We don't get many chances to see his point of view, but let's check in on Nicholas...
"Got a minute, Nick?"
Nicholas Glendale looked up to see Walter Keldering standing in his doorway. "For you? Always. Please, come in, take a seat." He waved towards his coffeepot – the low-gravity device that Joe Buckley had designed for the station a few years before. "Coffee?"
"Don't mind if I do," Keldering said. "Always time for me? A change since the old days when Maddie would be finding the most inventive excuses to head me off." He inserted the coffeemaker's spout into the sealed hole in the coffecup's top, and Nicholas could hear the faint hiss as the air displaced by coffee was vented through the other hole.
"And I find that just as much a relief as you do," Nicholas agreed with a smile. He noticed that while Keldering smiled, there was a faint tension to the way he moved while injecting a measure of creamer and sweetener into the cup, a wrinkle or two on the now slightly-balding forehead.
"Oh, I do. And between you and me, I never liked my prior boss much either. I'm glad neither of you decided to start playing ball with him." Keldering swung the chair around and seated himself, folding his hands around the cup as though to keep the heat in. He looked seriously at Nicholas. "Nick, I've got a lot of connections in a lot of places. You know that."
Glendale nodded and said nothing, waiting to see what was on Keldering's mind.
"Some of those people are in modeling and reconstruction for the government, of course; the kind of after-action analysts that do forensics on the big things, like weapons tests that go badly wrong, stuff like that," Keldering continued, watching Glendale's face narrowly.
Oh, my. I suspect I know where we're going.
After a pause, Walter Keldering shrugged and went on. "Well, I've had some of them going over the entire sequence of events with Nebula Storm and Odin, and things just don't quite match up."
"Match up?" Nicholas repeated carefully. "How do you mean that, Walter?"
Keldering gave him a look which said, as clearly as though he'd said it, so we have to go through the whole dance? Fine. "Well, you know, the whole bit with the Nebula Storm chasing the Odin never sat well with me anyway. Sure, Odin's crew had pulled a fast one, but that whole emergency deployment of a ship you couldn't possibly even be sure would work didn't fit with the profiles we had of your people, at least not under those circumstances, especially given that Ceres base was still recovering from the accident and in the end actually had to give up its own reactor to get Nebula Storm underway.
"Leaving that aside, though, in all honesty the whole sequence of events starting with the pass by Jupiter just stinks, Nick. It's one of those barely-plausible sequences of events that no agent at my level can swallow as coincidence." He looked at Nick carefully. "But if it wasn't coincidence, then something caused it to happen… starting with that reversal of thrust on Odin's final burn.. And for that, I have a candidate named A.J. Baker, which would mean the whole thing was caused by Ares and the IRI!"
Sweet CHRIST. "Walter, you can't possibly believe that I, or Maddie, would try to kill a hundred people just because they stole a march on us? Or that we'd let A.J. do so, even if he was crazy enough to try, which he certainly isn't?"
"I would very much like to not believe it, Director," Keldering said, very formally, "but the fact is that there are multiple layers of redundancy built into the controls of Odin – and I would presume any spacegoing vessel – to prevent such mistakes, or to cancel or stop them if they were to begin. Such an inverted burn implies either a fundamental flaw in the embedded software – a flaw which never showed itself throughout all the prior uses of their drives – or, much more likely, a very carefully calculated subversion of the systems, so that even direct abort commands from the command deck and the core computers in the engineering section were ignored."
Glendale thought for a moment. "Before I make any comment on this, even unofficially, do you have anything else?"
"There's quite a bit more, Director."
He stood and paced to the window, then looked back at Keldering as Mars spun past. "I would think the whole destruction of Odin would be even more of an anomaly."
Keldering's narrow smile acknowledged the point. "It is. A most interesting anomaly in several ways."
"Let us suppose – purely unofficially and theoretically – that I were to say that it is possible your theory on the reversal of Odin's drive is correct, but that if it were correct then there would have to have been considerable excuse, if not justification, for the actions."
"An excuse," Keldering said quietly, "such as an assault on Ceres Base by a coilgun cannon?"
Nick looked back at him sharply, but said nothing. Where is he going?
