Helen was in a tight spot...
"But… Look, Leo, what’re we going to do?"
For the first time since Helen had seen him, Leo Modofori smiled. "A.J. Baker can get us past any of their security. He runs it, along with Fathom. With his help, we get what we came for. Then he gets us to Hunin. They’ll have to let us back on board if we get close to Odin, and then, well, okay, they’ll put us in jail for a bit. But if we’ve got what we’re after, we’ll be out and rich before you know it."
Jimmy Salczyck grinned back. "So I did the right thing."
Modofori snorted. "Sometimes impulse and luck works, Jimmy, but we still should’ve talked. Anyway, it’s over now. First we have to get somewhere we can hide out. Which isn’t here; Baker knew where we were with the comm. We have to lose him so he can’t set up an ambush, keep moving until he comes through."
"Won’t he just have us nailed when we get to Hunin?"
"Not if we rig it right. He saw that we have his wife. We just make sure we get access to the monitors around the Hunin first. If it’s all clear, fine. If not…" He didn’t look at Helen, but it was obvious what was implied. "We need to cut through the unpressurized areas and come up somewhere else—the third lab, I think. There’s a terminal we can use there, when the time comes. But we want to leave no trail for him to follow."
Zaent glanced about him uneasily. "These corridors seem narrower." He gave a nervous cough.
"This is not the time to develop claustrophobia, Alex," Jimmy said. He sniffed at the air. "Does feel kind of stale though… Now you have me thinking it!" He grabbed at his helmet with his free hand.
Modofori growled in his throat. "Exactly. Don’t go putting ideas into your heads—or mine, for all that." He cleared his throat and then took a deep breath. "There’s air enough down here to last us for quite a while. Hours of air. Houdini managed hours in something the size of a coffin and we’ve got a mansion’s worth, so cut it out. No, leave the helmets off until we get to the lock. Hold up a minute."
He moved in front of them with the smooth action of someone completely accustomed to the low gravity; even in her pain Helen had to admire that. She wasn’t that good, and she’d been here a lot longer. "Sorry about the rough handling, Doctor. Can I trust you to not try anything stupid on us? Because I promise you that if you do try anything, it will end up hurting a lot worse."
She nodded, trying not to look scared—although she definitely was. This was about as bad a situation as she could think of. The crash on Mars had been worse in some ways, but that was an accident. What might happen here wouldn’t be.
"Good. Now, hold still a moment. This will hurt, but it will help in the long run." He glanced at Jimmy. "Hold her head still."
Helen closed her eyes. There was a moment of terrible sharp pain, a twist, and suddenly much of the pain was fading away and she felt she might be able to breathe through her nose again. "Thank you," she said faintly.
"You’re welcome. If your husband is half as smart as I have heard, we should all come out of this quite well. He does care about you, I hope?"
"Yes," she said. It was one of the things she had no doubts on.
"Good thing for us all, then. Now please get into your suit and don’t give us any trouble. We have to move fast and I can’t afford the time to babysit you."
Modofori apparently had a VRD with a system that included a detailed layout of Ceres Base, because he led them onward with barely any hesitation, occasionally gazing into empty air before taking a particular turn. Shortly they came to an airlock, where he had them all put on their suits and appropriated additional air bottles.
Once through the airlock, there followed a bewildering series of twists and turns through alien-designed tunnels, the only signs of human passage being occasional marks in the eons-old dust and temporary markers on walls. Many of these tunnels actually had never had a human being pass through them, only one of the unmanned probes. And there were still many miles of corridors left unexplored. A.J. had once compared it to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. "Except that we have to wear our scuba gear all the time here, and we probably won’t have to wiggle through washtub-sized holes too often."
Helen tried to think of some way she might help out—get away from these guys and get somewhere she knew—but it didn’t look hopeful. Impulsiveness aside, Jimmy Salczyck was as alert as a Doberman watchdog and she already knew from personal experience how fast and strong he was. Despite the training both A.J. and Madeline had been giving her on the side, she doubted she could take on any of these guys, even the diminutive Axel Zaent. Her own VRD didn’t have the extensive maps that Modofori’s did, and with the main base systems apparently still down—something that clearly worried Modofori almost as much as her—she couldn’t get any additional data out to guide her. So even if she did somehow give them the slip, she might end up wandering deeper into the base instead of getting out.
Finally they came to another airlock. Modofori brought out a small case and performed some complex set of operations on the controls and around the door seal. "What are you doing?" she asked impulsively.
He apparently didn’t mind the query. "Making sure that it appears that this door does not open. It would be rather dense of me to spend this time in unmonitored corridors only to announce myself as I enter. Emergency power, while limited, does extend to keeping the door systems active and monitored, even if the full-scale hallway systems are down. I have no idea why power is still off, but for the moment it is an advantage I intend to exploit fully."
The airlock opened and they passed through—Modofori first, then Helen, followed by the others. "Good. The lab I want is this way. The air’s good, so unlock your helmets and save the tanks."
A few minutes later they were in one of the alien labs that had been used for what A.J. referred to as "bioforming" and which had been undergoing intense analysis. With whatever emergency was on, though, obviously no one was here now. And if the power came on, the remote location would give them plenty of time to get away before anyone else could possibly arrive. "Good enough. Time to get out of here for good."
Modofori took out Helen’s communicator. Jimmy looked apprehensive. "Hey, Leo, won’t he track us through that?"
"Probably. Almost certainly, in fact, since to make sure we could communicate with him no matter where we go he’s probably had to key up low-power repeaters everywhere. But it took us a while to get here. Even if he can track us right away, he can’t get here right away. If he’s as good as I am at moving around, it’d take him at least half an hour to get here unless he just happened to set up in the area—and since I know where he was working, that’d be really unlikely. More like an hour away."
