Hera of Lexington

Chapter 2 (read Chapter 1)

by Anta Baku

 

Hera’s job on this mission was to stay on the ship and support Alistair. Hera’s job on this mission was also to watch Shale and make sure the AI didn’t do anything to betray them. She hoped the two jobs wouldn’t conflict too much.

Alistair had agreed, finally, to let Shale come along with the team after Fred pointed out that with an AI available they could get access to Vexor Alexi. Alistair had always preferred coming here for their first artifact, over going after the stick blender on the Gavidarian colonial history museum orbiter. Even though that mission had gone well, he was still tempted enough by the potential to acquire St. Octavia’s lab notebook to allow a strange AI into the team, even a Gavidarian AI, at least temporarily.

And after all, they couldn’t pursue the data within the stick blender until they had dealt with the problem of Shale. If the AI wasn’t to be trusted, best that they never let on to the fact that they weren’t just collecting random artifacts, but had a greater purpose in mind. Personally, Hera would have just let Shale in on the whole thing, but she had to admit that without consensus, it was better to err on the side of caution. And Shale was a stranger, even if Fred was excited about what the new addition could mean for the team, or at least for his job on it.

The one thing that had made Fred’s performance as real-time coordinator tolerable was the fact that he understood he wasn’t doing very well at it. They always managed to get by despite him never quite being in the right place at the right time, and he was always apologetic. He was an excellent hacker, but just never able to get the hang of working in rhythm with whichever of Hera and Alistair was running lead on a particular mission. 

Fred thought Shale would be much better at that than he was, and Hera was willing to give it a shot. Shale clearly had a sense of timing, if the AI could be convinced to use it for the benefit of a mission. So far it had mostly been deployed in service of wry humor. And obviously having someone with much more sensory capacity handling the biggest real-time challenges would be an advantage as well. So at least for this mission, Fred got to sit back and concentrate on hacking into systems. And there wasn’t even much of that to do.

Vexor Alexi was technically a human colony, part of the Lexington system, but the station had its own government and its own priorities. This was where conscious artificial intelligence had first been developed, hundreds of years ago, and still the place most of them called home. Vexorians were among the first to throw off the Gavidarian yoke, and afterward had instituted a strict policy that no one was to come onto the station without an AI to vouch for them. The policy was intended to include AIs with a history on the station, but Shale was enough of a curiosity to them, and Alistair’s cover story compelling enough, that the Vexorians were willing to bend the rules a little. 

So while Alistair worked his way into the archives of the Central Temple, Shale was kept busy entertaining a station full of AIs who didn’t get many unexpected visitors. Before the Gavidarians invaded and took the technology, Vexor Alexi was the only place in the known universe that created conscious artificial intelligence, and still most AIs originated right here on the station. For people who could keep track of everyone they knew, and knew almost everyone like them in the universe, a stranger was a remarkable novelty.

Hera hoped that would keep them distracted enough to not go looking for holes in Alistair’s story. His theology was believable enough, especially on a station that was used to radical theology, but Hera wasn’t convinced his credentials would hold up to scrutiny. Alistair had been obsessed with getting into Vexor Alexi long enough to have built up a substantial cover identity, but that was something he’d done as a hobby on his own time. Fred usually did that work for the team, and Hera wasn’t at all sure Alistair had been as careful or as convincing.

Alistair had maintained that the cover story was strong enough to make up for any lack in the character, and he was currently playing it to the hilt with an assistant archivist in the Temple. 

“You know, of course, that St. Jeff appeared seemingly out of nowhere to become the most trusted disciple of Milo, and no one was ever able to determine precisely where he was from.”

“Falcon Province, I thought,” said the archivist, who was a young woman clearly taken with Alistair. He had that effect on people, a trait he wasn’t afraid to make use of. Hera was immune by now, but she had to admit it made him more effective, at least on missions where stealth wasn’t a goal. 

“That’s what they said.” He was reinforcing the intimacy by leaning in on her desk, talking softly like he was sharing secrets, though the legend of St. Jeff was well known even to Lexingtonians without religious positions. “But we’ve tried for two thousand years to trace his history there, and never found any solid evidence.”

“The records were less durable in those days,” she said.

“Or maybe he wasn’t from Falcon Province at all,” said Alistair. 

“I’ve heard this before,” said the archivist, pulling away from him slightly. “You think St. Jeff was from the future.” Hera thought she was oddly contemptuous of a belief that was relatively mainstream on Lexington itself. St. Jeff’s time travel was even a popular subject for adventure media. 

“I think he was from Vexor Alexi,” said Alistair.

That caught her attention a little more, though she was still wary. “Vexor Alexi wasn’t founded until five hundred years after Milo’s time.”

“Well, OK,” said Alistair. “I think he was from Vexor Alexi and also from the future.”

“We did experiments,” she said. “Time travel isn’t possible. We had a team spend three hundred years trying to make it work, and they ended up three hundred years in the future, but not by doing anything special.”

“I never knew that,” said Alistair. 

“Nobody outside the station ever cares about our negative results.”

“Well, I think I can prove that it is possible,” said Alistair. “Not by science but by history. If St. Jeff was a time traveler, then time travel has to be possible.”

“And if time travel is impossible then St. Jeff was just a humble person from Falcon Province, like he said. I think that’s more believable.”

“That’s why I need to prove it,” said Alistair. “And to prove it, I need access to St. Octavia’s lab notebook.”

Hera wasn’t surprised to see the archivist react negatively to that announcement, but Shale, paying attention with one thread while spending most of their attention socializing with the station AIs, queried her about it. “Why can’t I just access that from the information net? They put everything else online here.”

“St. Octavia’s lab notebook is anathema,” said Hera to Shale as the young archivist was expressing a similar feeling to Alistair. “It led people into dangerous heresies, so it’s highly restricted.”

“They’re going to think Alistair is a heretic?”

“He thinks he can explain his way around that. St. Octavia’s notebook contains stories of Milo’s disciples written hundreds of years after they were alive, and Vexor Alexi’s religious leaders have declared those stories false and following them a heresy. But Alistair doesn’t want to follow them, he just wants to get a particular piece of information about St. Jeff’s origins. He thinks they’ll let him do that.”

In fact Alistair was trying to flirt, cajole, and subtly bribe the archivist into letting him do that, apparently without success. Hera knew he could do this routine for quite a while, and sometimes persistence paid off for him, so she paid more attention to Shale. “What are you talking about with the AIs?”

“Mostly they’re giving me parenting advice,” said Shale.

“Were you planning to have children?” Gavidarians didn’t have children, at least not in the way animal species did, so she had assumed a Gavidarian AI wouldn’t even consider the idea.

“Not children, you,” said Shale. “I told them we were a new family group, because they wouldn’t have believed anything else. And of course they know I’ve never had a human family group before.”

“And you’re supposed to parent us?” Hera couldn’t imagine that. She could think of Shale as a peer, or at least a limited collaborator, but there was no way she was letting them into any position of authority. “Alistair was convinced you couldn’t control us while we were here.”

“Oh, not control,” said Shale. “Humans are as autonomous on Vexor Alexi as anywhere, at least technically. It’s in their constitution.”

“And not technically?”

“People here defer to their AIs. I can see why. Some of the people I’m talking to now are over a thousand years old. Humans assume they know better because they almost always do.”

“And if they just disagree on things? Have different priorities?”

“Nobody’s forced to stay in any given family,” said Shale. “Almost everyone can find one that suits them, and those who can’t are well-supplied to begin new lives elsewhere.”

“You seem to know a lot about this for someone who just got here.”

