounded proper.

"We are about to begin deceleration in our approach to orbit. After the main burn, there will likely be two or three minor burns to match us with Phobos and then bring us to rest with respect to it. Following that, work crews will begin preparations for landing. We expect to land the first people on Phobos sometime tomorrow or the day after. Unless there's an emergency, please do not move around until the main burn is completed. We don't want any accidents. We're all healthy and ready to get to work, and we don't need anything getting in the way of that."

The presence of a number of humans in the bridge area was more a security blanket and backup than anything else. The precise burn durations and vectors had been calculated and recalculated dozens of times, and were updated daily to account for any departure from the original assumptions. Nike knew exactly when to turn, exactly when to fire her mighty engines and for precisely how long. Unless something went wrong, neither Hathaway nor anyone else on board would have to lift a finger during the entire process.

The only expected partially-manual work when it came to flying Nike was going to be closing the distance with Phobos. The automatic orbit-matching was deliberately designed to leave a considerable distance between the ship and the little moon, just in case something did go wrong. Like the tiny Faeries before her, Nike would use ion drives to close the distance after matching the basic orbit.

Unlike the Faeries and Pirate, however, Nike had the fuel and power to match orbits through its own efforts, rather than requiring atmospheric braking. That was necessary, because the design challenges involved in making a spacecraft the size, shape, and complexity of Nike able to survive atmospheric braking were something to give even modern computers major, major headaches. Dr. Gupta didn't think it could be done at all, in the absence of science-fictional deflector shields or unobtainium hulls.

A faint vibration ran through the ship, and suddenly a deep-throated roar thundered through Nike. The nuclear engines had awakened for the first time in months. Six columns of nuclear-powered fire now blazed astern, pitting themselves against the miles-per-second momentum of the huge ship.

In space there was no sound. But vibration at that level transmitted itself through the main hull and reverberated in the atmosphere of the bridge. There was certainly sound in Nike herself. Ken was pressed back into the cushions of his seat at nearly half Earth-normal acceleration-which felt much greater to a body used to Martian levels of gravity after many weeks in space.

Displays showed the decrease in velocity, the approach of the vessel toward its intended orbit, Phobos approaching in simulation. Another showed the approach of Nike as seen from Phobos itself, a blaze of light from what had been something barely more than another star a moment before. A.J. had two of the Faeries positioned to record the entire approach and eventual landings for posterity.

The live view from a rear-facing boom camera, projected on the main window's active display, showed Phobos swelling. Starting at the size of a misshapen Luna from Earth, by now the moonlet was nearly twice that size.

The sharp gray-black shadowed surface suddenly looked menacing to Ken. Twenty kilometers was miniscule on the astronomical scale, but when compared to Nike it was immense. From that perspective, Phobos was a mass of rock nearly fifty times Nike's length. It was a flying mountain the size of ten Everests mashed together, where an alien race had built a base-and had then died from an unknown catastrophe sixty-five million years before.

Perhaps Phobos had devoured them. The moonlet made Ken think of a gigantic sea beast, rising from the black depths.

He dismissed the grotesque notion. There were enough genuine hazards without inventing fantastical ones. "Engine status?"

"All engines showing green," Jackie answered. "Not that you needed to ask, really. If anything goes wrong, about a dozen alarms will scream their heads off."

"Will you at least let me pretend to be a real captain?"

"Aye aye, sir." Jackie got a false-solemn look on her face. "We're approaching the alien base, Captain. Should we raise shields?"

"Very funny. How are we tracking?"

"Well within tolerances. About four hundred seconds of burn left to go. Relative velocity has dropped below two point five kilometers per second."

The freight-train roar continued, the nuclear engines hurling more than three tons of fuel into space every second at an exhaust velocity of nearly twenty thousand miles per hour. Phobos was enormous and still swelling, now a hulking presence more than ten times wider than the Moon as seen from Earth. Even more than before, the satellite reminded Ken of a monster-with the five-mile-wide crater of Stickney being its single, glaring, off-center eye.

"How big is that going to get before we stop?" Ken wondered idly, trying not to sound at all nervous.

The problem with Phobos was that it was on a scale that the human mind could-just barely-grasp, as opposed to the Earth or the Moon. Something like that approaching touched a very primal chord.

"About seven point one six degrees-more than fourteen times wider than the Moon looks," A.J. answered, from his own console. "Being a hundred miles away is pretty far, sure, but that thing is twenty kilometers wide. It looks a hell of a lot bigger than it did in the photos back home, I can tell you that."

He turned his head and flashed Ken a wicked grin. "Lives up to its name Fear, doesn't it? Especially with that crater staring at us! Reminds me of some sort of gigantic Cyclops."

