As I'd normally post three chapters per week, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, you get two in a row this week to get us on schedule.
The message ended. Madeline Fathom Buckley stared at the screen, blankly.
“Oh… Jesus, Maddie…” Joe put his hands gently on her shoulders.
Without a word she turned and pressed into him, letting his arms enfold her. For the first time since… since she could remember, all she wanted was someone to hold her, tell her it would be all right, and make things better.
“That son of a bitch.” She heard Joe growl, even as his hands gently stroked her back. “After everything you did for him!”
She pushed away, jaw setting. “Don’t you dare blame him!”
“Huh?” Joe looked puzzled, then apologetic. “Not him,” he said, nodding at the now-dark screen where Director Hughes’ face had just moments before finished speaking. “The president. That rat bastard. Our mission—carried off on his timetable, so we could be doing our stuff right around election time—practically gave him the election. And now he turns around and does this?”
Madeline couldn’t help it. She laughed. Then she hugged Joe so tightly that he grunted in discomfort. “You and your friend A.J. are such sweet little idealists. Every time I think you’re not quite as innocent as he is, you say something that shows me you are. That’s exactly why he’s doing this, you silly man. He may have built the election on what we did, but in private we—and especially I—embarrassed the hell out of him and his administration. Once he got the election in the bag, there wasn’t any way he’d forget that. No politician likes getting put over a barrel. There wasn’t any way he can get rid of the boss, though, so I knew—we both knew—he’d come after me. But I thought he’d do it differently.”
She frowned, tapping her foot—a motion that, in one-third gravity, tended to slowly cause her to rotate in a lazy circle around her other foot. Director Hughes’ message—delivered across the two hundred million miles that currently separated Earth and Mars—was of course couched in the most positive terms. Given that the president and National Security Advisor George P.D. Jensen—two of Madeline Fathom’s least favorite politicians—were also in the message, Hughes had probably had no choice but to transmit it that way. She knew the director well enough, however, to know that the very exuberance of the message was his way of apologizing in public. The director had thanked her for her stellar service on the Nike mission, her courage and resourcefulness in the crash and survival thereof, et cetera, et cetera, and all the long hours she’d spent trying to maintain the balance between the needs of security and the practicalities of mankind’s first sustained space exploration and colonization effort, et cetera, et cetera, and now said the time was right to reward her for this effort by promoting her. She was hereby relieved of her responsibilities as the representative of the United States’ security interests in the Mars system. A new security representative had already been selected and was on his way. Madeline and Joe were welcome to take passage home on the Nike when she left, and the president had personally authorized a large baggage allowance so that they would have to leave nothing behind.
There was more, including fatuous congratulations from both the president and Jensen, but what it boiled down to was simple: now that the president no longer had to worry about elections, he was yanking her back to Earth and sending out someone who’d do what the president said instead of thinking for ten seconds about consequences.
She stopped suddenly and stomped her foot, sending her a short distance into the air. This startled Joe, who’d been watching her with both concern and admiration; the slow rotation made for an excellent view, and in private Maddie preferred pretty minimal clothing. Maddie was of course aware of Joe’s scrutiny, but didn’t begrudge him the view.
“I’m okay, Joe. I... I just don’t want to go. Even with you.”
“We don’t have to. You can stay here. I know Ares isn’t exactly in the best shape, but we don’t have to leave just because you’re not working here.”
That’s true, she thought, with a sudden moment of wonder and fear. She stared at Joe. “I don’t have to work for the HIA?”
Joe knew why she phrased it as a question. “No. You don’t have to go back and push papers. You can stay here—at least as long as Ares manages to keep operations running.” He studied her sympathetically. “But I know it might be hard to do that with some other guy trying to play super-security man.”
She managed a slight laugh. “Oh, I think it would be at least as hard for my replacement, whoever he is. Remember, I happen to have a rather inflated reputation.”
She tried to sit next to Joe with her usual relaxed intimacy, but despite all her years of discipline and training, she suspected Joe could sense her tension. She wondered if this was what a zoo animal would feel if someone just took away the cage. She’d always thought her attachment to the Homeland Investigation Authority was just loyalty on her part, but she now realized it had also been habit and psychological safety.
“Can we drop this subject? Maybe… there was something you were going to tell me, I think, before the call came in?”
As usual, Joe—bless him—didn’t try to keep on the topic and press for a solution, like ninety percent of the men she knew would have. He simply leaned back and smiled, almost naturally, as though nothing had happened. “Well, yeah, there was. You’ve been working so hard on the Mars Base—setting up stuff for the U.N. to take possession—and then running over here and helping A.J., me, Glenn, Reynolds, and the rest put up our own colony, that I think I’ve gotten a piece of political news ahead of you, while you were out there working.”
That would be something of a little coup for Joe, given that Maddie usually paid far more attention to the news than he did. “Okay, give.”
