Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 19

Liam stared at me for a second, not comprehending.

“You—what?” He shook his head, as if to clear it of all the other things he’d apparently been expecting me to say that weren’t this. “When? How? Who is he?”

I took another deep breath—suddenly I felt like I needed the extra oxygen. “The first night we were here,” I confessed all at once. “After you took me back to the hotel, I went for a walk. Even though you told me not to,” I held up a hand to ward off his angry reply, “I went anyway, and I met this man in the alley the next block over—”

“You did what?”

“Let me finish!” I retorted. “I can’t explain how, but I knew he was trying to get my attention. He knew my name, Liam, and he knew why we were here, he knew about the Renegades, and he knew about my father and his friends’ disappearance. He told me to call him John Doe, and he told me that he’d find me when I needed him, but I wouldn’t be able to contact him. That was the first time I talked to him.” I took a deep breath, and went on, “The second time was right after we met with Senator Kim.”

I could see Liam’s blood pressure rising as I talked, until at last he couldn’t sit anymore. He stood up and began to pace. He always did that when he was upset and trying not to shout, I’d noticed.

“He told me that Senator Kim knew the same secret my father and his friends had known, and the same secret your brother knew.”

Here Liam looked up sharply. “So you already knew about my brother, then?”

I held up my hands in a protestation of innocence. “Not until John Doe mentioned him that morning. I swear that was the first I knew you even had a brother.”

He gave a short laugh and resumed pacing. “And then you had to figure out a way to get me to tell you the story, without arousing my suspicion. Bravo, Rebecca. Well done.”

“I am telling you less than twenty-four hours later!” I shot back angrily, “will you scale back the sarcasm for half a second?”

“I trusted you,” was Liam’s reply, all sarcasm gone. He met my gaze, and did not bother to disguise his hurt. That was worse, much worse, than his anger. I felt tears spring to my eyes, but I maintained my anger like a shield.

“John Doe told me not to tell you specifically, because he said you were reckless!”

Liam said nothing to this, pacing still. I waited a few beats, and when it didn’t seem like he was going to say anything more, I added, calmer, “The last time I heard from him was last night. He sent me another comm, and warned me to go back to Dublin with the others from the lab. And I think he must’ve sent a comm to Dr. Yin, too, because she woke me up this morning and told me she got an anonymous comm telling her that I was going back with them.”

Liam’s pacing was beginning to drive me mad. His accusation still rang in my ears: I trusted you.

Finally I begged, “Liam. Stop that. Look at me. Say something.”

He did stop, and I saw the little muscle in his jaw tighten before he turned to look at me. I blinked my tears away before they could fall, determined not to let him see them. I couldn’t stand it when people were angry with me.

“I want to meet him,” Liam announced at last.

I sighed, exasperated. “I told you, I don’t have control over when or where we meet—”

“He’s contacted you multiple times since we’ve been here, that indicates it won’t be long,” Liam cut me off. “And you will tell me the second you hear from him the next time. Right?” I bristled, but before I could retort, he burst out again, “What were you thinking, Rebecca? You snuck out, on your own, twice—to a dark alley! What if he’s not Loomis? What if he’s keeping tabs on us for the other side, trying to find out what we know? Did you ever think of that, that maybe he didn’t want you to tell me because he wanted to use you against me? Against the Renegades? What if one of these times they take you too, as a hostage or something, to shut us up?”

“Now you’re just being ridiculous,” I countered, but without any real conviction. The truth was, I felt shaken. He was right; I had just blindly trusted that John Doe was Loomis, and that he was on my side. Why hadn’t it occurred to me that he might not be?

“I want to meet him,” Liam demanded again. “The next time you hear from him—”

“I don’t even know if I will again, now that I’ve told you!” I shot back. “He always seems to know all about everything we’ve done so far, so he probably knows I’ve told you now, too! I don’t know how—”

“Maybe because he’s on the inside,” Liam growled. “Unless you think he’s got our hotel rooms bugged.”

I felt angry and confused and defensive all at once. I wished I could prove to him that John Doe was who I’d believed him to be, but I didn’t know what to say. Liam made me feel foolish and naive. Maybe I was.

Before I could formulate a reply, though, I saw Liam freeze.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. Then I saw him tap his temple, and I realized he’d gotten a comm.

“It’s Odessa,” he murmured to me, and I saw his eyes slide back and forth, reading the comm on the inside of his retinas. “That’s odd,” he muttered to himself.

“What?”

His eyes snapped back to the room, and he said bitingly, “I don’t know, can I trust you? You just have a tendency to run off and tell random men in alleys everything I say to you.”

“That’s not fair!” I shot back, feeling the tears pricking the corners of my eyes again. I blinked them back fiercely. I would not let him see me cry. I would not.

I think he saw them anyway, though, because his expression softened.

He sighed, inspecting my face, hands on his hips. “No more secrets, Bec. Deal?”

I nodded, angry with myself for my weakness. I didn’t trust myself to meet his eyes. “Deal.”

He crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed next to me. “Remember when I said I had Odessa scour everything she could find on Halpert on the labyrinth?” Then he tapped the chip in his temple again and read, “Odessa says, ‘Attached are loci with basic biographical information about William Halpert,’ and then she lists three of them. She goes on, ’But I can only find independent sources corroborating his history for the past 20 years: Masters’ Degree and graduation Summa Cum Laude from South Pacific University, his subsequent rise in politics, humanitarian relief efforts, professional alliances, etc. There’s a block before that, though. Aside from the officially sponsored loci giving a cursory back story, there’s nothing corroborating it anywhere. No other record that he even existed.’”

“Huh,” I said, perplexed.

“I know.” Liam nodded. “Then she says, ‘The most peculiar detail I found in the last twenty years was his spending habits: he purchases salt and sulfuric acid in bulk monthly from a discount chemistry supply company out of Baltimore.’”

“Salt and sulfuric acid?” I repeated, reaching for my netscreen. A quick search on the labyrinth told me that such these were the ingredients necessary to produce hydrochloric acid, but I didn’t see how that could be relevant. I showed the screen to Liam.

“What would Halpert want with that much hydrochloric acid, though?” I asked rhetorically.

He shook his head slowly, staring at the screen. Then he tapped his temple again, and his eyes skimmed left to right as he mentally dictated a comm to Odessa.

“I’m telling her to find all possible uses for salt, sulfuric acid, or hydrochloric acid. I’m telling Francis, too. He has an uncanny way of seeing patterns I can’t see.” He shrugged, and met my eyes. At least Odessa’s new mystery had diffused all remaining tension between us. After a moment, he reached out and squeezed my hand.

“Hey. We’re okay. Right?”

I felt that same swooping, jittery sensation I’d had when Liam had touched me unexpectedly yesterday. “Yeah, of course.” I gave his hand a perfunctory squeeze back, and dropped it like a hot potato. “We’re fine.”

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