"Shut up, will you?" Hathaway growled. "I was trying not to think the same thing."

The blaze of Nike now covered measurable width on Rane's image; six separate tiny jets were visible.

"Sixty seconds left… thirty… ten… five, four, three, two, one, ze-"

The rockets cut off as Jackie was in mid word. Ken felt a momentary disorientation as free fall returned. Phobos loomed before them, but no longer did the barren miniature moon swell like a slowly inflating balloon.

"Relative speed with respect to Phobos?"

"Waiting on verification…" A.J. answered. "Okay, near zero. Very near zero. Let's just say that if we were staking Nike out in the yard like a dog, it'd be a week before she reached the end of her chain. Not bad for a shot across a hundred million miles. Starting closing calculations now."

Ken hit the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have stopped relative to Phobos. We have successfully completed the first interplanetary voyage in the history of mankind. Congratulations!"

He didn't need the intercom to hear the cheers.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

PART VI: PHOBOS

Surmise, n: a matter of conjecture; an idea or thought of something as being possible or likely, often coming unexpectedly or by surprise.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 35

"One… two… three!"

On three, Joe and Harry Ingram pulled hard on the levers, each held from moving by the bracing they were strapped into. Jobs like this could be done using automatic machinery, but automated drones were much better for doing the more controlled and predictable gruntwork of sealing, insulating, and making livable portions of Phobos. If human muscle and mechanical advantage couldn't do the job here, they could always use some of the fancier powered equipment.

No need, Joe saw with satisfaction, as the alien doorway ground partly open for the first time in over sixty million years. Ingram, who'd done more work of this sort than Joe, unsnapped part of his harness expertly and rotated his body around, shining a bright LED flashlight into the room.

"Clear on the near side, nothing in the way. Looks interestingnot a duplicate of any of the other rooms we've seen so far. Let's get the door open a little further."

Joe nodded, noting to himself that it was a lot more comfortable doing stuff like this when you could use the best equipment. The Ares Project had planned on using the best spacesuit designs it could afford, of course, but when you are strapped for cash, what you can afford isn't the same thing as what a government agency with a top-level mandate and effectively unlimited credit can afford. The spacesuits worn by Nike's personnel were lighter, thinner, tougher, more efficient, and more versatile than anything Ares could possibly have managed.

The suit's main advantages came from its incorporation of a carbon nanotube-derived fiber weave manufactured (at currently ruinous cost and mostly for military applications) by the Tayler Corporation. The "carbonan" reinforcement layers made the suits virtually impenetrable by any accident short of being struck by a meteor or shot by a heavy-duty firearm. The integrated electronics, "smart" sensors, recycling systems, and other bells and whistles had even forced A.J. to grudgingly admit that he couldn't have programmed their suits to be as effective; the integrated processor power simply wouldn't have been there.

Similar top-end designs were being tested by the military as powered battlefield armor. Due to a strong preference for saving power in space for other functions, however, there were no provisions for boosting the user's strength in the Tayler spacesuits. But there were ports to connect the suit to various other devices to control and even power them, as well as distributed sensors to track conditions around the wearer.

The suits were as well shielded as such mobile objects could reasonably be. The helmets were light and felt open, rather than cramped and claustrophobic as prior models had been. In addition, the suits incorporated an integrated exterior weave of electroactive pigments which varied the reflectivity of the exterior to assist in heating and cooling. Another layer of piezoelectrically-active fibers was able to stiffen the suit against detected impacts, distributing the force across the entire body of the wearer instead of permitting blunt trauma to be done to one area.

With the toughness of the suits a given, Joe and the rest of Nike's crew were better able to concentrate on their jobs. It might not be quite as easy as working on something back home, given microgravity and other factors. Still, it was orders of magnitude easier than it would have been a couple of decades earlier.

Locked back in, Harry nodded to Joe and the two began working on getting the door to open wider.

"Hey, did anybody figure out why these doors got locked up?" Harry asked to the invisible audience at large. "I mean, it can't just have been the power loss-only idiots would design doors that couldn't be opened in case of power failure, at least for most of their base. And we've found things that look like manual opening mechanisms."

"Well," A.J. answered, "it's impossible to be sure until we find out exactly what caused the disaster. But based on models Dr. Sakai and some of the other people in the astrogeological specialties have done… you remember the lines on the side of Phobos?"

"Yeah," Joe said, adjusting the grip of the lever arms. "Fracture zones, right?"

"Yep. No one was sure how far down those things went, or how intact-or not intact-Phobos was. The moonlet might have been just a ball of stone fragments that hadn't quite broken up. As it turns out the fracture zones aren't nearly that bad, but they are significant. If what happened to them involved a big explosion, or an impact, it might have shifted the geometry of the caverns slightly, changing angles just enough to cause the doors to lock up in their tracks."