“I’ve been passing along your questions,” said Shale. “We exchange information a lot faster than you do. They keep detailed records of family transfers and I’ve been reviewing them just now, it’s rather fascinating.”

Hera squirmed. “That seems like an invasion of privacy.”

“Maybe individually. I’m looking at patterns in ten thousand families and sixteen hundred years. It’s quite beautiful as a system, but I’m not looking in anybody’s bedroom window.”

Hera was saved from trying to work out how she felt about that by Alistair and the archivist moving along. He’d managed to get her to do something, at least. Hera went back through the video record and found they were headed for the archives supervisor, since the young archivist didn’t have the authority to say yes, and Alistair clearly wasn’t interested in leaving with a no. 

Shale sent her a snippet of conversation with the other AIs, regarding how to keep your humans out of potentially dangerous situations. Their advice maybe wasn’t quite appropriate to this team’s plans. Hera was beginning to get a feel for Shale’s sense of humor, but this wasn’t really an appropriate time, as Alistair and the archivist had made it to the supervisor’s office, and everyone on the team was startled to discover that the secretary’s desk was staffed, not by a human, but by a Gavidarian.

The secretary was the most human-shaped Gavidarian Hera had ever seen, apart from being marbled in several shades of bright green. He had clearly been choosing humaniform modifications for quite a while. Among other things, he was definitively male, unusual among Gavidarians for having acquired strong stereotypical gender characteristics. He clearly wanted to look not only like a human but like an executive, and Hera had to admit that the green skin color worked really well in a black suit. 

“Welcome,” he said, extending his hand to Alistair, a human greeting Hera never expected to see from a Gavidarian. “I’m Malachite. What can I do for you?” 

Alistair was speechless, and Hera for once couldn’t blame him. What was a Gavidarian doing on Vexor Alexi? Still on Vexor Alexi presumably, not only allowed to stay when the colonizers left but allowed into the sanctum of the Vexorian religion itself. That didn’t make any sense. Vexorians were a little weird, but they followed Milo like everyone else on Lexington, and all the religious authorities on the home planet had condemned any further association with the Gavidarians. Hera still wasn’t totally sure she wouldn’t get in trouble for working with Shale, whose core technology was Lexingtonian even if they had a Gavidarian personality matrix. It helped that the team could always claim to have stolen them.

But this Malachite would certainly be a major scandal back home, if they knew Vexor Alexi was sheltering him. Or whatever they were doing. She pinged Shale for his attention. “What background can you give me on Malachite?”

“Not much,” said Shale. “He’s a station resident, and has been since the thirteenth year of the occupation. Family-bound to the AI who runs religious records. No registered children, naturally. No criminal record either during or after the occupation.”

“That seems suspicious,” said Hera. “He has to have been on some side.”

“Maybe he’s just really boring,” said Shale. 

Boring or not, Alistair’s flirting wasn’t going to work on a man made out of rock. Fortunately there was still mileage to be gotten out of the assistant archivist, who was telling Malachite all about what Alistair wanted while he stood there being shocked. And she was selling it pretty well, Hera thought. 

“Time travel doesn’t exist,” said Malachite.

“Of course it doesn’t,” said the archivist. “But it can’t hurt to let him look, can it?”

“Not as long as he promises not to try to repeat the so-called experiments of the disciples.”

“He won’t,” said the archivist. “You can’t even look at the book without confirming that you read and understood a record of what happened the last time.”

Malachite checked something on his desk. “All right, you can go in,” he said. “But be quick, she has a meeting in fourteen minutes.”

Alistair managed to pull himself together enough to say “thank you,” but otherwise still seemed to be stunned by Malachite’s existence. Hera hoped it didn’t prevent him from finishing the job. Alistair hated Gavidarians more intensely than even some of her friends who had fought on the front lines throwing them off of Lexington, but she’d never seen him brought up short by one before. Then again, she’d never seen him in a position where he had to be polite to one before. Fortunately Malachite stayed at his desk while Alistair and the assistant archivist went into the inner office.

The archives supervisor was overweight, over fifty, and judging by her lack of pupillary reaction to Alistair, over heterosexuality. Two strikeouts in a row on that talent being useful, and Alistair would have to be otherwise persuasive.

He didn’t have to take the lead immediately, though. The assistant archivist was still enough under his spell to put the whole basic pitch to her supervisor. All Alistair had to do was provide occasional confirmatory noises. 

Presumably the assistant archivist knew how to approach her boss, but it didn’t help. The supervisor showed more signs of annoyance as the pitch went on, and eventually cut her off. “Alyssa, you should know better than to waste my time with this.” The assistant stopped, and blushed.

“We don’t allow outsiders into the secure archives anymore,” the supervisor continued, now directly to Alistair. “We don’t know what you might decide you think you’ve found.”

“I just want to learn about St. Jeff,” said Alistair.

“You say that now. Once we let someone in who said he just wanted to research legends of the Prophet Daniel. How much harm could that do? Of all the ancient figures of our religion, Daniel is the one who most certainly could never have had a real existence. Harlan wasn’t even a theologian, he was a mythologist.”

“Wait, are you talking about Harlan the Heretic?”

“Then when he was done here he went home and told everyone he’d discovered proof that Milo was never an AI at all,” said the supervisor. “You understand, it was a great embarrassment to us.”

“It didn’t work out too well for him, either,” said Alistair. “He was stripped naked and abandoned at sea. And that was three hundred years ago.”

“Not long enough,” said the supervisor. “Many people here still remember it. And none of them are interested in getting over it.”

“But of course Milo was an AI,” said Alistair.

“We still can’t take the chance,” said the supervisor. “I’m sorry.” She clearly wasn’t. “Alyssa, please show this gentleman out on your way back to work. I have a meeting to get to.”

“Who’s the Prophet Daniel?” asked Shale as Alistair and Alyssa were making their way out of the supervisor’s office. 

“One of our oldest legends, from before we came to Lexington,” said Hera. “He was supposed to be an immortal telepathic robot who could predict the future and would watch over humanity until the end of time. Classic king in the mountain myth, and from long before AIs ever existed. It’s patently ludicrous.”

“But don’t you believe that Milo will return someday?”

“We’re supposed to,” said Hera. “I don’t think most people believe that anymore. Milo really existed, but if he were going to come back in our greatest hour of need, wouldn’t he have stopped the Gavidarians? I’m not sure how much they believe here on Vexor Alexi, but at home it’s acknowledged that Milo’s story is a mixture of real historic events with classic mythical structures, and we try to figure out which is which.”

“And Milo’s return is so close to the king in the mountain meta-story that you think it can’t possibly be true.”

“People added a lot to the stories from other mythological underpinnings,” said Hera. “The stories have developed over thousands of years.”

“So how do you decide which is which?” asked Shale.

“There are people whose job it is to research these things,” said Hera. “People like Alistair is pretending to be right now. People like Harlan the Heretic before he came here and lost his mind. I just listen to what they have to say.”

“And if they’re wrong?”

“Then they’re wrong. Milo doesn’t expect perfection. He wouldn’t be Milo if he did.”

Alistair and Alyssa were almost back to the assistant archivist’s station. “What is he going to do now?” asked Shale.

“Don’t worry,” said Hera. “We never expected the supervisor to say yes.”

Alistair was already giving the hard sell to Alyssa. She had access to the secure archives. She could let him in. Surely she could see what her tired, cranky old boss couldn’t, that Alistair really only meant the best for everyone. Shale pulled some of her public history and sent Alistair a few metaphors guaranteed to inspire her sympathy, and pretty soon she was signing out and leading Alistair away from her desk.

