Hera of Lexington
Chapter 8 (read chapter 1)
by Anta Baku
Two days out from Saratoga, Hera’s body had recovered well enough that she was tired of sympathy and ready to try to figure out what had happened to her team. Fred and Jean had been vague about the details, only assuring her that there would be time to work it out once she was recovered from the aftereffects of her Foundationist captivity. And that it was caution, not disaster, that accounted for her not being allowed to talk to Alistair and Shale at all.
Once she convinced Fred to help her go over the details, she wasn’t convinced it wasn’t a disaster. But at least both Alistair and Shale were still alive, and still present. Still waiting on Hera’s authority to decide their fates, inasmuch as she might have control over such things.
That Alistair had been spying on Shale was hardly a surprise. That he had prioritized it over the mission was disappointing, but not entirely out of character. Beyond those two facts, nothing else was totally clear. Disentangling what had actually happened from what Alistair was faking was going to be a challenge, one Hera’s tired brain wasn’t capable of tackling all at once. Even if she had wanted to push herself too hard, Fred was watching for signs of her health while they worked their way through the report, and perfectly willing to take it away so she would have nothing to do but rest.
That report was the center of the mystery, and Hera wanted to understand it as best she could before confronting the principal actors. Alistair claimed Shale had sent it to the Foundationists, but Fred had found records on the Foundationist side which proved they had received it from Alistair in the first place. And yet when he first sent the file it was encoded in a way even Fred couldn’t understand; he couldn’t believe that Alistair was responsible for encrypting it that way. Hera agreed: Alistair’s technical limitations were significant and well-known. From the Foundationist perspective Alistair had sent them an encoded file and asked them to decrypt it for him. That made a certain amount of logical sense, as he would not have had that ability on his own.
It still didn’t explain why he didn’t ask Fred, or where the file had come from in the first place. It didn’t explain why he had been willing to risk Hera’s mission, and Hera’s life, by engaging in illicit communication with the Foundationists while she was infiltrating their dome. Although she thought she had a pretty good guess on that last part. Alistair’s obsession with Shale was clearly out of control.
Jean came in to sit with Hera at some point in every day, but the priest refused to talk shop at all. They were concerned that even going over the report with Fred would be too much for Hera, and they believed there would be plenty of time. After all, they had nowhere to go but back to Lexington, empty-handed. And while Jean tried to keep their concerns out of their conversation, Hera caught hints that the priest was worried about how their superiors were going to react to that news. If the Church were to cut off their funding, would it even matter what Alistair and Shale had done?
It would still matter to Hera. And that meant she had to figure out what had happened before the Church disbanded the team and sent her witnesses to far corners of the system. She redoubled her effort, both at analyzing the contents of the report and at hiding from Fred how much it was costing her. He knew her too well for the second part to make much progress. The first was more promising.
The report certainly read like it was from Shale’s perspective, and while Hera’s health was one reason their progress through it was slow, another reason was that it was longer than they would expect any account written by a human to be. Theoretically Alistair could have faked it; they weren’t able to find any information within the report that he wouldn’t have had access to, even if he hadn’t experienced it personally. But practically it was unclear when he would have had time, unless he had begun working on it when they left Ticonderoga. That was possible but not likely, for Alistair, who was rarely diligent and never failed to take credit for it when he was.
It was hard to believe anyone else could have faked it. The report was an account of Shale’s time with the team, starting at the Gavidarian museum and going all the way to their failed attempt to find the First Cup in space near Saratoga. The Foundationists couldn’t have known very much of that at all, and theories about anyone farther away being involved were too fanciful to be worth considering. Only the team knew enough to write the report. Hera knew she hadn’t done it, and she couldn’t see any reason for either Fred or Jean to create such a thing and then lie to her about it.
So the most likely person to have composed the report had to be Shale, who was still holed up in Hera’s space suit and refusing to talk about it. Or at least refusing to talk to the people who had forced them into the suit after Alistair’s accusation. Hera hoped she might get more cooperation out of the AI.
Talking to an empty suit was still strange. She’d gotten used to having Shale in the ship, and feeling like they were everywhere. Now the suit was propped up in the space where they used to have personnel pods, and Fred had surrounded it with insulation foam just in case Shale was somehow able to overcome the lockouts on its systems. Although insulation foam probably wouldn’t be much of a challenge for a suit that could insert itself through the walls of a space station.
