I followed Liam back into the library, where we found Francis and Larissa hard at work on the Commune algorithms.
“I got the invite!” Liam announced as soon as the door shut behind us. “I’m meeting with Halpert and his board tomorrow—”
“You mean your father is,” said Larissa placidly.
“So they think,” Liam grinned. His smile faded just a bit as he added, “As long as they don’t contact him about it for any reason between now and then—” His expression changed again: there was a faraway look in his eyes and all his features seemed to draw back. I knew it meant he’d gotten another comm.
“What?” I demanded. “Did they cancel already?”
“No,” he said, perplexed. “I heard back from Odessa on your questions, Francis.”
“And?” he asked.
Liam touched the A.E. chip on his temple to turn it off, and then he met Francis’s eyes. “You were right. Wallenberg, Rasputin, St. James, Chiefton, and Montgomery are all buying sulfuric acid and salt. So whatever Halpert is doing… his board is doing it too.”
I blinked at Liam, shaking my head. “That’s…”
“Exactly what I expected,” Francis finished with a self-complacent air. “Have you replied to the invite yet? Is tomorrow a lunch meeting?”
Liam looked a little confused. “Not yet, and I would assume so, she said noon.”
“Make sure it is,” said Francis, “offer to have it catered or something. Also, I’m coming with you.”
“What?” I demanded, turning to Liam. “Why does he get to go?”
Liam ignored my question and said to Francis doubtfully, “That’ll be hard to explain…”
“No it won’t, Liam Senior couldn’t get away and sent Liam Junior, his Head of Operations—isn’t that what you were?—and his right-hand man. Pick a name of someone in the department. I’ll be him.”
“Then I’m going too!” I insisted, “I can do that as well as he can!”
Liam held up his hands to silence all of us, and then said to Francis, like a teacher calling on us one at a time, “Francis. Why?”
“To find out if I’m right,” he said.
“You could tell me your theory, and I could find out,” Liam countered.
“No you couldn’t.”
Francis gave an exasperated sigh. “Need I really say it?”
Liam rolled his eyes. “All right, fine. You’ll be Bill Spencer. He’s a middle aged guy I used to work with and you don’t look a thing like him, but if they research our story at all, we’re screwed anyway. But you must keep your mouth shut!” he added severely. “If you come, I do all the talking!”
I interjected, “The whole point of this meeting is to argue that they need to find a way to either incorporate morality into the De Vries prototype or halt production until they can, for safety reasons. Right?”
Liam turned to me, brows knitted together. “Right…”
“So that’s my specialty, not yours,” I finished, crossing my arms over my chest. “You need me there too.”
Liam opened his mouth and closed it again. He didn’t look pleased. Then he glanced at Larissa, and said with all the injured air he could muster, “All right, why are you indispensable? I’m waiting.”
“Oh! You can do without me perfectly well. I’ll just stay behind and work on the Commune with the other Renegades,” she said sweetly.
“At least there’s that,” Liam muttered.
“Why don’t you want us there?” I demanded.
“Because at least I have a legitimate connection to General Specs! You two will only raise suspicion.”
“Which is exactly what I want,” said Francis, more to himself than to us.
“You want the most powerful men in the world to know we pulled one over on them?” Liam demanded, exasperated.
“You’ll understand afterwards,” was Francis’s smug reply.
Liam and I both deliberately turned our backs on Francis at the same moment; such a statement did not deserve a response.
“Did Odessa investigate the board at all, beyond their purchases?” I asked Liam. “The way she did Halpert—their back stories and what not?”
Liam frowned. “I didn’t ask her to, good point. Hold on.” He touched the A.E. chip on his temple again, biting his lip as his eyes tracked back and forth in the imaginary space in his head.
While I watched Liam compose the comm to Odessa, I thought of the one person whom I knew could tell me what we wanted to know. Maybe he wasn’t Loomis after all, and maybe he didn’t want to tell me very much, but he could if he wanted to. Whoever he was, John Doe knew their secret: of that, I was certain.
He’d said I couldn’t contact him, though; I’d have to wait for him to contact me. The last time I’d tried to write back to his comm, it bounced back. But I could try to reply to the last comm he’d sent, at least.
I tapped my own A.E. chip. “I need your help,” I thought, seeing the words appear across my retinas. “We know Halpert and his advisory board are buying massive amounts of ingredients for hydrochloric acid, and we know that means they’re probably building illegal humanoid robots. What we don’t know is, why?”
I sent the message, but immediately the bold red letters flashed across my retinas: “ERROR: Recipient Unknown.” I swore under my breath.