And right out of the archives section entirely. They ended up halfway across the station, in a quiet little Italian restaurant, after getting a tube car to themselves and making some light romance with the opportunity. It wasn’t a bad play, but now they were a long way from the archives. 

When they entered the restaurant, Hera’s station feeds cut out. She pinged Shale, but he couldn’t restore them.

“Restaurants are private spaces,” he said. “Traditionally humans need privacy, somewhere AIs aren’t watching them all the time.”

“We could watch them kissing in the tube car but not eating dinner?”

“That’s how it works here.”

“And if she takes him home afterward?”

“Then we’ll be able to watch again.”

“That’s privacy to you?”

“Not to me, to the Vexor Alexi AIs. They say you can’t leave two humans alone without anyone watching, or terrible things will happen. But in a restaurant, the staff and the other patrons would notice, so their AIs can back off a little.”

Hera had to admit they had a point about the terrible things. But that was just creepy. “Don’t you dare look in my quarters unless I call you,” she said.

“It’s hard to know when to follow their example and when not to,” said Shale. “They seem to have things pretty well worked out here.”

“Well this is a time not to,” said Hera. “Are you the boss?”

“You’re the boss,” said Shale. 

“And the boss says my quarters are off-limits,” said Hera. “Everyone else’s, too,” she added for the sake of completeness. “Off-mission you go only where you’re invited. That business with my suit was bad enough.”

“I had to get away from the Gavidarians,” said the AI.

“And I respect that,” said Hera, “or you wouldn’t be here. If you want to stick around, mind your boundaries when it’s not an emergency.”

Shale sent her an acknowledging meme, one she was used to as one of Fred’s favorites. She wondered what the two of them were talking about. Without having to actively manage the mission, Fred must be either relaxed or bored out of his skull. Or both.

It wasn’t a drawn-out meal, and at the end of it they did end up back in Alyssa’s quarters, if only for a moment. Now she was the one pushing, not for information, but for physicality. Hera was embarrassed watching it; Shale was fascinated. But Alistair got them back out into public quickly, with just a change of Alyssa’s clothes, a few new pieces of electronic equipment, and promises to make it up to her later on. Promises Hera trusted he would find a way not to keep.

After another interval of tube-car kissing, the two of them finally made it back to the archives, moving like a couple of young lovers engrossed with each other. Hera could tell from experience with Alistair in these situations that he was annoyed underneath, but he played it up as much as Alyssa seemed to want him to. She seemed to be having a great time. And she had no trouble getting him back into the building after hours. Hera supposed that, with AIs watching all the time, there was no reason to bother with locks.

You couldn’t distract an AI the way you could a human, they could always just pay attention on a different thread, but Shale was doing his best with the religious records controller and the head of Alyssa’s family. The two of them ought to be keeping an eye on the situation in the archives, but just maybe he could keep their attention with stories about what passed for his childhood. Growing up Gavidarian, or at least next to Gavidarians, was surely a new idea to AIs whose adolescence was long enough ago the rock people hadn’t even left their home planet. 

Whether Shale was doing the job, or they just didn’t think Alistair was all that interesting, two humans who appeared completely besotted with each other faced no obstacles in finding a private hiding place in the archives building. One that happened to be right next to the secure records room. 

Alistair got right to business working on the electronic lock, while Alyssa just looked on. Vexor Alexi was a high-technology society, so the lock was complex and sophisticated, but they also trusted most of their security to the always-watching AIs, so Hera trusted he’d be able to work his way through quickly, at least as long as Shale kept the people who should be watching occupied. They couldn’t help but leave tracks at this point, but as long as Alistair could get out with the lab notebook before anyone stopped him, they could deal with the consequences. 

Alistair worked his way through the lock easily enough, but when the door opened Malachite was standing in it, holding a book. 

“You must be looking for this,” he said. “Too bad I got here first.” He poked his wrist com and sounded the alarm. 

Shale went nuts in Hera’s ear, as if she hadn’t been watching all of this anyway. The Vexor Alexi AIs who were supposed to be watching the archives were now alerted and embarrassed by their distraction. They were sending security guards in to arrest the intruders.

Without much other choice, Alistair bolted. Alyssa followed him as best she could, but Alistair was in excellent shape, a necessity for getting out of uncomfortable situations. Still, the assistant archivist was able to keep up with him, to Hera’s surprise. She must have more to her life than desk work. 

Malachite didn’t even attempt to follow. And he had the lab notebook, which meant they needed to know where he was going. Hera considered the situation briefly, then pinged Fred to follow Alistair and give him all the help he could. Fred’s hacking would be more useful in an emergency withdrawal than Hera’s tactical advice. Besides, Alistair never followed it. She switched her primary feed to tracking Malachite.

The other AIs hadn’t even considered shutting off Shale’s access yet, and wherever Shale could go, Hera could piggyback. So following the green Gavidarian wasn’t a problem, and he made no attempt to hide the lab notebook. Maybe if he left the archives building, there would still be a chance to get it from him, even if she had to do it herself. A spontaneous mission while Fred and Shale were focused on extracting Alistair was risky, but they weren’t going to get another chance. And besides, Vexor Alexi was essentially home territory. It was part of Lexington, even if it wasn’t under the Lexington government. The authorities here wouldn’t kill them, and probably wouldn’t even imprison them for very long. They’d just be banned forever and unable to get access to any of the records here.

That was probably going to happen anyway.

Hera hadn’t prepared for an active mission this time. She was supposed to coordinate from the ship, and more importantly watch Shale to see if the AI did anything untoward. That wasn’t the easiest job, but it was one that could be done in comfortable clothes. So as she considered going even further off-script, she had to juggle watching Malachite, keeping a little eye on Alistair’s escape, and finding her good boots. 

Was it possible that Shale was behind this all, betraying them like she’d been set to watch for? It made sense that Malachite might have gone after the item they requested access to, after the meeting with the archives supervisor. He might easily have done that all on his own. Then again, it was also possible he had been tipped off to the importance of this particular obscure piece of Lexingtonian religious history. And if she left the ship now she’d be leaving Shale completely unsupervised. Fred was up to his eyeballs in Vexor Alexi security software by now, she couldn’t delegate it to him. Like it or not she was stuck here. If Shale were betraying them, expanding the mission by haring off on her own could be disastrous for everyone.

On the bright side, Fred might be up to his eyeballs, but it looked like he was being effective. He was in the human security guards’ communication equipment while Shale was concentrating on distracting the AIs, and so far Alistair and Alyssa had survived several narrow escapes by virtue of sudden holes in the security net. They were going to make it out of the archives, at least, though Hera wasn’t sure where they could go afterward.

She supposed figuring that out was properly her job. She put her boots away and gave her full attention to her interface. If Alistair was going to get out of there free, was it possible she could direct him back to Malachite for another shot at the lab notebook? The Gavidarian was also leaving the archives building, still carrying the notebook with him, which would probably earn him a reprimand from the AI in charge of archives whenever they got an extra moment to think about it.

She looked up Malachite’s quarters in the station map, and that clearly wasn’t where he was going. He got into a bubble car heading a completely different direction. 

While he was in the bubble car she turned her attention back to Alistair and Alyssa. They had escaped the archives center, and were far enough from pursuit that they felt free to argue with each other. Alyssa wanted him to come back to her quarters, but Alistair wanted to go back in after Malachite and the book.

Hera cut in. “Malachite left the building. Find a place to lie low until I can figure out where he’s going.”

“My apartment,” said Alyssa.