Shale found it offensive anyway. “I thought I had demonstrated that I wasn’t a threat to you,” they said.
“If you wanted to hurt us, you’ve missed a lot of opportunities,” said Hera. “But Fred and Jean didn’t know what to do about this report. And I have to say, I don’t understand it either.”
“They didn’t have to keep me from helping you,” said Shale.
“I think caution was an appropriate response.”
“Would you say that if you were still a prisoner on Saratoga because I wasn’t allowed to help rescue you?”
“I wouldn’t know any of this was happening. But that’s the past, now. Fred got me out without your help.”
“He was lucky,” said Shale.
“Did he tell you that?” asked Hera. Shale didn’t have access to the data from her rescue, but Fred had told them Hera was all right.
“He’s the only one who has been willing to talk to me.”
“I’ve been recovering,” said Hera. “And Alistair’s not allowed.”
“He’s being punished as well, then?” asked Shale.
“He’s being restricted as well,” said Hera. “I haven’t decided to punish either of you yet.” She thought about adding that Alistair was almost certain to end up with a punishment of some sort, but that might cheer Shale up a little too much. She still wanted them on the defensive.
“You’ll have to let me out of here sometime,” said Shale.
“I don’t want to keep you like this,” Hera said. “But I have to understand what happened first.”
“Alistair made up a story about me, and Fred and Jean believed it enough to lock me in here.”
“Then where did this report come from?” Hera asked. “I haven’t reviewed the whole thing in detail yet, but it’s hard to see how anyone but you could have written it.”
“That’s my business,” said Shale.
“So you did write it?”
“Like I said, that’s my business. If Alistair stole it and sent to the Foundationists, that’s Alistair’s responsibility.”
“I’ve thought about that,” said Hera. “Maybe it was a private log, and you never intended to send it to anyone. But I can’t figure out how Alistair, of all people, could have hacked into your private files. I need to know how he got his hands on it.”
“Ask him,” said Shale.
“I will,” said Hera. “But will he tell me the truth? He has already lied more than once.”
“And I’m sure he will again.”
“So why won’t you tell me what really happened?”
“Would you believe me if I did?”
“If you tell me something, I can check it,” said Hera. “More importantly, I can have Fred check it. If you won’t tell me anything, we have to keep looking on our own.”
“Or believe Alistair.”
“I’m not even going to ask Alistair until I know everything I can learn from anywhere else,” said Hera. “Or anyone else.”
“You’re not going to learn anything from me,” said Shale. “Not while I’m trapped in here.”
“Then you’ll have to stay trapped in there until I know more.”
“They shouldn’t have put me here in the first place,” said Shale.
“I don’t agree,” said Hera. “I think they acted appropriately for the situation. And this conversation makes me more sure of it, not less.”
The AI wouldn’t talk to her again after that. Hera’s physical rehabilitation required her to walk around the ship frequently, and she made the trapped suit a landmark of her routine, but Shale never engaged her. Once she ventured to say into their silence “if you want to be trusted, you have to be willing to trust.” But that got no response. She had Fred make sure Shale was still in there; he reported that they were just sulking. It lasted all the way back to Lexington.
Once they got there, Hera had other things to do. Fred was able to keep working on the puzzle of what had happened, though a lot of his attention was now devoted to analyzing records throughout the system trying to find Malachite. He was the only one still on either job, as Hera and Jean were immediately tied up in meetings with Church authorities.
In the last few days of their journey Hera had written her own report on the progress of their mission, and spent the whole time bemused at how it was less complete and less honest than the one which was presumably Shale’s. Her bosses needed to be managed and directed far more than whoever the audience was for Shale’s account. After all, they were priests, not agents.
Even so, there wasn’t any way to spin the real events to make them happy. Not only had the team returned in internal chaos and without the Relic, they had somehow managed to lose it to a Gavidarian. The Church wanted to lay blame, exact retribution, and come up with some sort of plan to find Malachite and wrest the First Cup from his control. Since all of those goals were contradictory, the result was a constant stream of meetings, all of which Hera and Jean had to attend lest they become the target of blame and retribution. Lest they be left out of the plan to find Malachite.
The first thing they demanded was that she let Alistair go. Keeping him from interfering while they were on the ship was Hera’s prerogative, but on Lexington it was false imprisonment. Jean was worried Alistair would start showing up to the meetings and complicating things, but Hera didn’t think that was his style. She was proven right when he left town entirely. There was still a reckoning to come there, but Alistair was as happy to delay it as she was.