"Makes sense," Joe said. "And with the seals shrinking through outgassing over the years, that would have given them enough space to move again. Okay, we're ready. Harry, let's open this thing up wide."

The door protested stubbornly, occasionally allowing the two to hear its dissatisfaction by transmitting a vibration through the equipment that sounded like a groan inside the suits. But, in a few minutes, the door was open wide enough for them to enter.

"Captain, we're going in now. And I think it's something new."

"Be careful."

"We will be. But, look, this place is dead. There's nothing dangerous here, aside from vacuum."

"That's what we think. Let's not assume."

"Right."

Joe drifted into the room cautiously after shining his own light around. The room was about average-sized, from what they'd seen so far. It was a bit over two meters at maximum height, which was too low for human comfort but still easy to move through. Fifteen meters long and about ten to twelve meters wide, the room's interior was clad in the metal-composite material they'd come to expect, with varicolored circles and lines on the walls that seemed to be a common theme.

Despite the similarities, though, it wasn't like anything they'd seen thus far. First, this room's long axis lay parallel to the corridor. They'd entered at one end, from the side. At the other end of the room was another door. That seemed to indicate a room bordering that side of the corridor but which had no direct entrance or exit in that wall, as they knew there weren't any other doors for quite some distance.

Secondly, the room was divided roughly in half down the center, by a low wall with a wide, flat top separating the two halves. On one end, the wall had a set of hinges of some sort. Behind this area was another set of doors and a small tripartite control panel similar to those found in the large control room and in a few other places.

A Bemmius mummy lay in that area, arms curled across each other and outward in what Helen currently considered a possibly instinctive defensive posture. "By doing that they protect the mouth, eye, and brain areas, and have those long, sharp hooklike structures pointing out towards any possible threat," she'd said. "This is rather like us throwing our arms up to protect our faces, or covering our heads with our arms in a falling rock area."

Judging by the number of Bemmius mummies found in that pose-which did not accord well with models of how a relaxed or a random death pose would look after mummification-it might well be that this was the equivalent of a person realizing he was doomed and ending up cowering in the corner.

"Look at his hands."

Joe nodded. The "hands," the complexly-divided portions of the quasi-tentacles that allowed Bemmius to use tools, showed signs of tremendous abuse. Some of the "fingers" were torn off and others were twisted and bent, showing that the internal structural plates were damaged or misaligned. Like others they had examined in the sealed rooms, this Bemmius had apparently tried to force the door open in a panic. A close examination showed that he had beaten and clawed at all three doors in the room, at some point during his imprisonment here.

"So, which door now?"

"Let's see what's behind the far door there. Until now, we haven't found any room that adjoins the corridor that doesn't have a door to it. I'm wondering why this one doesn't."

"Right." Joe floated back, gathered up the door opener that Gupta had designed while they were en route, and made his way back. He was careful in the microgravity not to let the heavy metal and composite structure get moving too fast. There might be almost no gravity, but the tool's mass was still the same.

"Have you seen the complaints from Earth about our exploration techniques?"

"Hey, they have a point," Harry said, floating at ease as he waited for Joe to get the opener in position. "If we were using these methods on, say, Egyptian tombs, we'd be lynched."

"Still, it's not like we're going to be letting in air to cause decay."

"No. But the proper archaeological-or paleontological, for that matter-approach would be to spend weeks slowly working away at methods to open them, recording each and every movement, and so on." He caught the door opener as it approached and gave Joe time to get set up to position the framework.

"Yeah," A.J. commented from whatever remote area he was working in, "but if the ancient Egyptian tombs had actually been built by space aliens, like some nutcases thought, and if we thought we might discover their tech inside, you can bet we'd be out there with backhoes and bulldozers and the namby-pamby archaeologists would be taking the back seat."

"No doubt," Joe concurred, "although I'd recommend you be a lot more diplomatic in the way you said that, if you were talking to Helen. I worked with her in the field for several summers, don't forget. And I can tell you that hell hath no fury like a bonedigger scorned."

A few minutes of setup and they were able to force this second door open, with a great deal of grunting.

"This one was a lot tougher," Joe finally gasped, relaxing in the restraint straps and waiting for his breathing to slow.

"Sure was," Harry said, almost as winded. "I wonder if-"

He did his unstrap-and-swing-around stunt again. "Well, that's interesting. This door's almost twice as thick as all the others."

A.J.'s voice broke in, pitched unnaturally low. "That leaves the question… was it so thick to keep something from breaking in-or is it that thick to prevent something from getting out?"