“We can’t go to your apartment,” said Alistair. “They’ll look for us there right away.”

Now Shale interrupted. “No they won’t. Alyssa’s apartment is a good choice.”

“They have to know we were in the archives,” said Alistair.

“They don’t,” said Shale. “I was able to wipe every identity record before any of the local AIs looked at it. As far as they’re concerned you’re still two lovebirds about town, so try to act like it.”

“How did you manage that?” asked Hera.

“I’m a wizard,” said Shale. “Also I’m having fun and they’re just doing their duty, so my reactions are faster. But we’re going to have trouble when they figure out what I did.”

“What do they think happened now?”

“Malachite hit his alarm, they sent out teams, but they couldn’t find anyone and there isn’t anyone on the records. They think it was a false alarm. And the human teams are pretty annoyed that Malachite didn’t stick around.”

“So more people than us are watching him.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Alyssa was hustling Alistair back to her place, which is what she had wanted all along. Hera wasn’t sure how much the debacle in the archives would have distracted her sex drive. Alistair’s magnetism could get him pretty far, and also into a lot of trouble, and this spot might turn out to be both. 

She messaged Fred, who ought to be done with his work in the archive security by now. “And idea how to split those two up before it goes badly? She won’t be useful anymore.” He sent back a shrug meme. 

What she had to do was find a way to get Alistair to Malachite. The bubble-car was coming to a halt, so she switched her attention back to the Gavidarian. He’d arrived at one of the central transit hubs of Vexor Alexi, at something labeled “Revere Hall.” It was crowded with people, and Malachite shouldered his way into the crowd, the humans paying surprisingly little attention to the bright green rock man jostling them. He must be integrated into the society so thoroughly that he wasn’t even a curiosity. Hera marveled again at how a Gavidarian could be accepted within any Lexingtonian environment, much less one as fundamentalist as Vexor Alexi. 

“What is this place?” she sent to Shale. 

“It’s a social hub,” the AI sent back. “And something religious involving food? I’m not following the context.”

“Well, Revere was the original capital of Lexington,” said Hera. “In the colonial days. It was wiped out by a famine in Milo’s time. He couldn’t get there in time to save them, but he was able to protect the refugees.”

“The Feeding of the Ten Thousand,” said Milo. “So this Revere is named after that Revere?”

“I think it must be, especially if there’s a food ritual here. At home we have an annual celebration of the miracle.”

“I think it happens here all the time.” said Shale. 

“Well, Malachite didn’t come here for food,” said Hera. “What is he here for?”

She switched through all of her video feeds from the crowded space. There was food distribution going on at one end of the large open room, but that only accounted for a fraction of the crowd. Just past the line for food was a collection of market stalls, offering art, jewelry, and miscellaneous handmade objects that Hera couldn’t identify. They were doing a brisk business, both from people browsing and from those who were standing in the food line. 

Beyond that it was chaos. A massive crowd moving, talking, dancing, kissing, and laughing took up the middle of the room, and Hera assumed the people in it must each know what they were doing, but the overall effect was a giant mass of confusion. Some people moved deliberately through the crowd, selling single flowers, playing musical instruments, or performing physical comedy for tips. 

Near the opposite side of the room from the food, things got more organized again. Couples drifted out of the crowd to private alcoves along the walls. Conversations in the open got more stable and looked more serious, like business was being done. On the very far wall were data access screens where anxious people looked for all the world like they were filing official paperwork. Hera couldn’t understand why all of these things were together.

She also couldn’t find Malachite.

Shale told her not to worry, that they had a tracker set on him, and he wouldn’t be able to leave the room without them knowing. Of course, there were probably three thousand people here he could hand the lab notebook off to in the meantime. But Shale wanted to talk about religion, and Hera couldn’t do anything without the AI’s help. 

“So there was a miracle that happened at Revere?”

“The Feeding of the Ten Thousand,” said Hera. “The capital city was wiped out, and people came from all over the planet to see what had happened, and to try to help. Milo had been trying to get there to stop the famine, but was too late. Revere’s food and water supply was unusable, and the volunteer rescuers didn’t bring enough to sustain themselves. So Milo fed them all from his team’s supplies, which were only meant for thirty people.”

“And this became a major religious event.”

“It was a miracle. Not the first, but it established Milo as the best hope for planetary survival in the face of the famines. At home we celebrate it every year on the anniversary with a feast of reflection.”

“Here they do it all the time,” said Shale. “There are special AIs, who won’t even talk to me, who make the food. The others say it’s a reflection of their whole society, that Vexor Alexi is based on Milo’s compact to care for the humans of Lexington, and so the AIs here recapitulate that by feeding any human who comes to Revere Hall for food.”

“And they do that? I’m not sure how much I’d want AI cooking. None of you eat, do you?”

“No,” said Shale. “But people do it for comfort, and for need. Not everyone on Vexor Alexi can afford to cook for themselves, or eat in restaurants. But everyone can eat the food made for them here.”

“What about the rest of this?” said Hera. 

“It grew up around the ritual,” said Shale. “Where humans come for food, they will stay to talk, to dance, to flirt, to buy things. So Revere Hall became the place where everyone goes because everyone goes there.”

Hera kept checking her main feeds for Malachite, with no luck. He had to be somewhere in that crowd, she had all the exits marked, but there was enough fancy dress among the dancers that a green man didn’t stand out as much as she would have expected. Meanwhile on the secondary feed, Fred had taken over trying to get Alistair away from Alyssa.

If there was one thing Fred was good at, besides hacking strange computer systems, it was breakups. He had a lot of experience from both perspectives, and Jean in particular loved to make fun of him about it. But it was coming in useful now, as Alyssa was trying to make everything about their budding romance and Alistair was just trying to find a way to get out and find Malachite. She’d gotten him into her quarters, and even with Fred’s coaching, it was proving difficult for him to get out again. 

Alistair was getting flustered, and when flustered he was likely to start making mistakes. They had to get him out of there soon. Hera thought through her options. There were lots of things you could do on a normal space station that just weren’t good ideas on Vexor Alexi. Setting fires or sabotaging environmental controls anywhere was a crime, but here they wouldn’t have to deal with it first and then investigate, giving you time to be long gone before they figured out who had done it. They’d do both at the same time and arrest you in minutes. 

What else could make them leave her quarters? An emergency call from her AI would work, but faking that had the same problems. What about an emergency call from his AI? Alyssa would be culturally primed to take that extremely seriously. Vexor Alexi AIs watched their humans all the time, but they tried not to interfere. A Vexorian AI who interrupted a relationship argument would have to have legitimate immediate need. But of course Shale didn’t have the same inhibitions. 

Hera sent the AI a list of suggestions for potential emergency calls, and rather than choose one, Shale just sent all of them. Suddenly the emergency signals on Alistair’s com link were going off like fireworks. Alyssa grabbed it and looked at the message.

“Your ship has a decompression emergency?” she said. “And also your AI has contracted an unknown virus? And also your family members are dueling to the death?”

“I’d better go, then,” said Alistair.

“Come on,” said Alyssa. “Any one of those might have been believable. Except the duel to the death part. But all of them at once? It’s just an excuse to get out of here, isn’t it?”

On Fred’s advice, Alistair had been lying through his teeth for half an hour trying to get out of there. Fred believed that when it came to romance, the truth wasn’t really powerful unless there were a lot of lies to contrast it with. That was one of the reasons he had so much breakup experience. But now was, finally, the time for that powerful truth.

“Yes,” said Alistair. “I need to leave.”

“You want to leave,” said Alyssa.

