Joe's saved, Helen was rescued, no one died, so all's well that ends well, right?
"A.J., you are such a geek. Going to your wife’s rescue and you still couldn’t keep from making cheap jokes?"
A.J. looked embarrassed. "That’s how I keep from losing it, Joe."
Madeline nodded. "We all have our own methods. I’m… impressed, to say the least." Internally, she shivered. There were very few things that scared her, but the thought of the insidious way in which A.J. had dealt with the three renegade Odin crewmen gave her the creeps.
She was seated next to Joe’s bed, where monitors were tracking his health. Dr. Brea didn’t think Joe was in any danger, but he was to be monitored for the next day or so. A.J. and Helen, her nose bandaged, were in seats at the foot of the bed.
"Well," A.J. said, "I’m sure you knew the Faerie Dust could do stuff like that."
"Sort of," she admitted. "It’s not as though no one ever thought of it before, but no one’s quite gone ahead and weaponized it until now. And I had no idea you knew enough anatomy to do that so accurately. Especially using only the stuff from Helen’s ring." That had been a point that was bothering her. There were an awful lot of the motes in the sparkling ring, but the power output and other aspects of the stunt A.J. had pulled didn’t seem to jibe with what she knew of the Faerie Dust capabilities.
"Oh, I didn’t just use that. I was able to get her ring to shed the stuff and get it on my targets before they suited up—as soon as Modofori answered, in fact, and I knew there was real trouble. If Helen had been wearing her suit then, it would’ve taken longer; I’d have had to work the things out of the suit when she had the helmet off, and so on. Anyway, once the stuff was all over them I was able to track them using occasional pulses from the marker beacons in the tunnels—had to override their power conservation schemes, but that wasn’t hard.
"Once I knew where they were going, at least in a general sense, I could spread a bunch more dust in the area. When they took off their helmets the first set from Helen’s ring were able to guide the rest to the right points. It really doesn’t take much if you’re going to be triggering nerve and muscle impulses, but like I said, the stuff wouldn’t last long. I had to move as soon as I was sure it was all set. The human body’s a terrible environment for my little Faerie Dust motes."
He gave an exaggeratedly sympathetic look. "As far as anatomy, well, I don’t know all that much, but the library files do, and Dust-Storm has been producing prototype medical motes, so I had to know something about it. And to be honest I thought about these kind of techniques years ago, so finding the necessary nerve and muscle junctions was something I didn’t have to work on just off the cuff. Guiding the motes to the right place, getting them to stay there, and hoping they’d all keep working long enough, that was the real pain in the butt."
"Now, alas, I have to start figuring out a defense against that kind of thing," Maddie said. "That really is quite frightening, even to me."
A.J. nodded. "To me, too. And the only defense I know of for sure is to already have stuff like that around, on, and maybe even in you, that will intercept and kill off anything that doesn’t belong there. That’s how the human body works, you know. It’s biological nanotech, and diseases are the attacking nanotech."
Maddie winced. "I think you and I are going to have to sit down and do some design brainstorming sometime soon. But not right now."
"Odin?" Joe asked.
"Odin," she confirmed. "They’re definitely heading for the outer system." Her communicator buzzed. "Fathom."
"Larry here, Maddie." The voice of the astrophysicist was grim, angry, and—through the tiny speaker—slightly tinny. "I went through the backups like you said, and I found it. Wasn’t hard with the clues you and A.J. had turned up. They’re headed for Enceladus. Judging by the course they’re taking, probably going to use Jupiter for a course-correct and slingshot to push them to maximum controllable speed—and incidentally let them visit the big guy for publicity points."
"You’re sure it’s Enceladus and not somewhere in the Jupiter system?"
"Dead sure. That’s the stuff that was hidden from the main systems, and the label on the Enceladus diagram is clearly for a major base—even if what we know about Enceladus didn’t already tell me that." He summarized the peculiarities of the little Saturnian moon. "So yeah, I’m sure."
"How long before Nobel can’t catch them?" she asked, trying to sound casual.
A.J. shook his head. "Too late already, even if we could spare Nobel. If we’d caught on right away, maybe, but they’ve gotten out into their mass-beam now. They’ll be making eight kilometers a second already and accelerating every second. Judging on what our network’s seeing on their course… Larry, can you give me a likely course-speed breakdown? I don’t think they can crank it up much past one hundred sixty kilometers per second, based on what I’ve been able to figure out about their mass-drivers, plus they have to be able to make the corner and stop when they get to Saturn. It’s going to be tricky."