“They’ve announced the Director of the Interplanetary Research Institute.”
Maddie sat up. “You win, Joe. How’d you hear this before I did?”
“Because I got it from Helen just a little bit before you came in, who got it in a private message from A.J., who I guess was at the U.N. for some reason.”
She laughed. “Four degrees of separation? All right, tell me, who is it? Pelletier? Markovny? Shah?”
“Nope. Nope. Nope.”
Madeline raised an eyebrow. Those had been the three leading contenders. The remainder was a morass of a dozen names, none of them thought to be likely choices. “Okay, give.”
“A very good friend of ours.”
She felt the grin start automatically. “Not—”
“Doctor Nicholas F. Glendale, yes—and from what A.J. said, Nick was as floored as the rest of us. He was sure he was way back in the pack of also-rans. And they’ll be sending him out here as soon as Nike can restock. He’ll be here in, say, four months—and A.J. probably will be, too.” Joe looked momentarily depressed. “Though it’s anyone’s guess as to how much longer we can stay here after that.”
Maddie knew exactly how difficult things were going to get for Ares. A year, two years, but if a solution wasn’t found… Even if one was found, it would likely take time to implement. They needed something that would give Ares more breathing space right now. Even just one more load, even half a load on Nike or one of the other similar vessels being constructed, and Ares could make three or four years—enough to probably get past the pinch. But half a load was over seven hundred tons, far beyond Ares’ means…
Suddenly she was on her feet, bouncing across the room to grab her uniform and pull it on.
“Where are you going, Maddie?”
Madeline smiled, all her momentary uncertainty gone. Hughes overly-genial message had sent a message as clear as if he’d recorded it straight out: do whatever you have to.
“Not far at all. Just got to send a few messages. But I have to look my best for the job interview.”
“She can’t do that!”
Director Hughes had to restrain a rather unprofessional grin. Truth be told, he had been anticipating this moment ever since the president, through Jensen, had revealed their plan to perform a genteel railroading, followed by a private tar-and-feathering, of his best and favorite agent.
“I’m afraid that’s not true, Mr. Jensen. She’s a free woman in a free country. There’s nothing in her contract that requires that she accept a promotion to Assistant Director of the HIA. True, it’s a hell of a career move, but if she wants to stay on that godforsaken rockball as a glorified security guard, there’s nothing I can do to stop her.” He was very deliberately exaggerating his sympathetic tones. Jensen was the National Security Adviser he had come to detest more than any other who’d held that post in twenty years.
George P.D. Jensen’s long, narrow features were twisted with sour anger. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t you get cute with me, Hughes! She knows way too much—“
“It doesn’t work that way, Mr. Jensen, and you know it perfectly well. Americans don’t give up their rights when they go to work on behalf of national security. They do accept certain practical limitations, but they are neither slaves nor indentured servants. Intelligence agents can quit or retire any time. They just have to keep the secrets they’ve learned and return any government property they have. Which Madeline Fathom did. I have her letter of resignation, her Official Secrets certification, and all her equipment accounted for. She’s now a private citizen and completely within her rights to take a job with anyone she likes.”
“But for a foreign power—“
“The U.N. is not exactly a foreign power, in the normal sense of that term. Lots of Americans have worked for U.N. agencies, over the decades. Besides, Nicholas Glendale is an American citizen. And he’s the one who offered her the job.”
Jensen practically snarled. “A security job—on Mars! Where she’ll on the inside of the U.N. installation and I’ll bet will be doing her best to stonewall Keld—ah, our new agent.”
“Keldering, eh? A better choice than I might have expected, even if he is a major league political ass-kisser. Madeline might actually have to think around him once in a while. But that’s just as well. I wouldn’t want her getting too bored out there.”
For a moment, as the implications sank in, Jensen just gaped at Hughes, open-mouthed. “You… you told her to do this!”
Hughes expression became very lugubrious. “Mr. Jensen, how could you suggest such a thing? I’ve sent her just one message since that decision was made, and you were sitting right there with me when I sent it. In the most enthusiastic terms I could think of. Exactly, I will note, as you instructed me to.”
He managed to avoid the temptation to say anything further. Easily, even. Hughes was a veteran of decades of Washington’s infighting and turf wars—a veritable Achilles, you might say—and he was far too smart to say openly what he felt. Thought they could jerk him and his top agents around, did they? Damn fools. In their eagerness to get rid of Fathom, all they’d done is leave her right where they didn’t want her, on Mars—and now with absolutely no control over her at all. For anyone who knew Madeline, that outcome had been a foregone conclusion.
Still, it was hard not to let any traces of his gloating show openly. He turned his chair so he faced away from the National Security Advisor, as if admiring the view of the capital through his window. It was a fairly spectacular view, actually.
And Joe survives a chapter. What were the odds?