So what was it that Maddie didn't want to talk about immediately...?
"They caused the meteor strike?" Joe nearly lunged out of his bed.
"I didn't say that," Madeline said sharply, forestalling even more incandescent invective from A.J. "I said that there is a way in which they could have done it—technically possible, and my intelligence on their designs says it could be actually possible to have hidden the necessary components."
"What about our prisoners?" Bruce said, all his normal good humor totally absent. "You've interrogated them a time or two, I know."
"Nothing conclusive. They certainly don't know anything about those kind of capabilities, but I know their type; they wouldn't be told anything like that. They all implicate Fitzgerald, but their stories don't exactly match. I think that's probably deliberate on Fitzgerald's part, but unfortunately what I think doesn't mean squat in legal terms. They'll be sent up, but there isn't a shred of real evidence we can use against Fitzgerald, Hohenheim, or anyone else. Basically, it's the word of a group of known criminals against someone in a lot better position. And their actions in turning over the evidence to us would be circumstantial evidence that they're really not worried about being prosecuted. What I know about Fitzgerald tells me he's more than capable of something like this. But I can't prove it."
"I can," A.J. said, voice grim. "At least good enough for me. I did vector calculations based on the modeling Jackie had to do in order to locate Joe, then refined them based on where we actually found Joe, connected 'em all into the timeline. If I project the probability cone of the impactor outward, it goes right through Odin at about the time Odin's long axis is oriented straight towards us."
An animation appeared on her VRD and those of the others in the room—Joe, Helen, Jackie, Bruce, and Larry (and presumably A.J.'s as well). The Odin turned slowly, majestically, a few hundred kilometers from the surface of Ceres, where the reactor control unit was marked. After a short time, the control enclosure exploded. It froze, then began to reverse, this time showing a very narrow cone expanding out from Ceres, to envelop Odin at the moment the vessel's long axis appeared to point directly (or nearly so) at Ceres.
"Did we recover samples of the actual impactor?"
"Some," Jackie said. "But it appears to be nickel-iron—perfectly reasonable meteoroid material."
"Hold on there," Bruce said. "That bastard hit at several klicks a second, right? Wouldn't that make Odin accelerate, at least a little?"
Jackie nodded. "Newton's still in charge here. Action and reaction. A.J.?"
"Wish I could give you a definite answer. Problem was that they were doing a lot of little burns around that time—a lot more fiddly and erratic than the last time they turned, I'll note—and that makes it hard to tell. There looks to be a spike around the right instant, but I'd have a hell of a time proving that it didn't come from some part of their clumsy maneuvering." A.J. shrugged. "The fact is that even a few kilometers per second on something weighing a few kilograms amounts to a centimeter per second or less on something the mass of Odin. That thing's a brute—over ten thousand tons loaded."
"So… what can we do, Maddie? Call up Glendale and have him lodge a direct protest, drag Odin back?"
"We can do that," Madeline said carefully. She really didn't want to push decisions one way or the other here. No matter what her own preferences. "And I think we have enough circumstantial evidence that they'll at least have to tell the general to bring her back for an inspection."
"But the fact that you haven't done that already," Helen said, "tells me that you're not sure that's the best course. Why not?"
"Because as we're the ones doing the accusing, the Odin won't be inspected here. We'll all—or at least those of us pressing charges—have to show up at Earth or, barely possibly, Mars, for the inspection and possible trial. And if Fitzgerald is even half as smart as I know he is, he'll be spending all that time having every trace of wrongdoing erased from the ship."
"How?" Jackie demanded. "You can't throw stuff away easy in space, and a weapon's not an easy thing to hide, not if it can…" She suddenly stopped, grim understanding dawning.
"Exactly," Maddie said. "It shouldn't be easy to hide a weapon capable of firing something at the speed of a meteor… but apparently they did just that. What kind of weapon fires nickel-iron projectiles at several kilometers a second, Jackie?"
"A coilgun. A magnetic-acceleration-based projectile cannon," Jackie answered slowly. "Which is not at all far from what they have for their main drive. If they're using it to accelerate they obviously can use it to throw stuff away. In whatever direction they want. All they'd need would be some kind of structure they could extend out that would allow them to concentrate and focus the fields for throwing single large objects; maybe right along one or all of the main mass-beam ring supports. Which might account for the slight off-centerness of your cone projection, A.J."
