The train sat in its yard, quiet and empty except for two bodies that stood clutching the support straps with one hand while their other hands were clasped together. The lights were off on the car but neither needed external light to see by. Together they watched the footage from inside Cypress Health and Automation Systems play out through its hundredth loop.
It was well past midnight, and neither dinner nor a show had crossed either woman’s mind.
“We’d need a better recording to do extrapolatory micro-expression analysis on Dr. Raju,” Zai said. She’d been largely silent during the hours while Harp and Ai reviewed the footage, speaking up only when either requested data to add to their expanding web of information regarding what had been a brief and apparently perfunctory meeting regarding assessing basic trial work on a set of new medical protocols.
“Did she choose her seat to obscure her face enough to prevent that?” Ai asked.
“Maybe,” Harp said. “She could have been there because she was gathering data on Derricks.”
“It’s possible,” Ai said, as counter arguments rose unbidden in her mind.
“But why wouldn’t she have known to send us looking for this footage before we found the lab?” Harp asked, voicing one of Ai’s reservations for her.
“Whose idea was it to seek out this footage?” Zai asked.
“Sil’s,” Harp said.
“One of your teammates?” Ai asked.
“Yeah, Silicon Traces, she’s the techiest of us I guess,” Harp said. “We normally rely on Dr. Raju and her associates for our maintenance needs but Sil’s sort of become her apprentice.”
“How did Dr. Raju react to that idea?” Ai asked.
Harp paused for a moment of thought and sighed before she continued.
“She wasn’t a fan of it,” Harp said. “She had good reasons though. We didn’t know which archive the right EyeGrid footage was stored in, we had no options for getting the manifest that didn’t involve a wholesale battle through the GCPD, and even if we got the manifest, none of us had a plan for how to get the archival footage out without triggering hard lockdowns on the data.”
“I’m going to call my batting average .500 in terms of helping you then,” Ai said. “That sounds better than a 50% test score.”
Harp was silent, and the moment of levity fizzled in the silence of the car.
“A request has been logged in the repair system for the cameras on this car,” Zai said. “You’ll probably need to break them before you leave, but I can keep them artificially on the fritz for now.”
“Thanks,” Ai said. “When is the repair crew due?”
“Their earliest slot is in four weeks,” Zai said. “Their repair logs suggest that the job will probably be deferred at least twice before work is actually done on the cameras though.”
“She didn’t ask any questions about who the new protocols were going to be tried on,” Harp said, reviewing the transcript of the conversation again.
“It doesn’t look like it was that kind of meeting,” Ai said. “Derriks was just checking in to make sure everything was on track on Cypress’s end and giving them his approval for the conditions of the lab.”
“Except for the state of the secondary power grid,” Harp said. “But that’s not important, probably.”
“It might be,” Zai said. “From what I can see of the building’s schematics, there wasn’t a need for a secondary grid when it was constructed, so that had to be a later addition.”
“That’s not a cheap thing to retrofit a building with,” Ai said. “What would Derricks have needed one for?”
“Secure backup power?” Harp suggested. “Working with a partially transformed NME would need very tightly controlled conditions.”
“Stand alone units would be more reliable for that though. and cheaper,” Ai said. “For the price of a full building refit, you could attach a platinum class backup unit to every piece of diagnostic augmentation tech you were running.”
“It’s not for a system that was incorporated into the building,” Zai said. “At least not officially. Did the Valkyries find any high capacity cabling running through the building when you discovered it?
“No,” Harp said after a moment spent recalling her personal record of the building’s current state. “But it was picked pretty clean. It might have been uninstalled by the time we got there.”
“Most of the cost of a secondary power system is in the labor, so no one ever bothers with uninstalling one, but if scavengers had access to the interior it’s certainly possible they could have extracted anything that was left around,” Ai agreed.
“There’s another possibility then,” Zai said. “If Derricks and his team were planning to work with Enhanciles, they may have needed holding facilities, and those would need to be highly reliable.”
“Yeah,” Harp said, her shoulders slumping. “Those we did find signs of.”
“So the next question is…” Ai started to ask.
“Did Dr. Raju know about them?” Harp said.
“It’s possible she didn’t,” Ai said. “The tests they talk about in the meeting don’t sound like anything related to the NME activation code. Or a vaccine to ward against it. They were talking about human trials for protocols that would be available by the next fiscal quarter. Those are minor mods at best, even on a fast approval track.”
“Then what did she think the secondary grid was for?” Harp asked.
“Dr. Derriks seems to be rather eccentric,” Zai said. “Humans often don’t question the eccentric as deeply as they do those who fit a more typical mold.”
“So she just ignored a request like that?” Harp asked. “That’s not how she operates. She’s too smart to miss a detail that important.”
“Even smart people can make simple, stupid mistakes,” Ai said.
“If it’s a mistake at all,” Harp said. “It has to be a mistake though, doesn’t it?”
“We can’t tell from the video,” Ai said. “There’s just not enough here.”
“We need to find more video then,” Harp said. “From after she leaves Cypress.”
“We didn’t get that in the data slice that we took,” Ai said. “And I don’t think we can go back for another using the same trick without Tython seeing through both ruses.”
“This is is important,” Harp said.
“I know,” Ai said. “But there’s another way. Talk to her. See what her side of the story is.”
“If she’s been lying all along she’ll have lies ready for when I get back,” Harp said.
“She will, if she’s been lying,” Ai said. “And if she didn’t know that someone she worked with was a part of this, then she’ll have a story to tell too. It may not be easy to tell those two stories apart but she doesn’t know the kind of resources we have, so a lie might not have a strong enough foundation to stand up for long.”
“You’re right,” Harp said. “I have to talk to her. I owe her that.”