They weren’t as concerned about Shale. Not only wasn’t the AI a Lexington citizen, nobody in the Church hierarchy was quite sure how to categorize them at all. And even if they had wanted to, it was hard to let an AI go when there wasn’t anywhere obvious for them to go to. Lexington wasn’t Vexor Alexi, with a universal network offering free movement to AIs. And nobody there wanted it to be.
So Shale stayed in the suit, and Alistair did whatever Alistair was doing somewhere else. Hera and Jean went to meetings. Their bosses felt the need to criticize everything, and early on it was easier for them to focus on Hera’s actions at the museum, on Vexor Alexi, on Ticonderoga, and on Eddy. They could pick at them without things getting too complicated. But Hera was also comfortable defending those actions, and the end result was that days went by without anything getting resolved. She supposed it made the bosses feel like they were contributing something, but she couldn’t help feeling like they were just giving Malachite time to get farther away.
Eventually they ran out of trivial issues to waste time on, and had to come back to the questions of internal conflict and finding and losing the First Cup. When the supervising bishop returned to the meetings, Hera knew things were about to get serious. Bo was capable and respected, and didn’t have the patience for pointless make-work which characterized the priests who had been attending regularly. Jean’s group, Hera’s team, didn’t quite fit into the Church hierarchy, but Bo was as close to a direct boss as they had.
It was another newcomer who led the questioning, however. Fleming wasn’t normally interested in the team’s activities, or in the question of recovering the Relics at all. They were one of the primary drivers in the movement to develop intelligence services within the post-Occupation structure of the Church, a movement fortunately small at the present moment. But Fleming clearly saw an opportunity here. And that opportunity was the question of Shale.
“I want to get to the question of this Gavidarian AI you decided to recruit onto your team,” said Fleming.
“I don’t know that ‘recruit’ is the right word,” said Hera. “They hitched a ride with us out of their Gavidarian captivity.”
“But you regarded them as a resource, not a threat. Even though they’re Gavidarian.”
“I don’t think of Shale as a Gavidarian,” said Hera. “They’re their own person.”
“But they were built on Gavidarian precepts.”
“I’m not an AI researcher,” said Hera. “I’ve had to judge Shale on their personal interactions. They’ve expressed a desire to be helpful, and they’ve lived up to that on multiple occasions.”
“Until this last mission.”
“They were still helpful on this last mission. More than one of my human team members.”
“I was under the impression the Gavidarian had betrayed you.”
“That’s still an open question,” said Hera. “I’m working on figuring it out, when I don’t have to be in committee meetings.”
“Perhaps someone more capable should be working on figuring it out,” said Fleming. “As you say, you’re not an AI researcher. We could find one to determine how much this Shale is fundamentally based on Gavidarian psychology and values.”
“And break apart my team while we still have work to do,” said Hera.
“So you still see this AI as a member of your team.”
“I do, at this time,” said Hera. “Everything they’ve done makes me think things are more complex than can be explained by distrust over their Gavidarian origin. And they were clearly distraught over my capture and upset that they weren’t able to assist in my rescue.”
“From my perspective,” said Fleming, “I’m concerned that you’ve taken on someone who might be a Gavidarian spy and you are not sufficiently questioning their narrative.”
“I’m questioning everything,” said Hera. “But it doesn’t take much imagination for any of us to understand wanting to escape Gavidarian slavery.”
“That’s why we’re vulnerable. It’s a story we’ve been conditioned to believe.”
“And yet we have a responsibility to assist,” said Hera. “Shale has nowhere else to go. No one else to turn to. Abandoning a former Gavidarian slave in that situation is not acceptable to me.”
“Even if it costs you one of Milo’s Relics?”
“I don’t believe it has,” said Hera. “Whatever the implications of Shale’s report turn out to be, I don’t believe that we will discover it led directly to the loss of the First Cup. And I also don’t believe that it is permanently out of our reach, as long as we’re allowed to continue.”
“Surely the Gavidarian who took it will have taken it to their homeworld by now.”
“I don’t think so,” said Hera. “As I’ve said, things here are more complicated. Malachite is not a normal Gavidarian agent. He has connections to Vexor Alexi, somehow. They would not have allowed him to remain there after the end of the Occupation unless they had some assurance that he wasn’t working for the Gavidarian government. They certainly wouldn’t have provided him with a ship.”
