Liam came back to my room about an hour later to take me to dinner. It was chillier that night than it had been the previous several evenings because of the wind, and I was grateful to have packed my peacoat. Liam wore a long dark overcoat with the collar popped up against the wind, hands in his pockets. I looped my hand through his elbow and kept my body close enough to his that passersby didn’t jostle me away from him. I didn’t bother protesting about my independence anymore; we’d had enough fighting for one day. The streetlights cast everything in a strange yellowish glow as we rounded the corner to Francis’s pub.
“For security,” he told me, his voice low. “We have a lot to discuss before tomorrow.”
“With Francis?” I tried to keep the groan out of my voice.
He nodded, and gave me a wry smile as he held the door open for me. “He’s not so bad once you get to know him.”
“Meaning he gets less rude?”
“No. He’s always rude. But after awhile, you start to think of it as part of his charm.”
I snorted. The pub for once was filled with actual customers, and I wondered briefly how this translated into a secure environment at the moment. But then Liam guided me to a private room in the back labeled ‘reserved,’ the heavy curtains pulled open to admit our entrance. He helped me slip out of my coat and into one of the chairs around a table built for four. He had just moved to his own seat when Francis appeared beside us, dressed in his usual black t-shirt and black jeans with his hair pulled into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck. Francis glanced at me and frowned.
“You weren’t supposed to bring her.”
I raised an eyebrow, glancing at Liam. “Was that the charm you were telling me about?”
Liam’s only reply to either of us was a smirk to himself. He slipped out of his own overcoat and settled his elbows on the table. To Francis, he said, “Are you gonna bring us some menus, or what?”
Heaving an irritated sigh, Francis snapped his fingers and beckoned one of the servers over, leaning in to make his request: two menus, and two beers for himself and Liam. I wasn’t sure if this meant I wasn’t allowed to order, or what, but then he explained, sullen, “I don’t know what she drinks.”
“Probably water would be best, for this conversation. She’s a lightweight,” Liam winked at me.
Why did my heart have to flutter when he did that? I looked down, avoiding his eyes.
“Ugh. You two disgust me,” Francis rolled his eyes, slipping the curtains closed as he moved to a third seat. “Why don’t you just make out already and get it over with?”
“I don’t know. Rebecca?” Liam raised his eyebrows at me with an inquiring smile, steepling his fingers.
“I think I do want some wine,” I mumbled, grateful for the low lighting. “Where’s Larissa?”
“In my apartment downstairs with a few of the guys. They’re in the testing phase,” said Francis.
“So,” Liam turned to Francis. “What did M say after I left?”
I sat up straighter. M might be the only person more intriguing to me than John Doe. “Harriet Albright, right?” I asked, eager to show that I knew who they were talking about.
Francis made a face at me and replied, “Yes, and she’d appreciate it if you don’t use her real name too freely. She’s high up in government intelligence, and we don’t want to blow her cover.” Then he turned back to Liam as if I wasn’t there.
The bar maid came back with two beers and a glass of water for me, and our menus. She looked at me expectantly to see what I’d be having to drink.
“I think I will stick with water after all, thanks,” I murmured. I saw Liam’s triumphant smirk and kicked him under the table. He was right, though: if this conversation held much import, I probably shouldn’t be drinking.
Once the maid had left, Liam sighed and said to Francis, “I wish M could come to the meeting with us herself.”
“Why can’t she?” I asked.
Francis deadpanned, “Did I not just finish saying she’s high up in government intelligence and they think she works for them?” Then he promptly turned back to Liam. “I caught her up on what we know so far: the twenty year gap in the timelines of Halpert and his board, and also the hydrochloric acid and my theory about it. M agrees that those are clues to the information we’ll need to ultimately expose them publicly and remove them from power, but I still need to verify my theories.” He gave a pointed look at me. I crossed my arms over my chest and stared right back at him, refusing to be intimidated. Finally Francis gestured at me with his head, but spoke to Liam. “So are you gonna tell her she’s not invited tomorrow, or should I?”
“What?” I turned to Liam, alarmed.
“She is invited. I don’t care what M says,” Liam retorted.
“Why, just because you have a romantic interest in her?”
“No, because she’s part of our cover: I’m ostensibly meeting with them, or my father is anyway, to discuss putting morality failsafes into the bots. She can speak with some authority on that subject, and I can’t. Also, she’s the only one who will be present tomorrow and who doesn’t know your theory now, which makes her an objective observer.”
“So, wait,” I interjected. “M… knows about me? And she doesn’t want me there tomorrow?”