"Shut up, A.J.," Joe grumbled. "Being in these rooms with giant alien mummies is creepy enough without you tossing in B-movie paranoia."

"Fine, fine. Just don't go looking at any eggs in there, okay?"

"Thank you so much for reminding me of that image. Get off the friggin' channel if you don't have anything useful to add."

Harry, ignoring the byplay, had unstrapped and was already into the next room. "Hey, now this is new."

Joe drew himself across the threshold and stopped to survey the new area. "Holy… You aren't kidding!"

The room was huge. Not quite the size of the monstrous room that had held the vast supplies of mud and water which the aliens had apparently favored, but still immense. The part that shared a wall with the corridor was a hundred meters long, and the room extended out from that wall twice as far. The ceiling height was about three meters-tall enough that Joe didn't feel his usual impulse to stoop. A sort of clear lane or corridor, about three meters wide, ran from the door they'd just entered across the entire width of the room. At intervals of a bit less than every three meters there were…

Booths, Joe guessed. Each booth had a low desk or something like it on the sides, with holes or depressions in it and other structures they'd already deduced were for holding things down in microgravity. These were pretty much universally present throughout the base, although in a number of areas it had seemed they were in positions indicating they weren't used much. That had led some eternal optimists in the crew to suggest that Bemmius had some form of artificial gravity. Joe doubted it; but, hey, nothing wrong with hoping.

The "booths" weren't enclosed, though. They were more like security gates at airports, Joe decided-two walls and a roof, giving you a semienclosed space about three or four meters long. That was much longer than any security gate a human being would need, of course. But, adjusting for their greater size and the fact that their major axis was horizontal rather than vertical, just about right for a Bemmie.

You could just walk straight through from this side, down the long axis of the room to the far side. It was hard to make out details on that distant wall, but looking through the booth he thought he could see something on or against the wall directly aligned with the booth's opening. He checked a couple of others; yes, it seemed that there was something directly in line with each of the booths, way over on the far side of the room.

"Well, what have we found here?" Harry finally asked aloud.

"Looks like a bowling alley." That was Helen's voice. She must have tuned in to take a look. Joe gave silent thanks that she hadn't tuned in earlier, to hear "And I'll deal with you later, Mr. Baker. Conan the Barbarian, ha. You ever try using a bulldozer on one of my digs, you'll go out Conan the Castrati. As for you, Dr. Buckley, you ought to know by now that hell hath no fury like a bonedigger called a bonedigger."

Joe winced. Hastily, he focused on Helen's substantive remark. "Well, yeah, I suppose looked at from one way it does resemble a bowling alley. Sort of. But without any gravity worth talking about, you're not doing any bowling here."

"Close, and yet so far away." Hathaway's voice now broke in, clearly amused. "It's obvious y'all are civilians."

"What do you mean?" Joe and Helen asked, almost simultaneously.

Hathaway snorted. "People, that is a target range."

As soon as Hathaway said it, Joe felt like smacking his forehead. Probably would have, if he hadn't been wearing the suit.

"Of course. That desk up front is where you'd go and pick up your gun for practice. The thicker door-and I'll bet this wall's a lot thicker too-keeps you from accidentally shooting through."

"Which means," Hathaway continued, his voice drawling speculatively, "that through the other door there might be an armory."

"Maybe. Well, yeah, certainly, in some sense, if the weapons are still there. But probably not military arms. I mean, you guys don't stock missiles and tank killers at the target range, right?"

"No, we don't. Still, it'd be interesting to see what they've got. I'd guess a variety of small arms, probably their equivalent of pistols, shotguns, and rifles."

Joe checked his telltales. "We've got plenty of air, and I don't feel a need to find a bathroom yet. How about it, Harry? You want to check?"

"You have to ask? This is the fun part of the expedition, like unwrapping presents at Christmas. Afterwards is when we get to the part where some assembly is required and we discover that batteries weren't included."

Harry started moving the opener toward the rear door. "We'll have to take a look at what they use as targets, too. We may be able to get a lot of used rounds out of there, which will give us ways to verify the characteristics of the weapons."

"Glendale was right," A.J. put in. "A bunch of peace nuts aren't going to have a training area like this-especially on a base where every resource had to be brought in from outside, and where most rooms had to be carved out of solid rock. Look at the size of the place. They could have had more than thirty people practicing at once, even as big as they were. That's a lot of people slinging lead-or whatever they used-and a hell of a lot of lead to sling. Lots of resources. These were not peaceful people."

Now Jackie's voice broke in. "That's at least one too many assumptions. They might have been peaceful enough, intrinsically- but had to deal with somebody or something else that wasn't. There's a difference between aggression and self-defense."

"Okay, guys, quiet down, let us work a bit here." Tough suits or not, Joe didn't want to be distracted by chatter while exerting a lot of force on small areas.