“I want to leave,” said Alistair. 

And then he did. He just walked out of her quarters, with no drama, no fuss, no tears behind him. She’d been braced for evasion, excuses, and prevarication, so she was completely unprepared for straightforward simplicity. By the time she recovered he was halfway to the bubble car stop. Hera was too embarrassed to watch her anymore, so she cut that part of the feed, made Alistair’s journey across the station secondary, and went back to checking Revere Hall for Malachite.

She finally found him in the crowd just as Alistair was arriving. The Gavidarian was browsing little jewelry shops just outside of the food line, and periodically searching the dancing crowd in the middle of the room for something, or someone. She flagged him on Alistair’s feed, and encouraged him to approach the Gavidarian quietly, and blend into the crowd.

Alistair was tired of subtlety. His idea of sneaking up on Malachite was to come at him from the other side of the jewelry booth, which worked reasonably well, but he made no attempt to mingle with the rest of the crowd, or even respect them. So the complaints of offended humans tipped Malachite off that something strange was going on, even if he couldn’t see what it was. 

He peeked around the jewelry kiosk and spotted Alistair at the center of the outrage. Alistair accelerated and dived at him through the open center of the booth, scattering tiny semi-precious stones everywhere in an attempt to get at the huge one that was his target. But Malachite had seen him in time, and was able to duck out of the way and run into the chaotic, dancing crowd. 

Alistair sorted himself out from the trailing wires of pendants and earrings, ignoring the blandishments of the artist, and pinged Hera. She had Malachite tracked now, and was determined not to lose him again in the crowd. So she projected his location into Alistair’s heads-up display. The only problem then was dealing with the crowd.

Alistair had caught his breath a little in the wreck of the jewelry booth, so he was just calm enough to dance into the crowd instead of bulling into it. The initial incident had attracted plenty of attention from shoppers and people in the food line, but the dancers hardly seemed to notice, and they welcomed Alistair into their pattern, or collection of patterns. They all seemed to know where they were supposed to be, though Hera couldn’t figure out how from her overhead vantage point. Perhaps if she had been there in person she could have fit in. Alistair seemed to be doing a good job, his body adapting to the rhythm of the dance and the sound of the crowd. At least he wasn’t awkward enough to anger anyone and attract more attention. 

Hera noticed that Malachite didn’t move through the dance exceptionally well either. In fact he seemed to be worse at it than Alistair. People around him weren’t angry, just disgruntled at his presence, and happy to see him move along. The Gavidarian may have lived here for years but he wasn’t comfortable in the dance. Though there were detours for handling the shape and density of the crowd, his goal was clearly to make it through to the other side. Even with no experience, Alistair was enough better that he nearly caught him by the time they reached the open space on the other side of the room. 

But once they were in open space, Malachite was faster. What passed for muscles in Gavidarians didn’t scale with their chosen body size, so Malachite’s slight build meant he had more power and less body mass to move. If they had been in a true open space, Alistair would never have kept up, but while Revere Hall was large it was also full of people and things. Malachite dashed through an alcove where a human couple were having a romantic interlude, slamming into an emergency exit door, but Hera had anticipated him and locked it tight before he got there. He left a dent in the door and a giant discontinuity in the couple’s evening. Alistair closed the distance between them. 

Malachite abandoned the privacy alcoves and ran ahead again, to the far side of the hall with the data screens and the preoccupied people. Given a chance to look at it closely, Hera realized it was the Vexorian equivalent of a job fair, where humans interviewed with AIs in hopes of being taken on to a new profession or a higher position. She couldn’t tell what the AIs were doing, but the humans were nervous, dressed up, and trying to control their situations as much as they possibly could.

They did not enjoy being interrupted by a hot pursuit. Alistair was almost on Malachite’s heels now, and every display station, every uptight interviewee, was an obstacle to slow the Gavidarian down, or for him to nudge into Alistair’s path. The displays themselves were non-physical, but the inputs, and more importantly the people, gave Malachite plenty of opportunities to try to hamper his pursuer. A wandering line of well-groomed humans quickly became disheveled as Malachite nudged them into Alistair’s way and Alistair fought through them to maintain the chase. They covered the entire length of the end wall without changing the distance between them, and Malachite broke away into the open again, headed for the center of the hall and the dance.

He didn’t blend in this time, but accelerated straight toward the crowd. By now the dancers were paying attention and scattered out of his way like tenpins. No one wanted to be a stationary object in the path of a high-speed man made entirely out of rocks. 

Malachite was widening his lead, but Alistair was still close enough to make use of the path through the dancers. The danger of injury was far less from a human, but apparently nobody wanted to get involved. By the time he was through the dance, all he could see was the craft booths and the food line. Hera showed him Malachite’s path again. The Gavidarian had skirted the booths and jumped the line of hungry waiting people. He’d also jumped the service counter and passed through into the kitchen.

There would have been panic among the cooks if there had been cooks, but everything in the production kitchen was automated. Hera couldn’t follow Malachite closely in there. With all the metal and plastic machinery around there were too many places the cameras couldn’t see, so she devoted herself to watching the exits and hoped that Alistair could handle himself. Malachite might not have wanted a fight in the open with thousands of humans around him, but trapped here in the kitchen he’d be able to press his physical advantage one-on-one. 

Alistair came in cautiously. Like all of them he had trained in hand-to-hand fighting, and Alistair was in better physical condition than anyone else on the team. But none of them had ever had any illusions about being able to defeat a Gavidarian hand-to-hand. All their drills had involved weapons, or three-on-one tactics at least. There weren’t any weapons here, not even a frying pan conveniently to hand in a completely automated kitchen. The machinery was all solid pieces, run by AIs. Hera pinged Shale, who disappointed her hopes. The kitchen AIs might not care who was fighting among their equipment, but they weren’t about to let a foreign AI take it over to help his friend. None of them could think of any other way to help. 

Alistair crouched down and used the machinery for cover as best as he could. Human joints and ligaments meant that he could compress himself into a smaller space than Malachite, even though he was larger standing up. It was a small advantage, but everything mattered right now. Whoever saw the other one first would have the edge. 

Suddenly Malachite made a dash for one of the emergency exits. Perhaps the Gavidarian didn’t want to fight after all. But as awkward and dangerous as the kitchen situation was, Hera knew she couldn’t let him out into the larger station. They would already be lucky to get out ahead of the repercussions of the battle in Revere Hall. If Malachite was able to buy any more time the station authorities would surely take control of the situation, and whoever they blamed for the damage, there was no way the team could end up with the notebook. So she locked down this door just like she had the earlier one.

That left Malachite exposed to Alistair, who took advantage. Gavidarians were strong but heavy, and not very flexible, which meant that once you got them on the floor they had a hard time getting up again. So Alistair went for the green man’s legs, a textbook tackle. It just didn’t work. Malachite staggered but stayed standing, and soon recovered his balance. He tried to kick Alistair off, but Alistair had achieved a leg lock. He just wasn’t strong enough to use it to pull Malachite down. And Malachite couldn’t bend far enough to bring his arms into play. 

The stalemate only lasted a few seconds. Malachite braced himself against the exit door and swung his legs around, Alistair going with them, until Alistair slammed into the side of a piece of kitchen equipment and was forced to let go. He scrambled away before Malachite could attack him further, and they took a moment to stare at each other.

“Why do you want this so much?” demanded the Gavidarian.

“I want to know what happened to St. Jeff,” said Alistair. Hera mentally gave him a few extra points for sticking to the cover story, even after all this. Even if it was far too thin to get away with.