"Would we be able to see that?"
"Doubt it, luv," Bruce answered. "We weren't watching them doing the turn. It's not like we haven't already got about a billion pics of Odin from every bloody angle, so the only images we got of them from then wouldn't show anything even with A.J.'s tweakin' that would let you know if there was anything there that wasn't bloody obvious."
"So," Joe asked, "what are our alternatives?"
"Only two I can think of," Maddie answered. "We can drop it entirely—but let them know privately that we know what they did, and that we'll expect them to remember that, but basically be politically tactful. We'll end up getting Modofori and his group convicted without much of a fight and probably get some useful shipments and concessions. Remember that if we sent out this accusation, we'd definitely sever relations with the E.U., and lose a lot of potential friends and resources that we really need. If we keep quiet and use it on a subtle political front, we could lever a lot more out of them."
"And the other?"
She glanced between him and A.J. "We go after them and beat them to Enceladus, or, if we can, stop them from getting there."
Bruce frowned. "In a ship you haven't even tested? You're starkers."
"She'll work," Joe said. "And if she doesn't, we don't lose much. Just the time it takes to get ready and then unload her."
"What about supplies?"
"Already figured it," A.J. said. "Odin sort of gets a backhanded thanks. With the E.U.'s help we've gotten a lot more stocked up than we would've otherwise. We'll want to take as much with us as we can stuff into the ship, of course, enough for many months—I'm actually figuring two years or so. The real trick will be getting back. But I've got some ideas for that, and I think I can show you that they'll work. The critical part is that you'll have to call Nike or someone in to do a supply run to get Nobel back off the ground, because we'll need to take the reactor with us. Plus a big fuel tank and one of Nobel's spare rocket nozzles."
"I don't know that I like that whole idea," Bruce said. "I can't go with you, even. You'll have to fly her on your lonesome."
"Not a major issue," Jackie said. "The dusty plasma sail isn't like any other ship ever made, even the mass-beam Odin uses. Anyone flying it is going to be breaking new ground."
"You talked to Director Glendale about this?"
Madeline nodded. "I arranged the tightest beam I could to him and encrypted the conversation. It was something of a risk, but we can't make decisions like this without his input and blessing. Joe and A.J. are able to make decisions for Ares, at least in this kind of situation." She switched in the replay of Nicholas' reply.
Their screens showed the dark-haired Director gazing seriously into the camera. "Madeline, Helen, Bruce, A.J., Jackie, Joe… and anyone else who may be listening. You are in an extremely delicate situation. I can't pretend that I like the idea of confronting any of our allies at this time—but I also am not two hundred and fifty million miles from Earth and recovering from what appears to be the first interplanetary attack in our history. All of your alternatives seem to me to have negative as well as positive sides. While I find it acutely painful, I do not feel that I am in a position to decide for you. You must make the choice of action that you feel is right for this time and place. I will back you fully in whatever course you take. Just make sure that it's the one you can live with the best. Good luck."
"So," Madeline said. "It's up to us."
"Then I guess it's down to a vote," Bruce said. "We're all the senior officers and representatives, and there's… seven of us. Three choices. I think we need to get a clear majority, so we need four or more of us voting for one of the three. That seem fair?"
The rest nodded, Maddie included. "I don't think we need to do secret ballots, either. All the choices are acceptable, and I don't see why we shouldn't let discussion of the choices happen during the votes. We want this to be the best decision we can make." The others nodded, and they looked again at Bruce who, as the captain of Nobel, was the closest thing they had to a real commanding officer.
"Right. Well, let's see now. I guess we'll just go around the table and vote for our choices, starting with me and ending with Maddie. Or do we want to knock the choices down to two first, making it sure that in the second vote we get a decision?"
"I like that one better," A.J. said. "How about we first vote for the choice we don't want?"
"Good enough. Suits the rest of you?" Bruce looked thoughtful. "Well, I'll tell you, mates—the one I don't like is the first one. We lose our allies by accusing them, and give the buggers a chance to clean up and make us look like chumps."