This door, however, refused to budge. After five minutes of trying, Joe and Harry sagged back in the harnesses. Or, at least, tried to-microgravity did not lend itself well to looking exhausted, whether you really were or not.

"Sorry, Captain, I be givin' her everything we got!" Joe said, in a fake Scots accent.

"Ken, I think we'll have to break out the cutters," A.J. suggested. "I've been going over their suits' sensor signals, and while they're nothing like as good as the Faeries', I can get some pretty good info from them. I think the armory door's locked, which makes sense. Would you leave it open all the time? And if the power died, our friend there couldn't have unlocked the doors."

"I agree," Hathaway stated. "Let's do it-but I'm not sure Joe and Harry are the right ones for the job. Guys?"

Joe, still panting a little, looked at Ingram. "What do you think, Harry?"

Ingram looked longingly at the door. "I'd like to try, but we'd have to go back and get the stuff-and, being honest, I'm not trained in cutting tools for microgravity. Or even regular gravity. And stuff like that can cut our suits, so I don't think it'd be smart to play with it."

Reluctantly, Joe nodded.

"Don't give up quite yet, guys. If you can hang on for about ten minutes, I can have John Henry down there," A.J. offered.

John Henry was one of the heavy-duty drones. "Wasn't he working on securing parts of Phobos Hab Three?"

"His job's done for now. They won't need him for at least a few hours. Captain? How about it?"

"Let me check, A.J."

There was a pause while Hathaway verified with the work crews that the heavy-duty drone wouldn't be needed for a while. "Okay, go ahead. You've got a few hours at least."

Technically, Captain Hathaway didn't have to be involved in everything at this level but-like most of the crew-he wanted to see and watch everything going on. It would probably be several weeks before anyone started seeing this as a routine job.

"Shouldn't take too long. I get him down there and cut through the areas where the lock catches are engaged, maybe an hour or two tops, unless the stuff's a lot tougher than anything we've found so far. That might be true when we get to wherever they kept the big guns, if they had any. But I don't think it'll be the case here."

Joe took advantage of the delay to sip a bit of water and take a nibble of what he called "granola paste." The stuff was a tasty, if rather ugly-looking, snack he'd devised during the voyage. The stuff NASA provided them had offended every gourmet bone in Joe's body, once he tried it. He'd been quite sure he could come up with something better.

And so he had, with a little experimentation. His "granola paste" was just as easy to dispense from a tube as NASA's equivalent, yet had some real taste and even retained a little texture for chewing. People could eat it without feeling like they were eating baby food.

A while later, bright lights at the doorway announced the arrival of the squat, squarish work drone. Using both small jets and its own manipulators to move around, the remote was somewhat ominous in the way it made its entrance, seeming to climb through the doorway and drift forward.

"Okay, guys, stay clear. Electron-beam cutting is not something you want to be anywhere near."

"Roger that." Joe and Harry moved into the target range area. "Okay, we're plenty clear."

"Firing her up. John Henry, start drivin' that steel. Or those electrons, anyway."

A few minutes later, they heard A.J. grunt in what sounded a positive fashion.

"How's it going?"

"Cutting away. It's a little slow, but not too bad. You guys okay for another fifteen minutes or so? I think that'll do it for all the catches. This thing has three, near as I can tell."

Harry nodded, the motion easily visible through the mostly transparent helmet.

"We're both good, A.J. Go ahead."

It was only a bit longer than A.J.'s estimate when he gave the all-clear. "Give it a try."

After setting up the opener, the two looked at each other and then gave a pull. The door slid so suddenly that if they hadn't been strapped in, both would have been sent flying off through the nonexistent air.

"That did it, all right! Slid back almost as though it was still actually working. We're clear to enter."

As soon as the light flashed around the room's interior, Joe grinned.

"Captain, looks like our Bemmies were as fond as we were of different makes and models. Some of these look like the one the alien in the control room carried, but some of them are pretty different, allowing for the fact they've all got arrangements for being held by a Bemmius."

Joe drifted down the rows of racked weapons. One wall was devoted to rifle-style weapons. They had wider-flared bells at the ends, which Joe assumed were a three-"handed" grip and fire method.

"Damn, I wouldn't have wanted to go up against these guys," Harry murmured, looking down the barrel of a rifle. "That must be a two-centimeter bore. Maybe closer to three."

"No, you wouldn't," Helen concurred. "Greater mass and their construction make it fairly clear that with decent design they could hold and fire weapons of much greater caliber than we could."

"Some of these are personalized, I think," Joe said, focusing his light on what looked like swirls and patterns similar to the now-familiar Bemmius writing on the exposed surfaces of one of the handguns. "Maybe most of them, even. But the decorations faded or sublimed away in the millions of years since."