He put the communicator on one of the workbenches and put the power cell next to it. "Besides, I’m not exactly a slouch at this stuff. I don’t doubt he can outdo me, but I can slow him down." From the little case he took another device which linked into his suit’s datalink. "Mmmm… yes, repeaters up. Not as secure as the normal link. I know this model, low power, self-contained, but only basic security on the ID. I can spoof them—make it look like our signal is coming from another location. If he gets suspicious he’ll be able to break through, but I think I’ll catch that happening. Anyway, I don’t intend to talk too long."
Satisfied, Modofori inserted the power cell, switched the communicator on, and spoke. "Mr. Baker, are you there?"
The little screen lit up immediately. "Yes." A.J.’s eyes were chips of blue-green ice.
"As I respect your abilities, I will not spend much time in conversation. I will talk and you will listen. Currently you do not know where we are, and if you did you will not reach us before we move elsewhere. You are going to assist us in obtaining the information on fusion technology. You are then going to help us get to the Hunin unmolested. So that we may assure ourselves that we are not being ambushed, you will ensure that we have access to the sensors around the Hunin. While I am not your equal at sensors, I also assure you that I am capable of telling if you interfere with the actual data coming from the sensors in question, especially with the entire base apparently shut down. Once we are in the Hunin and ready to launch we will release your wife. Any deviation from this plan will result first in harm and finally in death for her. You must understand that while I have no interest in harming anyone, I can and will carry out my threats. We are in control in this situation, and you will do precisely as I instruct, unless you do indeed wish me to carry out those threats. Do you understand?"
A.J.’s expression had been impassive. Then it all of a sudden shifted, into a broad grin that somehow had very little humor in it. Even in the small screen, it gave Helen an involuntarily chill. "What I understand is that I don’t think I have ever heard anyone manage to be more completely wrong more often in a single speech, even our current president."
One of the larger screens over the nearest research station flickered, causing all of them to jump, and abruptly A.J.’s face, twice life-size, was glaring at the three; even Modofori couldn’t restrain a slight gasp. "I do know exactly where you are, and it will take me precisely three more minutes to get there. You will find you cannot go anywhere else. I will not assist you in obtaining any information, you are not getting to the Hunin, I’m giving you exactly zero access to anything except a jail cell, you wouldn’t be capable of telling whether or not I was inventing anything if I told you I was doing it ahead of time, and most importantly"—his voice dropped to a low tone that still somehow carried with it a snarl—" you cannot, and will ,not, touch Helen, because I am in control of this situation, and you will do precisely as I instruct, or else I promise…" and suddenly he smiled with just a touch of actual humor as he quoted, "...'You will know pain… and you will know fear… and then you will die.'"
At a gesture from Modofori, Jimmy grabbed her arm, forcing it up behind her back. "A nice speech, and I see we have less time than I thought. But I can carry out my threat."
A.J. raised an eyebrow. "I find your lack of faith… disturbing." His hand raised and gave a small gesture.
Helen felt Jimmy suddenly go rigid behind her. He gave a strangled cry and clawed at his throat. Helen knew she was staring, but doubted that her expression was any more dumfounded than Modofori’s. Alex Zaent, his face pale, pulled out a knife and started for Helen. "You cut it out, you son of a—"
Another gesture—a rippling gesture, the one she knew well from A.J.’s use of virtual controls—and Zaent screamed and collapsed, the knife falling from a hand that seemed limp and useless.
Suddenly Helen understood. Yanking off her glove, she looked down at her hand.
Her engagement ring glinted dully next to the bright gold wedding band, its oversized setting empty of anything except air.
Modofori recovered slightly, but his voice shook as he spoke. "How are you…?"
"Ever wonder why a lot of the Faerie Dust technology is restricted? Now maybe you know," A.J. said. "The dust I’m using isn’t meant for medical implantation, of course, so it won’t last long—but it’ll last long enough. It’s actually going to take me another few minutes to get there, but I want you to know that I will know everything that is happening in that room. If any of you so much as twitches in Helen’s direction again, I’ll stop your god-damned hearts." The screen went blank. Jimmy, now able to breathe, slowly rolled to hands and knees—away from Helen. The others backed away from her as well.
By the time the door opened a few minutes later, Helen was alone in the center of the room, with the three men against the wall as far away as they could manage. A.J. didn’t even look at them; he ran to her and hugged her tightly. "Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Helen, I thought I was going to lose you…" he whispered.
It was such a total change from the lethal man she’d seen on the screen just minutes ago that she just stood there, blinking stupidly, before hugging him back. "I was pretty scared myself," she said quietly. "And you scared the hell out of me just now, too."
"I scared the hell out of myself," he confessed. "I never knew what losing you would do to me until now." Without looking over at the others, he said, "Turn on the dataports on your suits, the three of you." Over his shoulder, Helen saw Modofori’s suit suddenly go rigid as steel. "There, that’ll hold you for a while. Someone will come down and pick you up in a little bit." He stood slowly. "C’mon, Helen."
"Wait," Modofori spoke. "The Faerie Dust in us?"
"Mostly nonreactive materials. I had to do major tricks to get it to the right places in you so it could do a few one-time zaps to the right nerves. I think your body’s defenses will clean it all out just fine in a few days. I’ll tell the docs to keep an eye on you until they’re sure it’s all right." He suddenly met Modofori’s eyes. "I didn’t want to hurt anyone, you know."
Modofori nodded, about the only movement the locked Tayler suit allowed. "I believe you. Thank you."
"Don’t thank me. I’m still hoping someone else wants to hurt you later."
As they left, Helen caught at his arm. "What’s going on with the base?"
"The base will be okay," he said. "If Bruce doesn't crash."
Behold the Geek God.