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Threshold: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 07:23 EDT



"—and that should catch anyone trying to sneak in, no matter how smart they think they are, or how advanced they think their skills and gadgets are," A.J. finished.

    Maddie couldn’t restrain a smile. "I seem to recall someone who used to tell me how free information wanted to be, and was the kind of guy I was afraid I’d have to have arrested just to maintain security."

    A.J. returned the smile. "Yeah, I remember him. In this case, the information wants to be expensive. Instead of fighting against that evil government witch who wanted to allow the government to take our hard-won data, I’m simply protecting Ares’ God-ordained profits. Completely different."

    "No similarity at all," she agreed gravely. The smile came back. "Anyway, let me say I’m a lot happier working with you than against you."

    "Same here. Neither one of us was enjoying that part of the first trip. And I’m glad it never came down to a real argument, because I’d have lost."

    She was startled by A.J.’s candid admission—the more so because it was, in her experience, only the first or second time he might have been underestimating himself. "You know, I think you’re growing up despite yourself." She leaned back until her chair bumped the wall of the Ceres control center.

    The sensor expert’s face gave a reflexive twitch, then settled back into a smile—but one with a startlingly sad edge. "Yeah. I try not to let anyone else see it, and sometimes I even fool myself. But I’m not the same A.J. Baker, not really. Not the guy who couldn’t keep from throwing an annoying photographer through a window, or who had to show off every six seconds to everyone, or who thought he was an unstoppable supergenius."

    "That bother you?"

    He shrugged. "Sure, some. But he also wasn’t the kind of guy who could really have appreciated Helen, even if that was the way I was when I first fell in love with her. You know, I think the whole crashlanding and survival bit really helped. Nothing like a little life-and-death peril to focus a guy on what really matters." He studied her a moment. "You, though, you’re more yourself than you were before. I’ll bet that’s another reason they let you go."

    "You could be right." She thought back to various conversations she’d had with Director Hughes over the years. He had always been very careful to maintain a professional quality to their relationship, but it was clear that he cared very much what happened to her. "You probably are right. I think he didn’t really like the idea of my continuing on as an agent until I was old enough for retirement. The administration just gave him a good excuse to get me to move on."

    "And Joe gave you motivation to move on. Well, enough psychology. Are we set?"

    "I think so." Madeline went over the security contingencies in her mind one last time. Odin would be arriving at Ceres soon, and while they’d spent months enroute debating and rehashing the various means by which they could satisfy treaty obligations and still not give away everything the IRI-Ares group had discovered, it was now down to the actual event. There was no telling how long Odin would remain on-station. The current friendly relationship between the IRI and the E.U. made it a matter of obvious policy to encourage them to stay and assist, and the E.U.’s own interests would obviously be served by being able to study another alien installation.

    She had also finally managed to confirm something she would rather not have had confirmed: the Richard Fitzgerald who served as Odin’s security chief was indeed the same person she’d feared it was. The man from northern Ireland liked to call himself a "commercial and industrial expediter," but he was really just a mercenary. He’d gotten his start in one of the elite British military units and had left that service under vague but apparently cloudy circumstances. "Cloudy," in this instance, being indistinguishable from "unsavory."

    She’d had one brush with him before, and she hadn’t liked what she’d seen one bit. Fitzgerald was undoubtedly intelligent and competent. But, so far as she’d been able to determine, he was also a man without a conscience beyond a determination to finish any job he started. For all practical purposes, a functional sociopath.

    What was even more disturbing was the fact that he’d been selected—from a very wide field of candidates—to be in charge of Odin’s security. Why? And that gave rise to other serious questions, the most important of which was the sheer size of the E.U. ship’s security force. Why would anyone in their right mind think they’d need almost ten percent of a large crew on an interplanetary ship to consist of security people? Did they think there might still be some live and hostile Bemmies lurking about, sixty-five million years later? That made as much sense as worrying there might still be dinosaurs roaming around loose.

    She realized she had been gazing into space while A.J. waited patiently. "Yes, all set, A.J. I know you want to get back to working on the ship with Joe and Ren, so go to it."

    "Cool. But actually, I’m going to go see Helen first. She’s just decided to take a break."

    Maddie raised an eyebrow. "How do you know that? I didn’t hear you call her."

    A.J. grinned. "Look down."

    For a moment Maddie didn’t understand what he meant—which was an unusual experience in itself. Then her gaze fell on her own pair of rings. "Ahh… she’s still wearing a Faerie Dust ring?" She frowned. "And how would she feel about you spying on her?"

    "Very hostile, if I actually used it that way. We had quite a talk on the subject—she’s way far from stupid, so she figured out what I could do with it if I wanted to. But she doesn’t mind if I have it just give me alerts on important general events, and she can always shut it off if she wants to. I gave her a general shutdown code that will force the motes to basically do nothing other than sit there and glitter. And some important general events, besides injury and so on, include detecting when she’s ‘on work’ and ‘off work’. I got an ‘off work’ ping just a little bit ago." He pulled on his Tayler-built suit as he spoke; this portion of the base wasn’t connected to the others by pressurized corridors yet. "So I’m off to see my wife before I go geek with my friends. Is that grown-up or what?"

    "With you, that’s a scary thing, A.J. Have fun." She watched him leave and then turned back to the security consoles. She caught her own reflection in one of the panels. Grim.

    "Yeah, me too," she said wryly. She was keeping a reasonably positive face up for the others, but her instincts were screaming at her. The whole setup made her nervous. Odin’s design bothered her. The fact that the massive E.U. ship carried a hell of a lot more personnel than Nike ever did bothered her. The existence of a ruthless mercenary like Fitzgerald as chief of security got her hackles up, as did the fact that he was in charge of a grossly over-sized security force. This, with two separate secrets they were trying to hide, and gods alone only knew what else might be here to protect.

    Rationally, her worries made no sense. Oh, there were security issues, and it was quite possible that one, or both, of their little secrets would be blown. But that was just a professional worry, and nothing that should be causing her this level of concern. She usually trusted those instincts, but cloak-and-dagger stuff just didn’t make sense this far out. Everyone knew where everyone was. It wasn’t like you could sneak onto Ceres, steal the top-secret plans, and get away without anyone noticing. Spaceships weren’t stealthy objects. Compared to the solar system they were small, yes, but they behaved so differently from everything else, radiated energy in such characteristic patterns, and were so very rare that everyone knew the location of everyone else’s ships and there was no way to hide.

    Yeah. There was no reason to get all nervous, like that time in Ecuador. Those people really had been up to something. She rubbed the almost-invisible white scar on her upper arm, almost unconsciously. No reason to worry at all.

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