"Probably the side arms of the crew, kept safe when not needed but still personal possessions," Hathaway guessed. "If so, we've found another similarity between us and them."

Joe had reached the next rack. These weapons had odd fins and protrusions along their length. He glanced down the barrel. "Hey, A.J., tell me what you think of this one."

John Henry drifted over, focusing sensors on the indicated weapon. "Well, well, well. That is no chemical propellant weapon."

"What? What have you found?" That was Madeline's voice breaking in, sounding unusually excited. "Sorry, but I am in intelligence, you know. New weapons, that's like my Pavlovian trigger."

"Looks like a gauss gun to me."

"Gauss gun?" Helen repeated.

"A gun that uses magnetic fields to accelerate a metallic projectile to high speeds," Hathaway explained. "Mass drivers and maglev trains work on the same basic principles."

"So the protrusions there are part of the acceleration design?"

"Probably. We'll have a lot of work to make sure. If it is, that does imply some advances in technology over us, unless it's a plug-in model. We'll have to see. Good work, Joe and Harry. Looks like we'll have something to really entertain the folks back home with. Not to mention some gadgets to get our engineers to chew on."

"That's code for 'okay, now get out of there before you mess anything up for the people who will want to record where everything was to the millimeter,' am I right?"

"Otherwise known as 'don't mess with the bonediggers,'" came Helen's voice, darkly.

Hathaway laughed. "I'm so glad I don't have to translate for you. Besides, you've been out there a while. Time to come in."

"Right. Come on, Harry, we've got to lug this opener back. Unfortunately, A.J. didn't have the good sense to design John Henry like a pack mule."

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 36

"Too sparse for an archive."

"Ballocks," Jane Mayhew retorted. She shook her head vigorously-more so than was wise, actually, in a spacesuit. This was only the third time Mayhew had done an EVA outside of training, and she was still awkward at it. "Richard, we have no idea how many things they preferred to put on hard display, or their preferences in seating arrangements for groups or meeting places. We know those little pyramid things in the table were their equivalent of network connections, so accessing archives would be trivial."

Rich Skibow glanced around the room, studying the layout again. His more economical movements were partly a reflection of his personality, and partly due to his greater experience with working in spacesuits.

The wide, very long room had large, solid plaques on the wallsplaques which A.J. thought were bigger equivalents of the noteplaques found in the control room. A number of alien noteplaques were scattered about, with various diagrams and writing still preserved on their surfaces. Many of them rested on a very elongated table or desk, which had a number of the scalloped indentations they suspected were the equivalent of seating areas.

"A.J., would you quit grinning like a hyena?"

A.J. couldn't help it. The two linguists squabbled as though they'd been married for twenty years, and somehow after the one argument he associated the heated debates between them with good luck.

"Sorry, Rich." He tried to replace the smile with a serious look. "I agree with you, actually. Sorry, Jane."

"And why precisely, A.J.?"

"Well, if you look at things we've found so far, the Bemmies actually do seem to do things a lot like we do, allowing for the fact that they're three-handed, giant semi-land squids/giant crabs from hell. Their control room looks a lot like a control room, their shooting range looks a lot like a shooting range-and, to be honest, this looks a lot like a conference or briefing room. With the solid-display panels on the wall being for presentations."

He stared at what would be the head of the "table," if his guess was correct. The globe shape positioned there, etched with outlines and symbols, was mysteriously unrecognizable, quite unlike the others they'd seen.

Mayhew frowned. "I admit that would make sense with respect to these images"-she indicated the outlines on other wall displays which were clearly those of Mars' two hemispheres-"but what about that one?" She pointed to the same globe A.J. was wondering about.

"Their homeworld, maybe?" Rich proposed, after a moment. "Maybe like a flag or something?"

A noise that sounded suspiciously like a giggle in their earphones startled all three.

"Not their homeworld," Helen's amused voice said. "Our home-world. That's a globe of the Earth."

"But it doesn't look anything like-"

A.J. broke off, as did the two linguists, who had started similar protests. A.J. was pretty sure his own face had the same shade of red on it as theirs did.

How embarrassing.

"Oh. Right. Sixty-five million years of continental drift."

"Very good, Mr. Baker." Dammit, that was a giggle!

More seriously, she continued: "That's Cretaceous-period Earth.

I know that map almost as well as I know the modern one, given that we've never been able to map it completely." After a pause, she said quietly, "A. J, could you give me a close-up of that map?"

"Sure thing. Here you go."

"What is it, Helen?" Jane Mayhew asked.

"Just a minute, please… Jane, Rich, would you take a look at the area to the middle right of center? There's a marking and some symbols there."