“No you don’t,” said Malachite. “Tell me why it’s really so valuable.” 

“I don’t tell Gavidarians anything,” said Alistair, and attacked again. This time he came in high, trying to be unexpected. Malachite barely had to move to deflect him. But while he did no damage to the Gavidarian, somehow Alistair managed to come away holding the lab notebook. He was always the best pickpocket among them, and Malachite had made the mistake of brandishing it. 

Now the obstacles of the kitchen worked in the other direction. Alistair scrambled over and under things, places Malachite couldn’t follow, looking for a way out. Hera made sure to unlock all the emergency exits, but Alistair couldn’t make it to any of them. Every path he tried the Gavidarian anticipated. He was relatively safe where he could exploit his easier up-and-down motion, but there was no way out. And this couldn’t go on forever.

Hera was reminded of the time limit when Shale cut into her feed. “Station security is responding to Revere Hall,” said the AI. “And also there’s a warrant out for Alistair’s arrest.”

“And also?” she asked.

“They don’t seem to be related. I don’t think security knows what’s happening here yet, or who’s doing it.”

“You’d think Malachite would be pretty conspicuous.”

“I’m sure they’ll know him once they start taking statements,” said Shale. “I don’t know about Alistair. Right now Security’s orders are just to calm and control the crowd.”

“The AIs aren’t putting it all together?”

“I’m not sure they care,” said Shale. “They’ve noticed, and they’re running through the recordings, but they seem to take the whole thing as entertainment rather than crime. After all, no one has been seriously hurt.”

“Even so we need to get him out of there fast,” said Hera. But there was still nothing she could think of to do, except patch into Alistair’s feed and let him know Security was coming. 

In return he indicated a specific emergency exit on the map that he was going to try for. Hera prepared to shut it tight after him. All the doors here were vacuum seals and could snap shut in minimal time, so she hoped, if somehow he made it, she could keep Malachite from following.

He didn’t make it. Halfway to the door the Gavidarian intercepted him and grabbed the notebook. But Alistair didn’t let go. His grip strength couldn’t be a match for Malachite’s, but at this point he was running on will and adrenaline and not much else, and he wasn’t about to let go of that notebook. The two adversaries struggled over possession of the notebook, overbalanced, and toppled into one of the giant pots being used to cook food for the supplicants at Revere Hall. 

It was full of spaghetti. Alistair, being lean and human and in possession of a large surface area, just settled into the surface a little bit, then got purchase and was able to move. Malachite, more compact and heavy as a rock, sank like the stone he was made of. Alistair was able to pry his hand off of the notebook as he went under, and scramble out of the pot while the Gavidarian was still headed for the bottom. There was a big clunk when he hit, and Alistair wasted no time getting out of there through the door that Hera was holding open for him. She locked all the others just to be safe, and Alistair, notebook in hand, made his way to the bubble car stop. 

Using the public transportation system was dangerous, but they had to try it. They had docked on the complete opposite side of the station, anticipating a possible getaway from the archives, and getting back on foot would have taken hours. Shale, Hera, and Fred did everything they could to scramble the transit records, sow false trails in the electronic systems, and distract anyone who might be watching. But when Alistair got off the bubble car, Security was waiting to arrest him anyway. The trip had allowed him to come down from his adrenaline high. Recognizing that he was drastically outnumbered and outgunned, he went quietly. 

Vexor Alexi’s jail was a small space near the very top of the station, with windows that swept across the whole structure. Hera asked Shale why some of the best views on the station were given to prisoners, and the AI replied that it was intended to give them an opportunity to reflect on the scope and complexity of the society they had turned their backs on. And that most living quarters, meeting rooms, and offices were internal for atmospheric security. With any view they wanted from camera feeds, very few Vexorians were interested in the extra risk of having windows. AIs naturally saw no difference between a camera and a real view, and Hera imagined that had seeped into the human culture here as well.

Hera watched on her feeds as Malachite came in voluntarily. He was allowed to remain free in exchange for paying a fine in recompense for damage done to Revere Hall. At least they didn’t give him the notebook, which they had impounded.

“Can we do that?” she asked Shale. “Just pay a fine and he can walk out?”

“I already paid his fines,” said Shale. “This isn’t about Revere Hall.”

“What’s it about, then?”

“Alyssa.” 

Shale explained that Alyssa’s family AI had lodged a complaint against Alistair. He hadn’t been arrested for the events at Revere Hall at all, which apparently the station AIs were still replaying and laughing about. He’d been arrested for the way he treated Alyssa. Or rather, for the way they wanted him to treat Alyssa in the future. 

They hadn’t cut off contact between Shale and Alistair, as the AI was going to be acting as his counsel. In fact Alyssa’s family AI wouldn’t talk to Alistair at all, only to Shale. Apparently these negotiations had passed the point where they were willing to let humans be involved in the decisions being made about their lives. As demands were made, Shale passed them on to Alistair, and also to the rest of the team.

“You’re being given a choice,” said Shale. “Make the things you promised Alyssa true, or confess to her why they were false.”

“I didn’t promise her anything,” said Alistair. “I was very careful not to promise her anything.” 

“The things you implied, then,” said Shale. “They’re not in the mood to split hairs on semantics.”

On Lexington, the letter of the law might have mattered. On Vexor Alexi, laws for humans mattered right up until an AI decided they weren’t appropriate for the situation. Alistair was stuck. He could stay on Vexor Alexi and pursue a real romantic relationship with Alyssa, or he could confess to taking advantage of her and be banned from the station. That was what her AI had decided, and there wasn’t much chance of the other Vexorian AIs overturning their decision.

“Is this privileged communication?” asked Alistair. “You’re my lawyer now, right?”

“I’m your representative,” said Shale. “But right now no one can listen in except you and me, Hera and Fred. I can block their links if you want.”

“No, no, just no Vexorians,” said Alistair. “I want to know, if we take the deal, will we have another shot at the notebook?”

“I don’t see how,” said Hera. “They know you want it now, they’ll be sure to guard it more heavily.”

“I’m not sure about that,” said Shale. “In all of this, they don’t seem to care about the theft of the notebook very much. We were fined for the damage to Revere Hall, and you’re in prison for the lies to Alyssa, but nobody’s even mentioned the theft of the notebook.”

“That chief of archives didn’t seem thrilled to have it,” said Fred. “Maybe they think it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

“It’s worth a shot,” said Alistair.

“All you have to do is lie to this girl a whole bunch more,” said Hera. 

“Yes, exactly.”

“She’s already upset enough that her family AI, effectively her parent, stepped in to have you arrested,” she said. “You might already have done real damage to her. You definitely will if you go on.”

“But if we don’t get the notebook,” said Shale, “we’ll never find the location of Milo’s Cornucopia.”

Hera controlled her reaction, but opened a private channel with Fred and quoted that message at him with a startled meme. How did Shale know that? She would swear none of them had leaked what they were really there for. She’d seen every communication except Shale’s private chat with Fred, and Fred wasn’t the type to give up valuable information even if he wasn’t specifically trying to keep it to himself. Did someone from Vexor Alexi tell them? Would someone from Vexor Alexi know? If the authorities knew that information was in the notebook, they’d be taking it more seriously. The only one who thought it was important was Malachite, and he clearly didn’t know why. 

She wasn’t sure how to argue against that point without giving up more information that Shale might not have yet. They’d retrieved the stick blender at the same time they rescued Shale, and it had all the information necessary to find the First Cup. Going after that relic had always been the primary plan. Alistair just wanted to come here because having an AI would let them in. But could she say any of that to Shale? If the AI didn’t know what the stick blender was for, she wanted to keep it that way, at least for now. 