"Nicholas, the idea that coincidence destroyed both ships stretches to the level of the ridiculous. My people can't model any reasonable, or even reasonably unreasonable, scenario that would cause part of the Odin to explode with even a fraction of the necessary force, and the only sources of energy onboard which could have done that much damage were the neo-NERVA reactor and the Odin's main power reactor – both of which are still perfectly functional, according to infrared signatures from the remains that are being tracked through the Jovian system. Even if we assume a high-velocity meteoroid impact that shattered a large portion of the Odin, it's very difficult to create a scenario that results in any fragments moving fast enough, on the right vector, to puncture Nebula Storm's Bemmie-made hull." He stood and walked closer to Nicholas. "But it's not hard at all to model the possibility of a covert coilgun in the drive spines that could have had, to use a mundane sort of parallel, shotgun loads."
"The Odin was inspected by your own people, Walter. Do you mean to tell me that the United States' own inspectors couldn't find a weapon – no, if you're right, four weapons – a thousand feet long, right in front of them?"
Keldering's face darkened momentarily, but he smiled wryly. "If this was the case, I assure you there will be several heads rolling. But of course we're talking a covert weapon, one that would be designed to look like a perfectly normal part of the vessel. The EU and its contractors are quite good, you know, and the fact is that there isn't that much reason to have major armaments in space."
Nicholas sighed, turned away from the window, and faced Keldering. "Walter, to be honest the point is moot. The Odin – and any covert weapon it may, or may not, have had on board – is a wreck, almost its entire crew is dead, and if your scenario is correct their arming the vessel cost them all their lives somehow. What matters isn't –"
"Nicholas." His name was spoken in a tone that cut him off instantly, something Glendale was not used to at all. "I think I know what you're doing, and I understand. There's no profit for the IRI in antagonizing the EU, and – if I'm right about what happened – right now you're potentially in a position of huge advantage with respect to them. But politically you're skating a lot of thin ice, and you're playing with the very, very big boys. If my scenario's correct, the EU – or, more likely, some private concern, the ESDC or one of their divisions or subcontractors – not only got that psycho Fitzgerald assigned as Odin's security, they put a hypersonic cannon into his hands, in direct violation of the Mars Treaty and Accords. Maybe the EU itself was utterly blameless – I'd sure as hell like to think that even Bitteschell wouldn't be that stupid – but you know that we simply can't let this kind of thing slide."
Nick debated with himself for what seemed a long time, but was actually only a few seconds. I have to trust him if we're going to make any of this work now. "Walter, I agree with you completely," he said finally.
Keldering's look of relief was one of the rare uncontrolled expressions the agent had ever given. "You do? Then –"
"But this is not quite the time," Glendale continued smoothly. "You see – unofficially and completely off the record – I will tell you that you're entirely correct, and I'm very impressed by how you've put all the pieces together. But there are a few, very crucial, pieces that you're missing of this puzzle." As he explained, he found the sequence of expressions that crossed Keldering's face almost comical.
"The General is alive?"
"He is. And given everything else, I think you can see what we plan to do."
Keldering nodded, and then he began to look suspiciously at Glendale. "And you're going to need me to keep everyone else from jumping the gun."
"Nicholas, do you have any idea what you're asking? If I have a reasonable bit of intel, I'm supposed to send it up the chain right away. Something like this—"
He nodded sympathetically, but then smiled. "I know, Walter. But on the other hand… you came here privately, unofficially, to ask me. You were already trying to keep it private. If you weren't ready to play ball, why did you come with your own bat and glove?"
Keldering couldn't restrain a snort of laughter. "Okay, you got me. I knew you guys couldn't possibly have deliberately killed people in cold blood, and I thought I knew the story… but you've added a few wrinkles. Damn. Nick, this isn't going to be easy. You want to keep the EU happy, stop anyone from blowing the lid off the truth, and get the rescue project well underway while your people try to pull off a by-their-bootstraps rescue on their own, before you go public."
"And we want to be able to get every one of the people responsible dead to rights," said Glendale, this time with a hard edge in his voice. "They nearly killed some of my best friends, and did kill a hundred people who had trusted their lives to those people's work."
"That is going to be the really tricky part," Keldering said slowly. "People like that – especially Osterhoudt, if he's involved – are insulated, protected, and very much prepared for any accusations. And he's not going to relax for quite a while." A sudden smile spread across his face. "But we still have a few cards we haven't played." Keldering stood up.
Keldering stopped in the doorway and grinned. "You know, I can't attend his retirement party in six months, so why don't I give Director Hughes a call? He might like an update on what his favorite protégé' is really up to on Europa."
The door slid shut, leaving Nicholas feeling better than he had in weeks. We just might pull this off after all.