“What was that?” Liam asked, arching an amused eyebrow at me.
“Did you actually just say ‘damn’?” He persisted. “Because I think that’s the first time…” I glared at him, and he swallowed his smirk. “Sorry.”
“I tried to ask John Doe what they’re all doing with those ingredients, but the message wouldn’t go through. Which is what he told me would happen, I know.”
Liam glowered at me. “Rebecca, you shouldn’t be talking to him anymore. We don’t know who he is or whose side he’s on.”
“He knows what we want to know,” I insisted. “He’s a shortcut, I know he is, if he’ll only help us!”
Francis, probably tired of being excluded, announced, “Larissa and I are headed back to the pub. Liam, you can join us whenever this little tête-à-tête is finished.” Larissa bounced up from her seat like a sprightly four year old at this, stuffing her netscreen into her satchel.
“Fine, I’ll take Rebecca back to the hotel first,” Liam said, somewhat absently.
“What am I supposed to be doing at the hotel?”
“Accessing the labyrinth for more ideas on how to program morality, I thought, right?”
“Oh.” I didn’t hold out much hope that there was anything else to find, but kept this to myself for the moment. “Right. You could just leave me here, then…”
“I don’t want you to have to get back to the hotel by yourself.”
Okay. This is getting to be a bit much, I thought, as Francis and Larissa slipped out behind us. “Liam, I’m not your responsibility, you know. If anything happens to me—which I don’t think is likely, but even if it did—it’s not like you should ever have that on your conscience. I’m a big girl.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You think I’m worried about my conscience?” Then he started walking, such that I had no choice but to follow him.
“Bec, you are my responsibility, at least as long as you’re here. You came here with me, on what was originally my mission. I’m sorry if it annoys you that I’m so overprotective, and if we go back to Dublin, I promise to never keep tabs on your whereabouts ever again. Deal?”
“If we go back?” I repeated with an incredulous laugh.
When we reached the edge of campus, and Liam hailed a hovercar to take us the rest of the way. A silver-blue one presented itself to the curb where we stood. As we climbed in, I muttered, “I hope that you never have any daughters. For their sakes.”
Liam laughed, closing the door and telling it where we wanted to go before the hovercar swooped up into the carpool motorway. “I’d love to have a daughter, but I’m sure if I did, she’d find me unbearable once she became a teenager. For more reasons than just because she’d have a seven o’clock curfew. Which she would.”
I smirked, trying to picture Liam as a father. “And she wouldn’t be allowed to kiss anybody until she was thirty, right?”
He shrugged. “Or maybe she could just be like you, and wait until she’s twenty-one. I’d settle for that.”
I felt my cheeks flame. “I never said I’d never—!”
Liam burst out laughing. “You didn’t deny it, though, did you? And you’re bright red… so you haven’t, then! That explains it… I figured you hadn’t when you said you’d been waiting for years for that chump to come around—”
When the hovercar pulled up in front of our hotel, I shoved him, mostly to force him to turn away until my face resumed its usual color. “Out! Get out!”
Still laughing, he scanned his thumbprint to the hovercar for payment, and climbed out onto the curb, waiting for me to join him. He held up his hands and said, “Hey, if you ever want some practice, I’d be only too happy to help… I could even give you some pointers…”
“I hate you so much,” I muttered, shoving past him toward the big double doors, while Liam retreated down the sidewalk towards Francis’s pub, still laughing.
“Is everything okay?” Madeline wanted to know when I’d burst into my room. “You look very red.”
“Yes. I’ve been told.” I buried my face in my hands, speaking to her through the gap in my fingers. “It’s nothing, just Liam humiliating me again…”
She rolled over, her expression assuming concern. “He humiliated you? What did he do?”
I told her the story, and then exclaimed, “He can be so—unbearable sometimes! I never would have admitted that to him, and yet somehow he got it out of me anyway… and that explains what, anyway? What did he mean by that?” I felt like I wanted to throw something at Liam’s face as I remembered him laughing at me, but I settled for hurling a box of tissues at the door. Suddenly a sense of dread settled into the pit of my stomach. “How am I going to face him later tonight?”
Madeline patted my knee, her face all sympathy. “What would make you happy?” she asked. “Do you want to get even with Liam for humiliating you?”
I looked up, suddenly tingling with déjà vu.
Was it her after all, then? All those other comms?
“No, of course not!” I blurted. “Liam didn’t mean to be cruel. He…” I suddenly knew exactly why he’d done it. “I think he was just trying to get a rise out of me, because he still likes me. He probably would like to give me pointers, come to think of it… he only said it like a joke because he knew I wouldn’t go for it.”