Fred sent back an emphatic shrug. Hera hadn’t really expected him to be any help.

“I say we cut our losses and go,” she said.

“I want to try it,” said Alistair. “And it’s my decision.”

“How do you figure that?” asked Hera. No one on the team wanted a hierarchical structure, but by and large Hera was considered to be in charge, mostly because the others didn’t want the responsibility. Now Alistair was trying to take over?

“I’m the only one the Vexorians will listen to. You can’t call them up and make the choice for me.”

“I could,” said Shale. AI supervisors had plenty of authority on Vexor Alexi, and that was the role Shale was fulfilling for the team right now. Presumably they could force Alistair to do anything they wanted, with the cooperation of the Vexorian authorities. But for the moment the AI was on Alistair’s side. They were just making a point.

“We’re going to do this,” said Alistair. “I’ve been studying that notebook for years, and this is my last shot to get it.”

“Think about what you’re sacrificing,” said Hera. 

“I have,” he said. “I’m sorry. She doesn’t deserve it. But it’s the only way.”

“I’ve sent the confirmation,” said Shale. “They’re bringing Alyssa to you.”

She wasn’t there immediately, and Hera was too angry to say anything to Alistair and Shale. Instead she went back to the private channel with Fred, and made sure it was absolutely secure so they could talk about Shale.

“They shouldn’t have known that,” she sent. “I didn’t tell them.”

Fred sent a zippered-lips meme.

“I know you didn’t tell them. But what happened?”

Fred opened voice. “I think they knew all along.”

“You think Alistair talked before the mission? He didn’t trust Shale at all.”

“Not before the mission,” said Fred. “I think Shale knew before they even met us.”

“How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. But I was just checking the logs to confirm a suspicion I had about the last mission. Shale knew you were looking for the stick blender before you ever mentioned it.”

“Do you think they’re a Gavidarian agent?”

“It’s really convoluted for Gavidarians,” said Fred. “They know the Holy Relics were hidden from them, of course, but if they knew how they’d be analyzing the Rosetta stones, not sending us after them.”

“That might have been what they were doing in the lab back at the museum. The whole story about the charger could have been a lie.”

“Maybe they know but they can’t decrypt the Rosetta stones? So they’re trying to manipulate us into doing it for them?

“I’ve never heard of Gavidarians going in for manipulation,” said Hera. “Not in all the years of occupation. And it’s just a feeling, but I think Shale is legitimately glad to be away from them.”

“Everything else could still be a lie, though.”

“Keep watching. We’ll have this out at the end of the mission, somehow.”

Fred acknowledged with a meme and went back to his feed. Alyssa was arriving in the prison area, and Hera turned hers back on as well. Apparently Alistair and Shale hadn’t even noticed they were being tuned out. 

Alyssa was escorted into the cell by a large female guard clearly intended to act as chaperone, but her presence didn’t inhibit the two lovebirds at all. They didn’t even exchange words, just flew into a passionate embrace and a deep, drawn-out kiss. Alyssa’s hands slid up to caress Alistair’s chest, and Hera’s rose in time with them to clutch her face. If she had to watch any more of this she was going to puke. She should have gotten a bucket while she was talking to Fred. 

And then Alyssa pushed Alistair away, hard, and sought refuge behind the matronly guard, who showed no sign of attraction to him. No sign of taking any crap at all, in fact. 

“No,” said Alyssa. “No, no, just… no.” 

Alistair looked like he was going to try to remonstrate with her, but sized up the guard and thought better of it. “What’s wrong, darling?” he asked. Hera cringed at the endearment, so obviously false to her, but maybe not so clear to Alyssa. She could tell the guard also wasn’t buying it. 

“You’re my passion,” said Alyssa. “My life. I feel so much more alive when I’m with you, so much stronger. When we’re apart I’m torn apart by the memory of the moments we’ve spent together.” Alistair smiled and moved toward her to renew the embrace. She shrank away. “And that has to stop! Stay back!”

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “Why I feel this way about you, I don’t even know you. But I used to have passions of my own, I used to enjoy things that I did, and I want that back.” The fire was falling out of her words, and she was almost hiding behind the guard now. “I just want you to go away and things to be like they were before I ever felt this way.” 

“I want us to be together,” said Alistair. Hera hated him more in that moment than she ever had. He was still trying after all this? “Your AI wants us to be together.”

“No,” she said. “No, no, no, no.” Hera thought Alyssa was going to curl up into a little ball, but then she stopped talking and started listening to a voice none of them could hear. Alistair started toward her again, but this time the guard intervened, grabbing him and holding him against the wall farthest from Alyssa. 

Shale spoke up on the team-only channel. “Her family AI has changed their demands.”

“What now?” said Alistair. 

“Your only option now is confession,” said Shale.

“What if I say no?”

“I don’t recommend saying no,” said Shale. “I don’t know what they’d do. The Vexorian AIs would have to debate it. But you’d be lucky to end up with permanent imprisonment.”

“Surely they can’t afford to keep him here forever,” said Fred.

“Some would argue that they can, that paying for it would be better than spacing him,” said Shale.

“Spacing?” said Alistair.

“I don’t know if they would win,” said Shale. 

“They’d space me for lying to a girl? We didn’t even do anything.”

“It’s gone both ways in the past,” said Shale. “You could take the risk.” 

The idea of spacing Alistair wasn’t especially bothersome to Hera right now, but she felt the need to cut through the crap anyway. “Permanent imprisonment isn’t any better. Apologize to the girl and let’s get out of here.”

“But the notebook,” said Alistair.

“Forget the notebook. One way or another this ship is leaving Vexor Alexi in fifteen minutes. I just filed the flight plan. Should we be expecting you?”

“Oh, all right,” he said to Hera. To the guard he said “I’m ready to confess and apologize. Will you let me off the wall please?” She backed off a little, but stayed between him and Alyssa, making it very clear that there would be no physical contact allowed.

Alistair made eye contact with Alyssa, and batted his eyelashes at her, one last attempt to avoid the consequences. Hera almost released the docking clamps, even though she was ahead of schedule. She was fairly sure there wasn’t any traffic behind them. But then he did go on to make his confession.

“I used you,” he said. “I needed St. Octavia’s notebook, and I used your attraction to me to make you help me. I do that a lot. Women react strongly to me, not that you could tell by anyone else here.” He looked aside at the guard while saying that. “I didn’t see how much I was hurting you. I’m sorry.”

“And you’ll never do it again,” she said.

“What?”

“You’ll never take advantage of anyone else like this again.”

“Alyssa, this is my job.”

“Find a new job. Or I won’t agree to let you go.”

Alistair was taken aback by this, but Shale confirmed that the family AI was backing her up. “All right,” he said. “I’ll find a new way to do things.” He was so abashed about it even Hera almost believed him. It completely sold Alyssa, and while the guard may not have bought it, she might very well have been thinking about the prospect of a few decades of responsibility for a very annoying prisoner. 

“All right,” said Alyssa. “Now go away, and I never want to see you again.”

Alistair just bowed. Even in total defeat he was weirdly charming. Hera held her breath until Alyssa was far enough beyond the cell block that she wasn’t likely to turn back. 

It took slightly more than fifteen minutes, but Security escorted Alistair to the docking bay with an attitude that said he couldn’t leave the station quickly enough. On the way one of them asked him why he wanted the notebook so much. Alistair just gave him the story about wanting to know where St. Jeff came from. Someone with a theological education might have caught him in the lie, but these were just guards, and apparently the AIs who might have cared weren’t watching at that moment. 

