March, 1921 PD

Chapter Seventeen

“Come in, Jack. It’s good to see you again. Have a seat.”

“Thank you. It’s good to see you again, too,” Jack McBryde said, mostly honestly, as he obeyed the polite command and settled into what he privately thought of as “the supplicant’s chair” in front of the desk in the office reserved for Isabel Bardasano’s use whenever she visited the Gamma Center.

Bardasano smiled at him with an edge of sardonic amusement, almost as if she’d read his thoughts. Fortunately, telepathy was something even the Long-Range Planning Board hadn’t yet scheduled for inclusion into its carefully managed genomes, and he smiled back at her. He was one of the people who’d figured out long ago that showing fear — or even nervousness — in Bardasano’s presence, however reasonable those emotions might be, could be disastrous. Her own insouciance, even in the face of Albrecht Detweiler’s occasional temper tantrum, was famous (or infamous) among the uppermost echelons of the Mesan Alignment, and she would not tolerate weaklings among her own trusted subordinates.

McBryde ranked high among those subordinates. He wasn’t quite in the very uppermost tier, because he hadn’t gone operational off Mesa, or even held supervisory authority over any off-Mesa operation, in over a decade. On the other hand, he reported directly to her (whenever she was in-system, at any rate) in his position as the Gamma Center’s chief of security, which was probably one of the half-dozen most sensitive of the Alignment’s security services’ posts.

Personally, he was happier running the center’s security than he’d ever really been operating off-world, and he knew it. Unlike Bardasano, who actively enjoyed what was still referred to as “wet work,” McBryde preferred a position in which he was unlikely to have to kill people.

“It’s good to be back,” Bardasano said now, then shrugged slightly. “On the other hand, I’ve been out of touch too long. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I can see how that would be.”

In fact, McBryde was more than a little surprised Bardasano was in a position to do any “catching up.” She’d been back on Mesa for less than forty-eight hours, but rumors of how spectacularly her operation in the Talbott Cluster seemed to have blown up in everyone’s face were already rampant within the Alignment hierarchy. The truth was that if anyone had asked him, this time around, and despite her impressive record of past achievements, he would have placed his own bet against her retaining her position as Collin Detweiler’s immediate subordinate. For that matter, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t have betted against her even surviving, given the apparent magnitude of the debacle.

Which would have been pretty stupid of me, now that I think about it, he admitted to himself. Whatever else may be true about Albrecht and Collin, they don’t throw away talent without a damned good reason. And while this operation may have gone south on her, her overall track record really is almost scary.

“I’ve already viewed your reports on the Gamma Center,” she continued, and gave him a less amused and more approving smile. “My initial impression is that everything seems to have gone just a bit more . . . smoothly here at home than it did in Monica.”

“That, ah, was my impression, too, Ma’am, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”

“Oh, I’ll pardon it.” She snorted. “As far as we can tell so far, it was just one of those fluke things that pop up and bite field ops on the ass sometimes, no matter how carefully you prep ahead of time. But I’ve got to admit I hate investing that much time in an operation that comes apart quite as thoroughly as this one did.” She shrugged. “On the other hand, sometimes shit just happens.”

McBryde nodded, and he had to admit she’d always borne that same point in mind where others were concerned. If you screwed up because you were stupid, or failed to execute your part of an op — on time and as planned — because of something you did, she would very quickly make you wish you’d never been born. And in her public persona as the Jessyk Combine’s, she had deliberately cultivated a “mad dog” mentality where the operatives who had no clue they were working for the Alignment were concerned. That bloodthirstiness and obvious belief in the motivating power of terror were both significant parts of her cover, and the failures she eliminated to “encourage the others” were a completely expendable, easily replaced resource.

Still, there was an undeniably . . . vicious edge to her personality, one which enjoyed devising inventive punishments, even for Alignment Security personnel who screwed up too egregiously. But what very few people outside Security’s upper echelons grasped was that it was an edge she had firmly under control. And he was willing to acknowledge that the fact that that edge existed — and was generally known among her subordinates — was an extraordinarily effective efficiency motivator.

“I don’t think we’re going to find any significant problems or necessary adjustments to your procedures,” Bardasano continued. “There are a couple of things we may want to tweak a bit, because — just between the two of us, and despite what just happened in the Talbott Cluster — we’re getting closer to Prometheus.”

Her eyes, he discovered, were watching him very intently as she dropped the last sentence on him, and he felt himself stiffening. Only partly because of her suddenly closer scrutiny, too. Jack McBryde was one of the people who knew a great deal — almost everything, he suspected — about exactly what “Prometheus” implied, yet nothing had suggested to him that the culmination the entire Alignment had worked towards literally for centuries was as imminent as Bardasano seemed to be suggesting.

“We are?”

He made the question come out levelly, despite the undeniable, abrupt flutter of his pulse, and saw a flicker of approval in those intent eyes. Had she been deliberately probing to test his reaction to the news?

“We are,” she confirmed. “In fact, my personal opinion is that we may well be closer to Prometheus than even Albrecht realizes at this point.” Despite himself, this time McBryde’s eyes widened, and she shrugged again. “I’m not talking about doing anything to jog his elbow, Jack! I’m simply saying my read is that events are accelerating — in some ways, along lines we hadn’t even guessed might present themselves during our preliminary planning. You know we’ve always anticipated at least some of that.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he agreed.

“From your perspective,” she went on, “I think the most important implications are that it’s going to become even more important that the Gamma Center completes its various projects on time. I know!” She waved one hand as McBryde stirred and began to open his mouth. “R&D isn’t something that can be completed to a set schedule on demand. And even if it were, that’s not your end of the Center’s responsibilities. But what I’m going to need out of you is special attention to keeping those projects moving. Obviously, we need to go right on maintaining the highest possible levels of security, but at the same time, we have to be particularly aware of the need to avoid letting our security concerns get in the way of moving the various programs ahead.”

“I see.” He nodded in understanding.

“I know you’ve always tried to do that anyway,” Bardasano said. “I imagine having Zachariah as a sounding board hasn’t hurt in that respect, and I’m specifically authorizing you to go on doing that. I know the Gamma Center programs are only part of his responsibilities and that he’s not directly involved in the nuts and bolts on any of them. Try to keep him in the loop anyway, though. Use him as a conduit to the research directors — a way for them to ‘unofficially’ vent about any problems to someone they know can play advocate for them with the big, nasty ogre in charge of all the security restrictions getting in their way.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” McBryde grinned crookedly. “I’m sure Zack will be just delighted to have even more of them crying in his ear, but he’ll do it if I ask him to.”

“Useful things, siblings. Sometimes I wish I had one or two.” Bardasano might have sounded just a little wistful, although McBryde wouldn’t have cared to wager any significant sum on the possibility.

“In the meantime,” she continued, her tone shifting to something considerably more somber, “I think we have one particular problem I’m going to need you to spend some additional effort on.”