Let us gather the rest of the players together...
"Ceres Base, this is Odin," Hohenheim said. "We are preparing to take up orbit around Ceres. Please advise us as to any particular orbital vectors you wish kept clear."
"The sky’s wide open, Odin." That was the easy-to-recognize Australian-accented voice of Bruce Irwin. "Just make sure you don’t cross over Nobel’s path and you’re good. Welcome to the outer system, mates."
"Thank you, Nobel, and it’s good to be here."
"Congrats on how well that mass-beam is working, too. I think we might all have to start changin’ over to those. This six-month ferry deal is getting a mite old."
Hohenheim laughed. "I admit, Captain Irwin, I much prefer going straight from here to there. Our engineers have been working on a design which might work to retrofit Nike. I would not be surprised if it could be adapted for Nobel as well."
A female voice responded. "Really? Dr. Secord speaking. I’d be very interested in looking at those."
"I will of course have to clear it with my superiors, but in the current spirit of cooperation between our groups, I feel sure that can be arranged. Now, on another subject, Ceres. Is Madeline Fathom available?"
The unmistakable harmless-sounding soprano voice answered. "Fathom here, General. How can I help you?"
"Well, let us be completely honest—off the record, so to speak. We at the E.U. are quite sure that you have found some items or data of interest already in your stay—the sudden reassignment of two of Ares’ finest engineers was a strong hint, you see. I also am very much aware that there are at least five times as many of us as there are of you, and you haven’t the space to house us, let alone maintain security. So I would like to have you give me specifics on where we may and may not go, rather than have us pretend that this really is a totally open and public installation of the U.N. with nothing whatsoever to hide."
There was a light chuckle following his speech. "I see. And in return we can then feel free to give you the ability to explore other areas with us?"
"Joint cooperation and expansion of the base in areas you have yet to reach does sound more interesting than playing a game of shadow-chasing, doesn’t it?"
"It does, General. Let me discuss details with our staff here, but I thank you for your candor. While I have played that game often, I don’t particularly like it."
"No more do I. We shall speak later, then."
The immediate pleasantries concluded, he cut off communication with the IRI/Ares base and turned to face Horst Eberhart. "I would like an immediate conference with you, Dr. LaPointe, Mr. Fitzgerald, Ms. Svendsen, and Dr. Meyer," he said. "Please gather everyone in the conference room; meeting to begin in one-half hour."
Hohenheim unstrapped and floated himself to the exit, then drifted/slid his way "down" to the habitat section, stopping briefly to use the facilities and then to grab a sandwich from his room. Long experience had taught him to always start a meeting with an empty bladder and a full stomach. That removed all pressures of urgency except those of the actual issues, and—in more competitive meetings—often gave you a small but significant edge over the less prepared.
He entered the room, which had not the one-third gravity of the Nike but instead nearly normal gravity. That could be done because of Odin’s larger radius and the increased rotation speed of the habitat ring. The general saw that the others were already waiting. Good, no delays. He disliked wasting time in meetings.
"Thank you all for coming so promptly. As you know, we are entering Ceres orbit and will be shortly in position to join our colleagues of the IRI and Ares." He saw Richard Fitzgerald give a momentary smile at the wording, but no one else was looking in that direction. "Obviously, they will have things they wish to keep from us, and, eventually, we hope to be in the same position. Right now, however, I am interested in conducting our presence here with the least possible amount of friction. Ceres Base is putting together a list of places we may go and places they prefer we do not go. I intend to accommodate them, even though legally I might be able to argue that we have the right to go anywhere other than, perhaps, life-supporting control areas. The European Union is currently interested in cultivating the friendship of certain people who have, shall we say, unique advantages and resources.
"That said," he continued, "I am sure that everyone here knows that one of our major goals is to obtain information which will be of material benefit to the Union—and which, I assure you, will be of material benefit to all of us as well. As I recall, Dr. Meyer," he said, addressing the tall British woman on his left, "you were rather annoyed by the severe information restrictions the United States attempted to impose on the Nike expedition."
Barbara Meyer nodded shortly. While she had gotten along with most of the Nike crew, she had never quite gotten over being shortstopped and silenced by Madeline Fathom. This had eventually led to her leaving the original Phobos crew and signing up with the E.U. once the Odin was clearly well along.
"While I would not encourage any of you to attempt to directly violate the rules," he said smoothly, "I do wish to emphasize that in this case, I want you to find out everything you can, especially when it comes to new and interesting scientific and technical information. Anything of real value will be credited to you, of course. Dr. LaPointe."
Anthony LaPointe looked up alertly. "Sir?"
"You will be working very closely with Dr. Conley, I am sure. You and Horst Eberhart have shown excellent teamwork already in the development and implementation of our navigation systems. You will continue to work together, although Mr. Eberhart’s talents as a programmer and system engineer may of course be requested by other members of the crew as needed. You have what may be the most uncertain, yet potentially most important, mandate. Your main task is to keep an eye out for any trace—however small—of data which leads us to another alien installation. I will point out that the restrictions we agreed to only apply to this base on Ceres."