Francis turned to me and said with characteristic frankness, “No. You’re just an undergrad, and you have nothing to offer at the meeting. You’re a pure liability. M insisted that we send you back to Dublin at once.”
Despite the fact that I’d seriously considered doing just that earlier that day, I felt a flare of indignation. “Does she know who my father is?”
“Liam told her when you got here,” Francis replied, and then added flatly, “She wasn’t impressed. We’re not a dynasty.”
“We need her,” Liam insisted again. “She might not be you, Francis, but she’s still extremely perceptive.”
“You’re going to directly disobey M’s orders?” Francis countered.
“Yes,” said Liam firmly. “I am. If I’m going, she’s going. And M needs me there, obviously, or there’s no meeting at all.”
“Once they see it’s you and not your father, they could easily find out you hadn’t worked at General Specs in years, though,” I pointed out. “And what about your locus? Don’t you think the fact that you tried to blow the lid off them for years might bias them against you?”
Liam shook his head. “The locus was under a pseudonym, and I doubt they’ll bother to research me that much, unless we arouse suspicion.” He shot a pointed look at Francis, who looked affronted.
“Oh, be fair! I don’t choose to play social games around you, but I understand them better than you could ever hope to do. I can blend in anywhere, and be anything to anyone.”
I scoffed. “So you’re saying you can be perfectly charming, but you just prefer to be an ass?”
“Falseness of every kind is my abhorrence,” he replied to me, in a most dignified manner. “I use it only when it suits my purposes.”
“There’s a difference between politeness and falseness!” I retorted.
“Guys,” Liam held up his hands.
I closed my eyes to reset, and turned back to Liam. “Okay fine. But wouldn’t Halpert, or at least people under him, have researched the owners of loci they considered potentially dangerous?”
Liam shook his head again. “That’s part of what M is doing in their intel department. One of her roles, ironically, is detecting and suppressing any external threats to the Republic—including us, the Renegades. She’s the reason why we’ve managed to stay hidden for these meetings thus far: she told Halpert and his board that removing our loci was all it took to destroy us as a threat, and that we now have no way of contacting one another.”
Francis added, “She also led them to believe that our loci were connected to other people. Liam’s alter-ego is a man named Erik Johanssen. He’s a gamer living in Sweden in his parents’ basement, and he spends most of his time either high or in Artificial Experience landscapes, or more likely both at once. Possibly he’s also a small time dealer of illicit substances. My alter-ego is a woman living in Rome by the name of Alessandra Russo, supposedly a brilliant programmer in her own right—she’d have to be, of course, to get confused with me—with a suspected history of embezzlement and extortion that the authorities could never pin on her. Both of them are now being watched very closely for any missteps. They’ll no doubt be apprehended shortly.”
“But they’re innocent!” I exclaimed.
Francis shrugged. “Of rebellious activity, perhaps. But they’re not entirely innocent.”
“What if they wind up like my father? Or Liam’s brother? For something they didn’t even do?”
“We’re in a war, Cordeaux,” was Francis’s flat reply. “There are casualties in war.”
I was shaking now. “People convicted of petty crimes die under Justice Wallenberg!”
Liam placed a hand on my thigh under the table. It was sufficiently distracting that some of my anger simmered. “I don’t like it either,” he murmured. “But I don’t see what we can do about it right now.”
“Was this M’s idea?” I was liking her less and less as this conversation went on, too.
Liam nodded. “Her top priority is protecting our real activities from discovery…”
“We have to help Erik and Alessandra,” I declared. I was acutely aware of Liam’s hand still on my thigh, but trying not to show it.
“Maybe we will, but it’s not the priority at the moment,” he told me. “Let’s just focus on the meeting tomorrow for now, and get through that. Hopefully on the other end of it, we’ll have more information than we have right now.”
“We will,” Francis leaned back in his chair, confident. Liam released my leg, and a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding involuntarily escaped my lips. Francis noticed—I saw his eyes sharpen upon me, and I willed him not to comment. For once, he didn’t.
“You really think he’s right about whatever it is he suspects?” I asked Liam, gesturing at Francis with my head.
Liam waffled his head. “I’d say no way, if it were anybody but him. It’s on a whole new level of absurd—”
“Outside the box,” Francis corrected, raising one finger. “Absurd means wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate, none of which describe me in the least. I am ruthlessly logical.”
“And completely appropriate at all times,” I deadpanned.
Francis didn’t seem to get it, but Liam snickered.