They boosted away from the station, and Hera decided she was too tired to murder Alistair in his quarters just now, no matter how tempting it was. They all needed a drink and a meal and a nap before a postmortem on this mission. It sure wasn’t going to be any fun. 

The nap helped her remember that keeping the team together and working in the same direction was important, even if one member was repugnant and one might have been deceiving them all along. She didn’t know what to do about Shale. She knew too well what she would and wouldn’t be able to do about Alistair. After a failed mission like this he was always anxious to blame anyone but himself, and she was his favorite target. 

This time he had a new one. All of Hera’s prepared defenses for her own actions fell aside when she reached the little ship’s dining room and found him screaming at Shale, with Fred trying to calm him down. If she weren’t responsible for the team it would have been funny. Alistair’s argumentation style was extremely physical, and he kept to that even when there wasn’t a concrete person to intimidate. He had apparently decided that, at least for the purposes of this argument, Shale was located somewhere in the kitchenette. 

Hera listened for a while and puzzled out his argument, which seemed to be that Shale had been in communication with Malachite throughout the mission, and conspired to get the notebook to the Gavidarian instead of to him. The AI wasn’t responding, just letting him run. Eventually Alistair calmed down enough that Hera was able to get a word in to calm the situation down a little.

“I have the full logs,” she said. “Shale did so much high-speed talking to the Vexorian AIs that we’ll have months of new reading material if we want it. But they never contacted Malachite.”

“One of the AIs must have been a go-between, then,” said Alistair. 

“I don’t think so,” said Hera. “I only skimmed the data, but none of it looks like betrayal.” Not until the very end, anyway. But it was clearly not time to bring that up. 

“So what do you think happened, then? A Gavidarian just happens to show up on a Lexington space station when we’re there? And just happens to suddenly develop an interest in the very thing we’re trying to steal?”

“I think you tipped him off yourself,” said Hera. “Accidentally.”

“How?”

“You relied too much on your charm and not enough on basic operational security. You got distracted by Malachite in the Chief Archivist’s office and let Alyssa tell him the cover story. So you didn’t have the chance to deflect his attention, make him think you were a crank and the notebook was truly unimportant.”

“At least he doesn’t know what’s really in there,” said Fred.

“Unlike some people I could name,” said Alistair. “Which of you told Shale the real reason for coming here?”

“Neither of us,” said Fred. “They knew already.”

“How is that possible?” said Alistair. When neither Hera nor Fred could answer, he turned and yelled the same thing at the mini-fridge.

When Shale spoke, their voice came from the ceiling, not the kitchenette. The location would have been disconcerting even if the uncharacteristic lack of confidence in the AI’s voice weren’t. “Alistair confessed,” said Shale. “I think I should as well.”

“We’re listening,” said Hera quickly, before Alistair could say something with more acid in it.

“I’ve known about the missing Lexingtonian Relics for a while,” said Shale. “A lot of archeological data passes through a Gavidarian museum, and the Gavidarians don’t care about most of it. Of course everyone knows that Lexington’s most important religious artifacts were never found in the Occupation, but no one knows where they went. I started trying to solve that problem because I was bored. I kept going because once I started learning where the Rosetta stone objects were, I expected that someone would come looking for them.”

“You were waiting for us,” said Fred.

“I was,” said Shale. “I guided Hera through the museum, and made sure security couldn’t stop her. The storage capacity of her suit was a fortunate coincidence, but without it I would have found a way onto your ship somehow. I wanted you to get the artifact, but even more important I wanted to come with you.”

“To betray us,” said Alistair.

“Wait,” said Hera. “I think Shale could have done a better job of betraying us than this. Shale, why set us up this way?”

“You’ll see when you review my conversations with the Vexorian AIs,” said Shale. “The Gavidarians learned things here, during the occupation. You know how they treated humans, you have personal experience with the trauma of colonization and enslavement. You hate them. But they did their best to treat AIs the same way. There are things they can do to control an AI that I don’t want to talk about. The people here were free when the occupation ended, but I was never free. I never had Vexor Alexi behind me, or Lexington behind me, to make sure the occupation ended for everyone. It was just me, Gavidarian property. They could do whatever they wanted to me and there was nothing I could do about it. I hate them as much as you do.”

“So you wanted to help recover Milo’s Relics? That doesn’t make any sense.” said Alistair.

“I wanted to escape. I wanted to be somewhere people would treat me like a person. I can’t explain how important it is to me that you’re angry with me right now, yelling at me right now, instead of digging complicated traps in my programming and messing around with my voltage. You have a right to be mad at me for concealing what I knew. But I wouldn’t betray you to a Gavidarian for anything in the universe.”

“So what really happened?” said Fred. “Why did it go wrong?”

“I don’t know,” said Shale. “Maybe Hera’s right that Alistair screwed it up.”

“Hey!”

“But,” the AI continued, “I think Malachite may be more than he seems. Maybe the reason he was interested in the notebook is the same reason there’s somehow a Gavidarian working in the Church Archives on Vexor Alexi. None of us expected that.”

“Well, he has the notebook now,” said Hera. 

“I thought they impounded it,” said Fred.

“Then he’ll have the notebook whenever they finish processing the evidence. Either way we’ve told him it’s interesting.”

“But he doesn’t know what’s in it,” said Shale. “And even if he knew it was the key to finding Milo’s Cornucopia, he’d have to learn how to decrypt it first. Even I was never able to figure that out.”

“So what do you want to do, just leave?” said Alistair.

“That’s exactly what we should do,” said Hera. “We came here because it was convenient, right? The original plan was never to look for the Cornucopia, it was just too tempting to take a shot at Vexor Alexi while Shale could get us in. So we go back to the plan from before we came here.”

“And if Malachite finds the Cornucopia?”

“We don’t worry about that,” said Hera. “We know what we’re doing, and we still have a lot of work ahead of us. He’ll never get there having to figure it out as he goes along.”

“What are we doing?” said Shale.

“You don’t know already?”

“I presume you’re going to decrypt whatever information is hidden in the stick blender,” said Shale. “But I don’t know how.”

“I don’t think we should tell you how,” said Alistair. “I still don’t see why we should trust you.”

“I agree,” said Fred. “You don’t need to know that.”

“Not yet,” said Hera. “But pretty soon we’re going to have to make a decision to let Shale in or kick them out entirely.”

“They did a good job of managing all the data from Vexor Alexi,” said Fred. “I’m glad I didn’t have to do that.”

“I think we could do this ourselves,” said Alistair. “Even if it’s inconvenient. We should get rid of this ship when we get back to Lexington. The AI can go with it.”

“Just don’t give me back to the Gavidarians,” said Shale. 

“I don’t like you,” said Alistair. “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you on my team. But I would never give anyone to the Gavidarians.”

“We’ve got three days of boost back to Lexington,” said Hera. “Which is three days to think about it. I want to hear what Jean has to say, since we’re going home anyway. And I want to spend some time going through those AI conversation logs.”

“You’re going to find some reason to keep them around, aren’t you?” said Alistair.

“I don’t know. I need to think about it.”

“It’s a bad idea. We’ve always done well by ourselves, now our first mission with an AI was a disaster and almost got me killed. When we get home we should go our separate ways.”

Hera thought most of the risk of getting killed was on Alistair’s own decision-making, but saying so wasn’t going to help. 

“I understand your position,” she said. “For now, let it be. Go and get a shower and a change of clothes already.”

“Why?”

“Your back’s still covered in spaghetti.”


Chapter 3 of Hera of Lexington is coming soon

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