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«Threshold», Eric Flint

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Ryk E. Spoor

PART I:

POLITICS

Political Compromise, n: an arrangement to solve some complex problem which is satisfactory to no one except the politicians who arranged it.

 

Chapter 1

"I'll sue all of your asses, you little bastard! I didn't invest my money in your pie-in-the-sky operation to-" "-get only a two hundred percent gain in ten years? Well, tough, that's what you're getting." A.J. rose, mirrored-VRD gaze two inches higher than Anton Margulis' angry brown eyes. "Take it or leave it. But let me guarantee you that if you sue us, even if you win, you'll wish you'd lost. Please, though, go ahead, try it. You've been such a prick ever since you invested, acting as though you thought your money made you a goddamn expert, I'd almost think it was worth it. And I'll enjoy every minute of making you look like the class-A jackass you are." He saw Margulis' fists tightening. "Or you could take a swing at me, and I could hand you your ass in a sling. Any way you want it. So, do you want your money, or do you want a fight?" Margulis glared up at him for a moment. A.J. kept the sneer carefully fixed on his face. He knew the advantage his blank mirrored stare had in this situation, and liked it that way. Finally the speculator's gaze dropped, he snarled something that A.J. deliberately did not let his sensors enhance to comprehensibility, and he grabbed up the settlement form and scrawled a barely legible signature across it. The smart-paper form recorded Margulis' retinal for verification. "Thank you, Mr. Margulis." Hank Dufresne took the form. "And if you will check your designated account, you will find I have just authorized the transfer." Margulis grunted something that might, charitably, have been described as a version of "thank you" and left the office with considerably more noise than was necessary. A.J. collapsed back into his chair, feeling the weight of Earth's gravity crushing him down. He'd worked hard to keep in shape back on Mars, and overall he thought he'd done fairly well, but there was a big difference between keeping in shape andliving in a 1-g environment after being on Mars and similar low-gravity settings for two years. "For a minute I thought he was going to call my bluff." "So did I, and not the part involving a fistfight, either." Hank shook his head. "Can't you find a more diplomatic way to do this?" "Look, you want diplomatic, you get Joe here. Better yet, Glenn." Hank favored him with a sour look. "I would have, if it wouldn't take another six months." He relented slightly.

"Actually, I guess it was a piece of luck that any of you three were here when it came to a head. Some of these guys-like him-won't take anything that isn't said face-to-face seriously." "Hewas the last, wasn't he? Because that was one hell of a chunk of change we had to hand him." "The last one of any note. And I did get one piece of good news: Your TV-host girlfriend-" "My wha-Oh, you mean Myranda." Myranda Sevins, one of the daytime talk mavens, had allowed A.J. to basically use her show as a publicity platform in the days after the big accident that had nearly cost A.J. his life. To their surprise, she'd actually become something of a convert, investing a moderate (for her) amount in Ares. "What about her?" "She sent us another check instead of asking for her money back. Said she figured we'd find a way to make money out of the deal somehow, so if we'd just give her stock she'd back off on the county-sized Mars homestead." A.J. gave a tired grin.

"Thank all the gods for that. I know my limits, and I couldn't outfighther on the publicity front, even with Helen and Maddie helping." "So… you're not broke, are you?" A.J. tried to look nonchalant, then shrugged, looking down. "Not exactly. Liquid assets are pretty much tapped out, though. I've got a bunch of options and locked-in investments of other sorts at Dust-Storm that I could liquidate at a terrible loss, but I'd also lose out on my position there. Which was really what I came here to solidify." Hank nodded. He knew A.J. had made the trip back from Mars specifically to work on major advances to the "Faerie Dust" sensor motes and use his unique talents and access to the alien-technology discoveries made by NASA and Ares to finish acquiring a major stake in Dust-Storm Technology.

It just so happened that a week before A.J. landed, the U.N. finished its acrimonious arguing over how the entire "Mars situation" would be handled. That had set off an awful lot of political and business landmines, including the current crisis at Ares. A.J. brushed back his unruly blond hair. "Anyway, that puts Ares back in the black, or at least enough in the gray that we can operate on for a while, right?"

He felt his gut tighten as he saw the older man's normally cheerful face go carefully neutral in expression. "Well, A.J., yes and no. That takes off the immediate financial pinch, but we have a major issue that's only partly to do with money and investors. If we actually had been granted title-or, let's be accurate, since there wasn't any way we'd actually be grantedownership of a planet-right to exploit for some reasonable time on all of Mars, we'd have kept our investors. Or even if we got a really big chunk of it." "Hey, wedid! " A.J. said.

"Joe's stunt made it so that we didn't lose out!" Hank shook his head.