“You’re smiling,” Madeline pointed out, sounding confused now.
I schooled my face immediately. “I am not!”
She tilted her head to the side, inspecting my face. “You smile a lot when you talk about Liam,” she observed. “Even when your words imply that you want him to go away, your manner suggests the opposite. Do you have feelings for him?”
“No, of course not!” I cried again.
Instead of responding, Madeline just stared at me, like she was waiting for a different answer. Finally I blurted, “Oh my gosh, I hope not.”
Madeline rolled back and forth on the carpet just in front of me. “Do you think he would be kind to you?”
“Of course he would, but…”
“Do you think he would make you happy?”
“Well yeah—I mean, no! I mean… I want to be with Andy! You know that!”
Madeline blinked up at me. “Do you think Andy would be kind and would make you happy?”
I fell silent for a long time. Too long. Then I admitted, “I’m… not sure, actually.”
“He’s never made you happy in the past,” Madeline observed.
“That’s not true, there have been nights when I’ve come home after hanging out with Andy totally excited and bursting to tell you all about it—”
“Because you’re interpreting something he said or did to mean he likes you,” Madeline pointed out, “but has being with him ever made you happy, apart from that?”
I didn’t want to answer that, but she kept staring at me. So I thought about it. And I thought.
And I thought.
There had to be just one time…
“I’m not sure,” I admitted at last.
“But you’re usually smiling when you talk about Liam. You can’t seem to help it.”
I leapt up, hands to my temples as I paced away from her. “Please just stop. I don’t want to think about this!”
“But if Liam would be kind to you and he’d make you happy, and Andy wouldn’t, and if you are starting to like Liam, why would you prefer to pine for Andy instead? I’m just trying to understand what you want!” Madeline persisted, following me as I paced.
I gave a short little laugh. “Isn’t that the million dollar question,” I muttered. I really didn’t want to think about the substance of what she was saying. But I also wanted to know…
If I did have an answer, what would she do about it?
We watched each other for what felt like an eternity, as I tried to work up the courage to frame the words. I’m going to ask her. I have to ask her.
I’d just opened my mouth to speak, when I felt my handheld vibrate in my pocket. I jumped about a foot.
It took me a second to comprehend what I saw on the screen. It said, “If you knew for certain that remaining in San Jose and making yourself known to Halpert and his board would put you in mortal danger, would you leave?”
I stared at it.
“What is it?” Madeline asked, as if with bated breath.
I read it to her. She made a little squeak, and then I added unnecessarily, “It’s from John Doe.”
“You would leave, wouldn’t you?” Madeline demanded. “Liam would make you leave, if he knew!”
“Liam can’t make me do anything,” I retorted, staring at the screen and wondering how to reply. I couldn’t say yes, and I couldn’t say no… I just wanted John Doe to keep talking.
“I like Liam,” Madeline added, talking to herself now. “He keeps you safe.”
I ignored this, and wrote back, “Maybe. It would depend on who wanted me dead and why.” Then I waited, still staring at the screen. After a few minutes, when it didn’t seem like he would bite, I added, “Is it for the same reason my father was killed?”
“Don’t you think you should tell Liam that John Doe contacted you?” Madeline persisted.
“I can tell him when I see him next,” I told her, distracted. “He’s busy right now.”
“But he’d want to know…”
John Doe wrote back to my question, “The very same.” At least he was answering something.
I took a deep breath, and pressed, “Does it have anything to do with hydrochloric acid?”
There was another long pause, so long I wondered if he would write back at all. I felt Madeline’s eyes on me, but didn’t look at her.
Finally John Doe replied, “You are clever.”
My breath caught. “Halpert, Wallenberg, Rasputin, Montgomery, Chiefton, and St James are all building illegal humanoid bots. Aren’t they?”
I counted seven seconds before his reply landed on my screen. He wrote, “Meet me tonight, at sunset. General Northrup Park, two blocks south of you. I will answer all your questions, on one condition: you must promise to leave tomorrow morning, and never come back.”
Tomorrow morning. I couldn’t leave before the meeting tomorrow—could I?
But could I pass up the information he offered me now?
“What if I don’t promise?” I wrote back.
“Then we will not meet. I risk my own life every time I contact you.”
My heart thumped. “Okay. I promise,” I wrote, not even sure as I typed it whether it was a promise I would keep. It all depended upon what he told me.
“You must come alone,” John Doe added.
Dang it. Well, Liam wasn’t here right now anyway. I’d just have to tell him afterwards. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. He’d be mad… he’d be really, really mad, actually.
But he’d get over it. He’d have to.