A mutter of agreement went around the table. The vote went quickly, with five votes against the first approach—accusing Odin and having her brought back in for examination—and two against the second, politically careful, approach. "Well, now, that was pretty clear. So we're down to two choices—be politically smart, or chase the bastards down in a Bemmie ship they didn't know we had ready. If it works." He looked torn. "I think I'll let someone else go first, then I'll take my vote."
A.J. spoke up. "Beat the sons of bitches. I want to chase 'em down, pass them, moon them as I go by, and grab the fourth base for us, dammit. That bastard Horst suckered me and they almost killed my best friend. I'm not pretending they're still my pals."
"I vote for letting it drop," Helen said, drawing an outraged look from A.J., who nonetheless managed somehow to keep his mouth shut. "Even if we can beat them out there, we don't have the resources to really take advantage of another base. The E.U. really feels left out. I don't like what they did—to Jackie, to Joe, or the rest of us—and I think to be honest that we should blackmail the hell out of them because of it. But charging out after them in a ship older than some mountain ranges is just insane."
"I agree," Larry said. "Sorry, guys, but you'll get more flies with poisoned candy than a flyswatter. And you'll be chasing down an armed vessel, remember, and we haven't even got a peashooter."
"Screw that," Joe said with quiet venom. "They shot me with a meteor. I say we go after them, not pretend we're so stupid we couldn't figure out the scam."
"I'm with you, Joe," Jackie said. "And I'll help you get there if I have to get outside and push."
Jackie's voice was level, but Madeline could hear the fury in her undertone. The young woman could insist, as she always did when teased by Joe or A.J., that Horst Eberhart was not her boyfriend. Technically, that was perhaps true. Given the tight and crowded conditions aboard spacecraft, romance was difficult to develop. But that there was a mutual attraction between Jackie and the German astronaut had been obvious.
Now... Jackie obviously felt betrayed on a deeply personal level, not just professionally. Madeline couldn’t blame her.
Bruce sighed and looked around, then sighed again. "Look, mates, I understand the anger. I feel it myself. But I've got a family and a career, and so do most of you. Sometimes you've got to take it instead of dish it out. My vote's that we do the quiet blackmail route. No crazy heroics."
As the others looked at Maddie, she realized it's three and three. I'm making the decision in the end. Just like I didn't want to. She looked at Joe, and his anger suddenly faded. He looked at her, saying nothing, but the brown eyes softened and said to her, as clearly as if he spoke, You know what I want to do. But you tell me what you want, and we'll do that.
For a moment, tears stung at her eyes. Because she knew that's what he would say, and that he would mean it, and he'd never reproach her on any choice. I'm a lucky girl.
She was free to make the decision. For herself. For Joe. For the rest of her friends.
"Down to me, I guess. There are good arguments on both sides. If it was an easy choice, we wouldn't be voting." Maddie studied the others in turn. "Are all of us ready to go along with whatever the final decision is—even if it's not the one each of us wanted?"
All the others—even A.J.—nodded. It was that, as much as anything, that decided her.
"Well, some of my attitude is probably just personal. Or maybe it’s wounded professional pride. Whichever it is, I just can't see looking at myself in the mirror and thinking that I let that bastard Richard Fitzgerald stick his tongue out at us all while we pretend nothing happened. But there’s not just my hurt pride involved—though that's there—and it’s not even because the son of a bitch almost killed my husband. The fundamental issue, to me, is that we can’t allow people like that out here. Space is dangerous enough, without adding sleazy political games into the mix—and this probably isn’t even political anyway. I’m willing to bet that if and when we discover the full truth about what happened—and especially why it happened—we’ll find nothing more sublime than the usual money-grubbing. I’m almost sure this is just industrial espionage run amok. It doesn’t even have the twisted dignity of evil empires at work."
She sat up straighter. "So I say we put a stop to it. Hard. They can't be allowed to get away with it. Ever. Not even once. I'll play politics, but I won't play patsy, and I'm not going to start playing blackmailer so that I can be on an even lower level than they are. We will go after them. We will catch them. And we will beat them, if we have to chase them across half the Solar System to do it."
Bruce let out a long breath. A.J. grinned. Helen closed her eyes. Larry shrugged. Joe looked at her with sympathy.
Jackie just looked satisfied. "Let's get started, then," she said.
Ah, things are getting INTERESTING. As in the apocryphal Chinese proverb.