Portal – Chapter 18

Chapter 18.

“… and the rest will be up to Dr. Glendale. You all understand the timing and the necessities of the situation, Maddie.” The well-loved face had a few more lines, but the iron was still in Director Hughes’ voice – along with the underlying affection. “If you can maintain your timetable, while there will be questions about the official version of events in Jupiter system, the co-operation of Ares, the IRI, and the EU will be able to keep them to a murmur, I think. Maneuvering the right people into a position of potential vulnerability will take some delicacy, but I’m doing the best I can to make sure that the revelation of your other survivor, and the story he’ll have to tell, will have the necessary effect.”

     Maddie nodded, knowing that the Director wouldn’t be able to see it but still feeling as though she was being briefed on an operation. She touched a button and paused the playback, smiling fondly. For just this short time, it was like being back in his office, back in her old job, and even though she had come to realize how very, very bad it would have been to stay in that line of work much longer, it was one of the most comforting feelings in the world to hear that voice, dryly outlining the latest developments and making sure she was prepared.

Keldering and Hughes, with their various contacts, had managed to verify what Madeline and Hohenheim had both suspected: the ultimate decisions which had led to Odin being armed and Fitzgerald being placed aboard lay with the ESDC and, specifically, Chief Operations Officer Goswin Osterhoudt. Multiple other people of course were involved, but only a few of them were the ones responsible, those who had made the decisions, arranged the double and triple blinds that hid everything, the amazingly deft and complex alterations of design that had – for the most part – hidden the entire installation of four capital-class coilgun cannon, loading mechanisms, and even ammunition and components from shipyard and inspection personnel alike.

At that thought, she shook her head again in chagrined disbelief mingled with unwilling respect. Why can’t people with such talent focus on something constructive?

Of course, she knew – none better – the answers, the real answers, to that question, and those answers were the reasons she had worked for Hughes for most of her life. To put a stop to them.

She touched the button again and Hughes came back to life on her VRD. “I’ll send a summary with the details as soon as you’re prepared for departure.” He leaned forward, in a posture that caused her, too, to lean forward tensely. “Be careful, Maddie. There is of course no way that Osterhoudt and his people believe the official story is believed by anyone close to you; they know you know the truth. They must for the moment assume that you are keeping quiet because working with the EU is so much more advantageous than getting into a fight with the ESDC and potentially embarrassing and alienating your current allies.

“Once you are back in the Inner System, they know that may change drastically; right now, you need everyone working together, but when you are safe? Perhaps not. You may of course continue in that vein, but you and I know very well how this sort of person thinks, how they work. They will assume the worst, and act, if they think acting will do them any good.”

“I know, sir,” she said, “but by that point they may well realize that there’s no way we kept everything secret from key people – such as yourself – and decide that their best chance is to push on the political angle to keep from being prosecuted. As Hughes continued, she felt her face go from fond relaxation to the controlled coldness of HIA Agent Madeline Ariadne Fathom. He’s completely correct. People like Osterhoudt, despite being utterly brilliant, are at the same time terribly, terribly stupid in their arrogance.

There was a short moment when fondness returned, at the very end: “… but I have faith you’ll all come through this, and at the end you and the General will bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. I’ll make sure everything’s in place, Maddie, if I have to go back into the field one more time before I retire.” He smiled. “A welcome-home present to my favorite ex-agent.”

She deliberately held onto the smile for a few moments before activating private channels. “A.J., Horst, Mia, General, secure conference, as soon as possible.”

“Secure… okay, hold on,” said A.J.’s puzzled voice. Similar questioning tones came from the other two, but within five minutes all four confirmed they were on.

“Very well, Agent Fathom,” the General said, with only a trace of humor at the use of her old title, “We are all in conference, if you can put up with a few seconds delay.”

“I can. I’m calling this conference between us four because at this point I do not know if there is any particular reason to include any others.” She summarized most of the update she had gotten from Director Hughes. “The Director has delayed his retirement to make sure this gets done,” she continued.

“Hold on, won’t that draw attention to him, make people wonder what he’s up to?” A.J. asked.

She smiled tightly. “Oh, undoubtedly. On the other hand, he’s planned to retire at least four times, and backed out every time before, so this isn’t really going to surprise anyone. More important, though, is that we’re going to be in a lot of potential danger once we start back.”