He turned toward Horst. "Mr. Eberhart, while again I caution you against directly violating any of the guidelines set down by the people from Ares and the IRI, I would like you to devise methods whereby if we are, in fact, the first to find certain information about another Bemmie base, we can eliminate direct references to this information from their systems. At least, for long enough to enable us to reach such a base before our competitors. Is this possible?"
Horst frowned. The general knew that the earnest young engineer did not really approve of such maneuvers. It was those same misgivings that had led Hohenheim to see to it that some of the security preparations under Security Chief Fitzgerald’s direction were not known to Eberhart, who otherwise had a hand in the software engineering of virtually every system on Odin. But Hohenheim felt that Horst’s loyalty would outweigh his personal issues.
It was therefore mildly gratifying to see the young man respond with a nod, after a brief hesitation. "Yes, General. Not easy, though, and I’d rather not have to do it if we can avoid it. A.J. Baker’s down there, and hiding stuff from him isn’t going to be easy."
"But he is not a programmer like you?"
"In his specific area, he’s very good. But no, he’s not a programmer. If he’s not directly watching us—and putting bugs on us would be a direct privacy offense we could take action against—I think I can pretty much hide anything."
Fitzgerald’s eyes narrowed. "Bugs? You think he could do that without us knowing?"
Horst laughed. "Baker didn’t get his reputation for nothing, Mr. Fitzgerald. Sure, he could. Those motes he uses are microscopic. But he’s also very close to an anarchist in some ways. He might spy on people, if he had to, for his own personal reasons, but he wouldn’t ever try to be Big Brother. And if he tries to work through more normal distributed systems, I can detect him."
The security chief settled back, looking only partially convinced.
"Mr. Eberhart, you and Mia"—the general nodded to Mia Svendsen, sitting just across from Fitzgerald—"will also likely be working with Nobel’s engineer if, as I expect I will, I get permission to give them information on upgrading their vessels to mass-beam designs. You are the expert on the control systems while Mia is the actual expert on the engine systems themselves. This will be a profitable exchange for both sides, as the various E.U. corporations involved will be building the driver systems, so you may enjoy full openness on that little aspect of our visit.
"Other than that, our people are to explore where they’re allowed, find out what we can, enjoy the limited amenities, help expand the working and living areas of Ceres Base, and in general be helpful, friendly, and alert to any interesting tidbits of information. Follow all the directions of our hosts except where I have noted otherwise, and we may find this to be a quite enjoyable little jaunt."
"Do we know how long we’re staying?" Mia asked.
"That is indefinite at this time. I would expect at least several months."
He answered several more minor questions and then, after giving everyone another chance to ask questions, dismissed the meeting. He caught Richard’s eye as the security chief stood. "A moment, Mr. Fitzgerald."
Once the others had left, he closed the door. "How are your preparations?"
"All set," Fitzgerald said with satisfaction. "Testing the hidden control layers worked fine. Was a little dicey with Eberhart always nosing around, but I don’t think he’s seen anything."
"Well, with any luck, all your preparations will be a waste of time."
"We can hope." Fitzgerald’s tone was not precisely in agreement with his words.
The general gazed levelly at the Irish mercenary. "Please understand that I really do wish to avoid conflict. And that means I want you to work very hard to do that. Including getting along with your opposite number."
A muscle in Fitzgerald’s cheek twitched, but his voice betrayed nothing. "Fathom."
"We knew she had been sent out with her husband. It’s clear that she’s running security here."
"Then—meaning no offense, sir—you’re a real optimist if you think you’re going to pull off something under her nose and not get into a spitting match. She doesn’t trust anyone on Earth except her darling boss—I pity her hubby, if he ever gets seen with anything else vaguely female—she doesn’t miss the smallest thing, and she lives for the payback if something ever goes wrong." Fitzgerald shook his head in cynical satisfaction. "No, we’ll be needing my ‘preparations’ before this is all over, you can bet on it. But, you’re the boss, General. I’ll make nice with her. She’s still easy on the eye."
And I suspect you just described yourself a lot more than her, Hohenheim thought. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering if Bitteschell had made a misjudgment in choosing Fitzgerald. The man was a professional, good at his job, flexible, and didn’t question the goals of his employers. But he seemed a bit too eager to be the one to solve problems with his own personal approach. And that speech about Fathom didn’t make the general at all comfortable; it sounded very much as though Fitzgerald had a score to settle with Fathom. "See to it that you do. Politely, and watch your approach. Don’t give her the slightest excuse to complain."
Fitzgerald nodded. "I’ll be the soul of courtesy, I promise. We don’t want to give her any excuses, you’re bloody right on that. And I think I’ll keep most of my men well out of the way up here. Some of them aren’t the best at keeping their mouths shut, at least around someone like her."
"That’s probably a good idea. Thank you." He watched his security chief exit. And felt his misgivings intensify the moment the door closed and Fitzgerald was out of sight.
As I often like to quote... "And so it begins."