"I can get you a rough guess … here."
A.J. stared into apparently empty space as he surveyed the data and imported it. "Yeah… they’re full loaded. Rough guess, they’ll be into Jupiter system in eighty days or a little less, then heading on to Saturn. Not sure what we’d do, anyway. They’ve got the right to make the claim, and there’s no one else in the solar system who could get there."
Maddie almost said something, then stopped. There probably wasn’t much point in it, at least not now.
Then Joe said, "But there is."
A.J. looked at him. "What are you… Of course!"
"You haven’t even tested that thing yet!" Helen snapped, picking up on their meaning a split second after Maddie did. "And you’d have to stock it up for the trip, and figure out how you were going to get back, and…"
Joe opened his mouth to argue, and then—to everyone’s astonishment—A.J. said: "She’s right, Joe. It’s crazy. We’ve got more stuff to work on with three bases—one of them, the one we have right here—than we’ll manage to get done in a lifetime. Why the hell should we take off and try to beat them to another one? I’m just glad we’re all still kicking."
Joe’s mouth slowly closed. Then opened again. "I’ll be totally damned. A.J. Baker, Voice of Reason. What happened to the real A.J., you alien impostor?"
The blonde sensor expert reached out and took Helen’s hand. His gaze met Joe’s, and Maddie saw Joe’s eyes widen slightly. "Oh. Yeah, I guess that might do it. You just gotta stop this growing up, A.J. It’s freaking us out."
"I’ll do what I can." He glanced at Maddie. "Anyway, we’ve hung out here enough. I think me and Helen need to get some rest."
"Yes, let’s leave you two alone for a while," Helen agreed. The two left, their drifting walk as close together as was practical.
Joe took her hand. "Thought they’d never leave."
She gave a slight laugh. His glance told her that he’d noticed something. Why she couldn’t hide things from Joe now was a mystery.
"What’s wrong, Maddie?"
She was silent for a minute. "Joe… When am I justified in not saying something, do you think?"
"Huh?" Joe stared at her. " I guess it depends on the things you aren’t saying. Something about A.J. and those killer tricks? That scares the hell out of me too. And A.J., if I don’t miss my guess."
"I’m sure you’re right. But that’s not it, really." She tried to think of some way to put the question that didn’t immediately lead to the next question and the inevitable answer. "I guess it’s more a question of which right course of action I should take."
Joe thought about that for a minute. "You mean, if you have two courses of action that you can justify, but they each have something really bad as a potential result?"
"Something like that." She tried to keep her gaze level and unrevealing.
Joe was silent and thoughtful for a long time. She waited patiently. In some ways she’d learned to trust Joe’s judgment more than just about anyone else’s. Glendale or Hughes would have been good to ask, too, but not by remote; not by transmissions that took hours per exchange.
"Well… without more specifics, it’s kinda hard to say, Maddie. But I guess I’d say that you have to look at what the costs are to you. You’re almost always worried about other people, so I don’t think you look at yourself as much. If one choice is going to cost you more than the other, maybe that’s the only way you can tell them apart. Is one of them going to hurt your career? Your friends? Our marriage? Is one of them legal and the other not? I really don’t know, Maddie. I know you don’t ask me stuff like this lightly. And I could tell something’s bothering you. But I know you don’t make these decisions lightly, and you’ve always made the right ones before, so I think whatever you decide is probably the right one." He grinned suddenly, "It’s like a test, Maddie. Keep your first answer, don’t second-guess yourself, unless you have a real honest-to-god reason that you know you were wrong with the first one."
Maddie shook her head in bemusement. Joe’s suggestions were simple stuff; direct, obvious advice that any agent already knew. But they were the kind of thing that any agent could often forget, and she had forgotten. Forgotten that it’s not just your paranoid instincts, but your warmer ones, that you had to follow. You had to remember that you needed the support behind if you were going to face the danger in front.
Sometimes that meant not protecting the people you were responsible for, if the protection would be to lie and lose trust. And what she knew, or guessed, was something that would certainly do that, if she was right.
"You’re right… as usual, Joe," she said slowly. Then… there’s something I have to tell you. Tomorrow. After you and A.J. rest.
Because there’ll be no rest afterwards.
Well, now, THAT sounds ominous...