Ai sat alone in the train car, her eyes at last taking in the dark and empty metal structure that surrounded her.
“I should have gotten off a long time ago shouldn’t I?” she asked, her brain twisting into knots of worry and concern.
“You seemed pretty absorbed by the footage we found,” Zai said. “I didn’t think you wanted to be interrupted.”
“You were right, it just feels weird to be here without anyone else but us around,” Ai said.
The emptiness of the deserted train car sent a chill running down her spine. Aside from the plastic seats, she could have been sitting in her apartment. She’d never been one for posters or artwork in general. Her “decorating style” was laughable to describe as either decorating or a style. She hadn’t noticed the emptiness in her life though until she noticed the Harp-shaped void that haunted the train with her.
“Am I missing something?” she asked, grappling to understand why she felt so tangled. Her parting words to Harp had been firm and supportive, but her imagination could conjure so many scenarios that turned out poorly for them all.
Even though it was far too early to hear anything about how Harp’s conversation with Dr. Raju went, Ai could feel the waiting eating away at her nerves. She had spent years being as patient as a spider in its web, but this still left her unsettled.
“In relation to what?” Zai asked.
“The footage I guess,” Ai said, hoping to force her thoughts onto a more productive path, or at least to distract herself from the phantom fears that threatened to entice her to actions both rash and stupid. “It’s an interesting coincidence that the breadcrumb trail of information from the lab the Valkyries found just happened to lead to video that suggested Dr. Raju was involved with the chief researcher’s work.”
“Coincidences do happen,” Zai said. “And the footage wasn’t exactly easy to acquire.”
“I know and that adds a lot of weight to it,” Ai said. “But it also makes for a really strong trap.”
“Because we’ve invested so much in getting this footage, we’re inherently biased towards accepting it as true?” Zai asked.
“Yeah, it’s one of the basic failure modes for human thought,” Ai said. “If we struggle for something we internalize the belief that it must have value, and we fight to hold onto that belief in the face of mountains of evidence that it’s incorrect.”
“That’s why the city council member manage to get re-elected despite having single digit approval ratings?” Zai asked.
“Partially. Their supporters are so dug into the belief that their candidate, and only their candidate, has their best interest in mind that they accept any argument that supports that belief no matter how outrageous and transparently false a lie it might be,” Ai said. “The other reason is that the current officials are there because the real powers in Gamma City want them there, they’re the ones who buy and sell the elections.”
“So you think we’re doing the same thing with the footage?” Zai asked.
“Maybe,” Ai said. “I thought of this before, but what if Dr. Raju is right.”
“What? That you’re an enemy agent?” Zai asked
“No, not me, the footage,” Ai said. “We knew Dr. Fredrick Derricks has some kind of system worm that’s running close to the root level of the EyeGrid. It corrupts images of him to make sure he looks normal still but not in a manner that’s consistent enough for recognition software to identify him.”
“There’s another possibility there,” Zai said. “He may not have a worm corrupting the EyeGrid’s data. He might have the worm working in the facial recognition sub system.”
“That would be simpler I suppose,” Ai said. “And if it’s true that we know what he looks like. Or at least what he looked like then.”
“But how does that explain Dr. Raju’s presence in the video?” Zai asked.
“If Derricks has a backdoor into the EyeGrid, the feed could have been manipulated from the beginning as a trap for anyone who came searching for him,” Ai said. “He was probably at the warehouse the day it changed ownership – this doesn’t seem like a project with Tython has been working on slowly and patiently – but his trip to Cypress afterwards could have been spliced in from an earlier or later date. Or fabricated entirely.”
“Even if what we’re seeing is a pure fantasy though, that leaves open the question of why is it Dr. Raju in the scene?” Zai asked. “If Derricks was setting a trap to destroy Raju’s credibility, then he has to know her. Pretty well in fact, because he not only could replicate her appearance, she’s also listed as having been employed at Cypress at that time.”
“What was her role there?” Ai asked.
“Vice President of Research Analysis,” Zai said. “The role description in their Human Resources system says she was the final reviewer on Cypress’ projects, responsible for coordinating the team that evaluated their research investments for technical impact, practicality, and security.”
“What was Tython’s stake in Cypress at the time?” Ai asked.
“None,” Zai said. “But Tython did step in an acquire control of Cypress a year after the project started.”
“No, Cypress ran into a debt death spiral. One of their major bio-mods, a depilatory application, developed a fault and paying off the claims knocked two of their other projects off schedule enough that they didn’t make first to market, or capture the patents they were looking for,” Zai said.
“They lost their company over a bad hair care product? Wow, that’s kinda said,” Ai said, and asked, “the competitors who beat them to the market; were they Tython subsidiaries?”
“No, they were Cypresses chief competitors,” Zai said.
“That’s cleaner, so if it was part of a conspiracy then they’re not a dumb one,” Ai said. “Can you get access to the competitors research notes?”