"We got lucky, yeah. The Buckley Addendum was rammed through, but even though the administration claimed that was to ensure 'fair treatment' of Ares, it was just taking advantage of the situation to make sure that there was some mechanism to allowother government and corporate agencies to claim rights on extraterrestrial territory by allowing the first person to set foot on an extraterrestrial body to have a ninety-nine-year no-holds-barred lease on some portion of that body.

The wording, of course, allows them to decide how much you can claim.

Anyway, the problem is we've got a lot of good territory, by Martian standards, but only about nine percent of what we hoped to get-which is not 'a really big chunk' to the investors. What would your reaction be to someone who got you to invest in new sensors, and the sensors only did about one-tenth of what they claimed when you invested?"

"But…" A.J. shut up. He knew thathe could clearly differentiate between the scenarios, but what Hank was telling him was, basically, that many other people couldn't, and to them Ares was already a failure. "Let's get to the point, Hank." A.J. jumped. He'd forgotten Anne Calabrio was present. She was the only other Ares board member currently on Earth. "We've ditched the whiners and the guys who somehow ignored all our warnings about speculation and so on," Anne said. "We aren't broke, and we've got, what, five million square miles of mostly prime Martian real estate. We're helping build Phobos Station along with NASA, our own colony is starting up fairly well for something so early in the development stages, so what's the problem?"

"The problem is that we're about to be left out in the cold," Hank said bluntly. As Ares' financial genius, his job had always been to look ahead and find innovative ways to keep the perennially cash-short speculative venture afloat. A.J. couldn't ever recall a meeting where he'd looked more grim. "The presidential election ended just a little before the Mars-Phobos Treaties were finalized, and the president wasn't happy about the results of the treaties. Sure, anyone with sense would have realized that something like it would be the end result, but I think you people know that our president hasn't always been sensible unless what you said agreed with what he wanted. My contacts say he's going to be pulling in the wagons and focusing on purely U.S. interests-which means the government and large businesses.

From his point of view, Ares really stole a march on NASA even though we were working together, and we've already been paid for our efforts.

He probably doesn't think he owes us anything, and like most people he doesn't have any real gut grasp of the demands of space travel. So he won't think twice about doing things that can cause us one hell of a lot of problems." "Like…?" A.J. prompted. "Like starting to make us pay our own freight. Yeah, we've started our colony, but it'll be a lot of long, hard years before we can even dream of them being fully self-supporting. If everyone's playing nice, they recognize that helping us stay established helps them with our expanding resource base and so on, but I don't think a lot of these guys will get that angle." Anne sucked in her breath as the implications sank in. "Oh, hell." "No kidding," Hank said. A.J. turned the implications over in his mind. His gut churned as the situation clarified. "You mean we'll have to pay full price for launch capacity. When our own launch capacity never got developed outside of NASA because of the emergency get-to-Phobos-nowproject." "It gets better. You know, I wasn't stupid when we got sucked into this. One of the deals I cut was that after theNike mission was finished-and by the contract I negotiated, it was finished once we'd gotten to Phobos and provided a few months support-Ares could have any available launch capacity basically at cost of launch, no more. But…" Hank ran a hand through his prematurely white hair. "The treaty divvied up Mars, and for political points the U.S. used NASA's foresight in making theNike engine-rocket assemblies detachable to offer each of the other space-capable nations-China, the E.U., Japan, Russia, and India-one pretested, functional, high-power NERVA engine to 'help bring all of Earth into the true Space Age,' as the president's one speech put it. The extra engine they agreed to give to the U.N. so they had something to use for their administration of the 'common property of the human race.' "

"So? That should help us, right? More people have a reason to get into space, and-" Anne shook her head, and A.J. felt his face flush with embarrassment as he saw Hank's almost pitying look. "You're such a genius with your stuff that I keep forgetting that you're also as clueless as a kid sometimes. No, it hurts us. Because all the countries involved are now going to be usingall of their available launch capacity to start building their own ships so they can hopefully find something-like another Bemmius base-that they can claim for their own use under the Buckley Addendum. So…" Now he got it, and A.J. cursed aloud. "Son of a bitch. So thereis no 'available' launch capacity for us to use! That means that we'll be competing directly with the government for its own launch capacity. They'll sell it to us, probably, for 'humanitarian' reasons-translated: they won't let us starve to death, probably-but they'll make it so expensive that we'll eventually have to give up and come home." "Bingo." He slammed his fist on the table. "Dammit, they can't do that! We fuckinggave them Mars! They wouldn't even havefound that stuff without me! If Ares hadn't shown them up early on, they wouldn't even be landing there now!" Hank shrugged. "Fair doesn't mean much in politics. We aren't getting anywhere with that line of thought. We need a solution."


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