“You can call her now,” Ai said. “You said she’d notice if you weren’t back by midnight. Has she tried to reach out to you?”
“No,” Harp said. “Not yet.”
“What about the other Valkyries?” Ai asked. “Would they have noticed you were missing?”
“Yeah,” Harp said. “Sil would have. We have scheduled check-ins so that the others can mount a rescue if they see we’re in trouble.”
“How long would a rescue take to put together?” Ai asked, a chilly thought plunging into her stomach.
“Depends on the situation we think we’re going into,” Harp said. “The cardinal rule is that none of us are expendable, but that means no one is allowed to die or get captured trying to rescue anyone else. If someone can catch one of us, we do not want to be used as bait to lure the others in.”
“That’s a good strategy to have in place,” Ai said. “You’re tracker is still active right?”
“Yeah,” Harp said. “They know exactly where I am.”
“And Zai, the cameras are down in this car still correct?” Ai asked.
“Yes,” Zai said. “And train yard’s security system doesn’t scan or monitor the interior of parked vehicles. No one can see you at the moment.”
“But the train did record us getting on?” Ai asked. “And it didn’t register a departure scan for us?”
“Not yet,” Zai said. “I was going to update the timestamp on the scan it took when you actually left the car to make it seem like you’d left at different stops.”
“Probably still good to do, but I see a problem we may have stumbled into,” Ai said. “How good is Sil at cyber-intrusion?”
“She’s not at ‘sapient-AI levels’ but she’s beaten every system we’ve needed her too,” Harp said.
“So something like the GC Transit system wouldn’t pose a real challenge to her?” Ai asked.
“It hasn’t in the past,” Harp said. “Why would she be looking for you though?”
“You missed curfew,” Ai said. “When they looked for you, they found you in a train yard. When they found you here, the next question would be ‘who are you with’ and the onboarding records would show only one person who could still be on the train with you.”
“We should have gotten off,” Harp said. “I wouldn’t normally stay in one place like this, even if I was trying to blow off steam.”
“I didn’t think of it,” Ai said.
“I didn’t either. We didn’t need to move to review the video and I couldn’t think of anything else.”
“See,” Ai said. “Smart people, dumb mistake.”
“Is this really a problem?” Zai asked. “Can’t you just call the Valkyries and tell them what you’ve found?”
“I just tried,” Harp said. “They’re not answering.”
“Oh, that is not what I wanted to hear,” Ai said. “Tell me if this sounds plausible; Dr. Raju was not happy with my work during the manifest heist. She thought I botched it in an effort to get you captured.”
“Or she was afraid of what we would find if we moved forward and she wanted you removed as a resource who could help us find out what she’d done.”
“Or that, but for the moment, we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt,” Ai said. “If the narrative that she’s embraced is that I’m a deep agent for Tython, then my play would be to feed you the kind of intel that would degrade or remove your loyalty to her.”
“Which would mean providing access to footage that shows that she’s guilty of aiding the enemy from the beginning,” Harp said. “Except that no matter what I saw, I wouldn’t lose my loyalty to the other Valkyries. They’re the closest thing I have to a family now.”
“Right, so after I break your loyalty to Dr. Raju, we’d have a situation where you would still have a connection to the rest of your team, and that’s something I could use to feed them the same corruptive evidence. You’d be the vector into severing the Valkyries ties with their principal backer and the person who understands their technology the best. It’s not a victory play, but it moves the pieces on the board heavily out of your favor.”
“So Dr. Raju has them on lockdown then,” Harp said. “She’s freezing me out?”
“You went against her orders and contacted a potentially toxic agent,” Ai said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you did, but as a security measure, what she’s doing makes sense both if she’s betraying you and if she’s clean.”
“But you’re not…” Harp started to say.
“Trying to corrupt you?” Ai asked. “You can’t know that yet. I want you to trust me, but not without a solid foundation.”
“How can we have that?” Harp asked. “You could always be betraying me, and I could always be using you. Isn’t that what this footage proves?”
“No,” Ai said. “The footage doesn’t prove anything. It’s just information. We need a lot more to see the full picture. Maybe we’ll never get that, and maybe even if we do we still won’t be able to really know who is working for which side, that’s when it becomes leap of faith time. Before we go jumping off any cliffs though, we have to at least try to see as much as we can.”
“How do we do that?” Harp asked. “You say you want me to know I can trust you and then you tell me exactly how you could betray me. What can you give me that will let me know one way or the other?”
“My trust,” Ai said. “Specifically, I can let you go, off to talk to Dr. Raju. Ask her about this. Let her explain what she can. Don’t show the footage to any of the other Valkyries first. If it’s a vector for treachery, then let it sit unseen and ineffective.”
“What if she can’t?” Harp asked. “What if we exist just to clean up her messes that get out of hand?”
“That’s where I have to trust in you, and in your judgement,” Ai said. “I think there are a lot of possibilities for how Dr. Raju could be involved in this either unknowingly, or so peripherally that it barely counts as being connected to it. Let her speak to that. Let her prove it to you as best she can. If she can convince you, then you can either present the footage to the other Valkyries with her explanation, or edit her out of it if that makes things simpler.”
“Why would you do that?” Harp said.
“Because it’s the one thing I can think of that would be absolutely against my interests if I was an enemy agent trying to seduce you away from people who were legitimately on your side.”
“That will work fine is she’s on our side, but if she’s not, if she is using us, she could turn the other Valkyries against me and I don’t think I can fight them.”
“I can’t go with you to talk to Raju,” Ai said. “Anything I said in that meeting would be instantly suspect. But that doesn’t mean you have to go without any lifelines. You have a link to me that you can call on whenever you want. If you’re in trouble, I promise, I will come for you.”