“Some of them are public record now and the others are under pretty light security since the products are obsolete now, so, yeah, I’ve already got them,” Zai said, audibly pleased with herself.
“If I wanted to take a company’s value down by letting their competition leap frog them, corporate espionage would not be a bad tool to use,” Ai said. “With time to market pressures though, they would be under the gun to make sure those breakthrus happened in fast enough. So what are the chances that in their haste, the people in Cypress who were working to make the Tython acquisition happen delivered their secret data to both competitors on the same day?”
“That would be hard to prove unless we could find a record of the files being transmitted,” Zai said.
“True, proving it is probably impossible. I’m sure the conspirators, if they exist, would have covered their tracks well enough to prevent that,” Ai said. “We don’t need legally admissible evidence though. All we need is enough support to see if it’s worth pursuing this line of reasoning further.”
“Proof like the filing dates for the competing patents?” Zai asked. “Cause if so we’re looking at both competitors filing for their versions of the patents on the same day.”
“Wow, that’s even closer than I’d expected,” Ai said. “I was thinking it would be the same week, but I guess they were all really close to finding a working process on both inventions.”
“That seems likely,” Zai said. “In both cases the research notes point to a last hurdle that was overcome without a lot of testing leading up to it.”
“That can happen, but on two different projects? At two different companies? To sabotage the same third company? On the same day? That’s kind of stretching things.”
“This is all leading back to Dr. Raju somehow isn’t it?” Zai asked.
“Indirectly,” Ai said. “Check me on this one. The other guy in the room? His name was Bill Harcroft right? Is he still employed with Cypress?”
“No,” Zai said. “He transferred to Tython itself.”
“What’s his current title?”
“Director of Emergent Product Development for the Tython’s Dermal Group,” Zai said. “They’re a branch Tython absorbed from Cypress. Several personnel transfers with Harcroft leading the pack.”
“What about Dr. Raju? Is she still connected to either company?” Ai asked.
“No, she resigned from Cypress years ago,” Zai said. “It was shortly after the transition of ownership to Cypress but the termination of her contract seems to have been mutually satisfactory. She gave six weeks notice for her departure and facilitated her replacements onboarding process before she left.”
“Can we construct her real reasons for leaving?” Ai asked.
“She was on track to vest into a significant ownership stake in Cypress, not controlling but she would have had a place on the board probably. With the takeover, her shares were bought out,” Zai said. “So on the one hand, she had less investment and control in the new company, and on the other she had a pile of money to pursue her own agenda with.”
“Where did she go after Cypress?” Ai asked.
“I don’t see any records of her joining another company,” Zai said. “From her tax records, she’s been living off investments made with her buyout from Cypress.”
“We know she was part of the group that created the Valkyries,” Ai said. “Given Harp’s apparent age, I think the Valkyries are a somewhat recent invention, so that could easily have been after she left Cypress.”
“Were there any deaths among Cypress’ researchers either right before the change in ownership or soon afterward?” Ai asked.
“Yes. Thadwell Mars,” Zai said. “He was a Principal Research Associate but I can’t see which projects he was attached to. He was one of the people killed by the rampage of Hell Beast 1.”
“That’s him,” Ai said. “He’s the one who created the tech that cracked the NME activation code. Hell Beast 1 killed, what, fifteen hundred people before they put it down? Prior to that no one had ever seen a NME in action. This is just a hunch but I bet Bill Harcroft thought he was going to kill two birds with one stone by testing an NME in an environment that could never be tracked back to him or Tython while also removing the one man with enough familiarity with the activation code to identify what was happening. Then he sees what NMEs are capable of and backs off from using the technology again for years.”
“Dr. Raju would have known him, wouldn’t she? Or both of them really. I mean we saw her in a meeting with Harcroft and she had to have worked with Mars. So none of this should be news to her, right?”
“Hmm, how do the dates of Hell Beast 1’s rampage and Dr. Raju’s resignation from Cypress align?” Ai asked.
“They’re not that close,” Zai said. “Dr. Raju turned in her notice two months after the Hell Beast 1 rampage.”
“The Dr. isn’t a fool then,” Ai said. “Two month is plenty of time to make it look like she didn’t know anything about what was going on, while also being brief enough that she could set plans in motion before she lost too much ground to Harcroft.”
“So does that mean she’s in the clear?” Zai asked.
“Maybe, Ai said. “I want to see what story she spins for Harp. I would guess after all this time, she’ll try to cover some stuff up. It’s got to be habit at this point. What she covers up though should be very enlightening.”
“Could Harp still be right though?” Zai asked. “Could Dr. Raju still be working with Derricks and Harcroft as the ‘clean up detail’ for when their monsters get out of control?”
“It’s possible, but if so we’ll know soon enough,” Ai said.
“What will give her away?” Zai asked.
“When and how she tries to kill us,” Ai said.