The two linguists squinted. Then Skibow nodded. "Yes, I see it. Those are the same symbols we've seen many times before-the ones we think mean 'crater' or something related to it."

There was a long silence. "I think I can tell you the subject of their last briefing."

The two scientists stared at each other. Captain Hathaway's voice broke in. "Now, hold on here. How could you possibly even guess that, Helen?"

"As near as I can tell, that symbol lies precisely on the Chicxulub site. Where it was sixty-five million years ago, I should say."

For a moment, no one got it. Then A.J. breathed, "Oh, Lord."

"Of course!" Jane Mayhew said suddenly. "He died exactly on the boundary, didn't he? You've told us how that coincidence always bothered you, Helen. But it wasn't a coincidence, was it?"

She looked around what they were now almost sure had been an alien conference room. "That's what they would have been discussing-the consequences of such an immense impact on the biology of the most interesting world in the solar system. And they would have sent some of their people down there to witness the events firsthand. As far away as you found the fossil, they'd have been in no immediate danger of being struck by the bolide and its fragments. But they hadn't figured on the danger posed by the local wildlife."

"Or maybe Bemmie just happened to be stuck down there by accident," A.J. tossed in. "Engine malfunction, whatever. That would still be enough to eliminate the coincidence aspect that bothers Helen so much. I think it's reasonable to assume they would have sent someone down to make recordings before the impact-but couldn't get away in time. And then the raptors got him."

He reached up to run his fingers through his hair, the way he did sometimes when he was thinking. Banging his hand into the helmet didn't seem as effective. "It's funny, though…"

"What is?"

"I dunno, exactly. Just something nagging at me. I think I'll go talk to Harry later and see if I can make sense out of this little voice that's telling me I'm missing something."

"Well, let me know if you do," Helen said.

"You win, Rich," Jane said. "I agree that it's a briefing room. Now, let's get these little plates gathered up and see what we can get out of them!"

"Certainly, Dr. Mayhew." Rich grinned at her through his helmet and turned to assist in carefully collecting the many noteplaques.

Madeline sped down Nike's central passageway as fast as she dared. Unlike in the one-third gravity in the ring, she was now effectively weightless. Fortunately, after months of experience, she was moving pretty damn fast. Also fortunately, it was all happening here. If and when major analysis operations started being done on Phobos itself, she'd have a devil of a time monitoring it all.

Reaching the door to the bridge, she came to a halt with the help of the handholds and then entered.

No one looked around immediately. All of them were focused on the consoles in front of them.

"Goddam it," A.J. muttered, completely absorbed in the images his VRD was showing him. "Something is completely screwy in the code. I don't know what, but it's cycling back on itself. That's why we're getting no transmissions out."

"We could try going to another transmission system," Jackie suggested.

"They're all using the same basic control system, though," A.J. said absently. "Which means that the same fault might show up. What'd you do to trigger this, Barbara?"

"Nothing!" protested Barbara Meyers, the chemical engineering analyst for the mission. "I've transmitted my reports a dozen times before; I do one every week. I've never had any problem."

"Well, something was different this time," Joe said impatiently.

Madeline sighed. This was about as bad a setup as she could have imagined. But there wasn't any choice.

"It was the content, not the procedure," she stated quietly.

All five heads in the bridge-belonging to Barbara Meyers, A.J.,

Joe, Jackie, and Captain Hathaway-whipped around. "What do you mean?" A.J. asked.

"Until now," Madeline said, keeping them all carefully in her view, "nothing of a really sensitive nature had been discovered or, at least, analyzed to the point that anyone intercepting the transmissions might be able to get anything useful from them of a military nature. However, Dr. Meyers was in the process of sending out a report containing a considerable amount of data on the chemical and structural analysis of the material found in the gauss weapons which she-and several others-believe is a room-temperature superconductor. Such a material would have a great number of military applications as well as civilian ones, and is therefore classified."

"Then-" Barbara Meyer's face hardened. "Then you've disabled communications? You've been spying on what I send, when I send it?"

"You were told that official communications had to go through channels, and you have been blatantly ignoring the policy."

"Then I'm sincerely glad I have." Meyers' green eyes narrowed. "If I'd been a good little girl, you'd have just quietly censored my reports and I'd be none the wiser, at least for a while."

"Yes, I would, if I'd thought it necessary. This is my responsibility and duty: maintain security."

Captain Hathaway seemed more puzzled than anything else. "A.J., I thought-"

"So did I." A.J. had a chagrined look on his face. "Obviously that was a ruse, a sort of decoy for me to find so that I wouldn't poke any deeper. But I don't think she's that much better than I am at this sort of thing, so it's something her agency rigged."