The General’s image responded a moment later with a raised eyebrow. “Danger? Do you imagine they will, what, be preparing to fire a larger coilgun at us? That would be complete madness, would it not?”

“A coilgun, yes, that would be completely insane,” Fathom agreed. “They aren’t that stupid, unfortunately. Just as unfortunately, they will almost certainly be very arrogantly stupid in other ways. General, correct me if I’m wrong, but Mr. Fitzgerald had his own control protocols for the Odin, including the weapons but also other systems, yes?”

“Scheiss,” Horst said distinctly. “You are correct. I believe I understand what you are getting at, Maddie.”

“Dammit,” A.J. said. “They’ll have backdoors into the Odin’s systems.”

“That’s one possibility, yes,” Madeline confirmed.

Mia nodded and touched controls that were out of view. “During the … disaster, there were no fewer than four interfering protocols trying to direct the cannon operations. Mr. Fitzgerald had placed cutouts in other vital systems under his direct control. As he was not a master programmer himself, any more than you, Madeline, those were either present all along, or were at least making use of embedded hooks in the software that gave him priority access.”

“The latter, I’d guess,” Horst said after a pause. “The main control protocols were given to the General, once the need to reveal the existence of the weaponry was determined. Correct, sir?”

“Yes. He and I had access to other override protocols as well, but the ones he used were separate. I believe many of them must have been updates he received or created en route, once he began to suspect that I would not be… entirely cooperative.”

“Then we must presume that these buried control systems are still at least partially operative. As we have not renewed full connectivity with the outside world for Odin, they have not had an opportunity to activate them, but as we get closer in-system and are using Odin as part of our rescue vessel, the chances that they will be able to make contact and in some way take control of shipboard systems increases.”

“No, no, this is just stupid,” A.J. burst out. “They couldn’t possibly think we didn’t send Nick the straight dope, can they? I mean, really, would they think we are that moronic?”

Madeline smiled sadly. “No, they will obviously assume that Nicholas has the information, and possibly Keldering. If they choose to act, it will be as a coordinated, multilayered operation that only something as large as the ESDC – and, speaking honestly, some of the other less-official organizations it is connected to – could manage. The goal will be to eradicate all first-hand data, including whatever authenticated data you have sent to Nick. As the old saw goes, ‘three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead’; they also have the absolute certainty that Nicholas Glendale cannot have told more than a few people of the truth, because otherwise that truth would have leaked, not merely become suspected.”

“They couldn’t get away with –”

Maddie waved her hand abruptly, cutting A.J. off, then sighed, leaning back in the seat of the otherwise-empty cabin of Munin. “A.J., of course they can’t get away with it, not in the long run. They’d have to have everything fall absolutely their way, all the way down the line, and miss nothing.

“But they will be desperate by the time we are getting in-system. Men like Osterhoudt will not go to jail. They will take any risk if they see the danger looming close. And they will convince themselves that if they can get rid of the two damning pieces of evidence – the survivors and the wrecks – then despite any circumstantial evidence no one will try to bring it home to them, because the potential loss is greater than the gain.”

The others were silent for several seconds. Then the General nodded decisively. “You are completely correct, Agent Fathom. I know such people. Fitzgerald himself was such a man; there was no true way he could have gotten away with his deception in the end, yet he was still proceeding on the assumption that somehow he could. And he was, I am afraid, far brighter than those who hired him. Therefore…”

“Yes, General. We will all begin looking through the Odin for these trapdoors,” Horst said.

“And taking them out,” seconded Mia.

“But not completely,” said A.J., with a devilish glance at Maddie.

As the others looked at him in puzzlement, Madeline could not restrain a grin. “You have gotten to know me too well, Mr. Baker.”

“Evil knows evil, Ms Fathom-Buckley,” he said. “If they’re going to be stupid, far be it from us to keep them from proving it.”

“Ha!” Horst exclaimed, as both the General and Mia began smiling as well. “We will leave the access protocols and spoof the control reaction, yes? Make them think they can still control Odin –”

“– and record the whole attempt,” Madeline confirmed. “In the true principles of your favorite aikido, A.J.; we will allow them to firmly and finally convict themselves.”