"You are quite correct, A.J." Madeline said, trying not to look at Joe. "I'm sorry. But it was a sort of lose-lose proposition here. The only way I wouldn't end up having to do this would be if we didn't find anything of great import."

"Well," Barbara said, "I happen to be a citizen of Australia, mate, not the bloody United States, so you can just sit on your security and twirl. I'm sendin' out my report one way or another."

"I'm afraid not. Captain Hathaway, I trust you will support your country's interests in this matter?"

Hathaway's face was grim. But his reply came with no hesitation. "Yes, of course. You have authority in this situation."

"Madeline, don't do this," Joe said quietly. She had to look at him, and it hurt. He was regarding her with a steady, sad gaze.

"Don't worry about it, Joe," A.J. said, getting up and walking toward the door. "There's nothing she can do to stop us in the long run. Hell, Doc,"-speaking to Meyers-"I can put together a transmitter that'll get through directly, if I have to. So she's compromised the relay, that won't stop-"

"Do not go there, A.J.!" Madeline said sharply. "I'm quite capable of keeping you under observation. And while I'm not as good as you are at your specialty, I'm more than good enough to make sure I'll know if you try something like that. And if you insist, I'll have you arrested and confined. And sent back, as soon as shuttle service starts."

A.J. stared at her incredulously. "You wouldn't dare!"

"That's not a bluff, A.J. Ask the captain."

"She's got the authority, A.J. And if you go ahead, she can probably charge you with some kind of federal crime that'll land you in prison for a while."

Hathaway's voice was cold, as were his eyes looking at Madeline. Then he turned his head and bestowed the same cold gaze on A.J., who was staring at him in disbelief. "A.J., you'll have to let her decide what gets sent and what doesn't."

"The hell I will!" The blond imaging expert whirled on her, reaching out. "You listen to me, you-"

Her body was already in motion. She had been practicing moves both in microgravity and in one-third gravity, using both the Nike's ring and hub, every day since the voyage began. Not that the outcome was ever in doubt, despite the fact that A.J. outmassed her almost two to one.

Arms met, one deflecting the other, catching, turning, pulling A.J. smashed hard against the wall. The grunt he gave was audible throughout the room. Then, to her surprise, A.J. chuckled, albeit with some rather pained overtones. "Jesus H. Particular Christ on a pogo stick. You've been playing the game that deep?"

"I'm sorry. Really, I didn't want to do that. Or any of this."

"Then why are you, Madeline?" Joe asked gently, as she released A.J., who was dabbing at a cut lip. She tentatively handed the information expert a tissue, which he accepted without comment. Then she looked at Joe.

"Because not everyone is an angel, Joe, or even a decent imitation of a saint."

"Except our blessed government, of course."

"It tries, at least!" she said, keeping a tight leash on her voice. "As technology advances, Joe, it becomes easier and easier for smaller and smaller groups to become threats. There are software/hardware packages out there now allowing people to prototype new gadgets in their home for a few thousand dollars. And there's not a damn way to control what they make, despite all the tricks people have tried to build into the hardware and software. No matter how smart your security people are, the hackers and crackers are always just a little smarter. Hand them the blueprints and they make it. Do you think psychopaths and terrorists won't use anything they can get their hands on? Do you think every government out there is happy with ours? Have you studied history, or are you ready to repeat it? Create a new weapon, someone will use it eventually. Create a new technology, and one of the first things someone will do is figure out how it can be used to kill people. Of course our government isn't perfect, but your choice is to just let information run free. Well, information is a weapon. Perhaps the most powerful weapon of mass destruction ever invented. And I'm trying to keep those weapons out of the wrong hands for as long as I can. Because I know all about the 'wrong hands,' Joe."

Silently, she cursed herself. The last line showed her just how very personally involved she had gotten, how precariously weak her objectivity had become. She hadn't meant to refer to that at all, not even in private, let alone here. Only Joe would understand the reference, in the first place. It wasn't the sort of thing a professional should ever let slip. She hadn't made mistakes like that for years.

"You know this is going to break down the very minute shuttle service starts, right?" A.J. said finally, after a long silence.

She nodded. "Yes, I know. But a year or so lead will be much better than nothing."

A.J. glanced at Joe. She suddenly realized that A.J. trusted Joe's instincts more than his own-which meant he was in some ways a lot wiser than she'd given him credit for.

Joe looked over at Captain Hathaway, who was grimly silent, then tilted his head in a reluctant half-nod.

A.J. turned to Barbara. "Barb, we're going to all have to get together on this." Madeline tensed. "The situation sucks-and you can bet we'll all have something to say about it when we get home. But we can't afford to turn Phobos and Nike into war zones, a