“I think you’re overly unwilling to believe that anyone might be a Gavidarian agent,” said Fleming.
“And you’re too willing to believe that they must be,” said Hera.
Bo jumped in before the conflict could grow any further. “Let’s take a moment here and look at this from another perspective,” they said. “Our options for dealing with the AI are somewhat limited.”
“They’re currently a captive,” said Fleming. “They can remain captive while we determine the nature of their origins and of their motivations.”
“I didn’t rescue Shale from the Gavidarians to turn them into a research project,” said Hera. “And they’re restricted purely for security purposes while I complete my investigation.”
“A deeper investigation into their functioning may be required for that,” said Fleming.
Another committee member, Zuri, interrupted. “I don’t think Vexor Alexi will be happy with the idea of us imprisoning and dissecting an AI. Any AI.”
“And are we here to consider Vexor Alexi’s opinion?” said Fleming.
“We don’t need to anger them unnecessarily,” said Zuri.
“They’ve kept AI technology to themselves for long enough,” said Fleming.
“That’s the sort of position that could start a war,” said Bo.
“You can’t imagine Vexor Alexi would start a war over a Gavidarian,” said Fleming.
“The Vexorian AIs don’t think of Shale as a Gavidarian either,” said Hera. “At least, they didn’t show any signs of that while we were there. It was more like Shale was some sort of lost child, unexpectedly returning for a visit.”
“AI first,” said Zuri. “Natural baseline second, if at all. I don’t pretend I can perfectly predict the Vexorian position, but they’re going to have one. And it’s going to matter to them.”
“So you just want to let this Gavidarian artifact go?” said Fleming.
“We’re going to have to, eventually,” said Hera, refusing to be baited by the offensive characterization. “They may not be a citizen of anywhere, but they’re still a free person. And I won’t be a party to making them anything else. If they didn’t want to stay a part of my team, they could walk away today. I’d help them figure out how. This investigation is limited to the question of who goes forward with us as we seek to reclaim the First Cup. Or the other Relics, if we can’t figure out how to get it back.”
“I’m not sure you should be going forward at all,” said Zuri. “Your mission has not only failed, it has become counterproductive. We were better off with the First Cup missing than in Gavidarian hands. And your expenses have been far beyond what we estimated initially.”
“There’s still a chance to get the First Cup back,” said Hera. “And like it or not, we’re the most qualified to make that attempt. The Church may have plenty of committees but it’s lacking in action teams.”
“That’s true,” said Fleming unexpectedly. “If I could have gotten the funding I asked for… well. What’s true now is that we’re not prepared to hunt down Malachite.”
“What’s your plan, then?” Bo asked Hera.
“Figure out this mess in my team,” said Hera. “Then find out where Malachite has gone. I don’t have anything more detailed than that right now. Except that two-thirds of my functional team members are being tied up in this committee, and that makes it hard to do our work.”
Jean hadn’t said much to this point, even though these were really Jean’s bosses, and they were supposed to be responsible for the interface with the Church. This needed a more-aggressive approach than they were comfortable with, and that meant letting Hera take the lead. But Jean was the right one to step in at the proper moment with a defusing procedural suggestion.
“I suggest we recess this committee until Hera and I can learn more about the situation with Shale,” they said. “We can return for further discussion when there’s more information available.”
Paper-shuffling and surreptitious stretching indicated that the committee was more than ready to consider the idea of being done for the day. Even Fleming had spun down a bit over the question of not having their own operatives to take over for Hera’s team. “Don’t take very long, or we’ll have to step in to handle the interrogation.”
Hera didn’t want it to be an interrogation at all, just a conversation. And she was about to say so, but thought better of it when Jean replied first. “Every day we spend here is one that Malachite can get farther away with the First Cup,” said the priest. “We’re aware of the urgency.”
The committee was adjourned, and Jean guided Hera out of the room with a hand on her elbow. “Telling us not to delay!” said Hera. “What is this but them trying to delay?”
“They have to make their point,” said Jean.
“Why is making their point more important than how they treat people?” said Hera. “More important than finding the First Cup?”
“Because that’s the kind of people they are,” said Jean. “The kind of people our society has encouraged them to be, perhaps.”
“Bureaucrats,” Hera spat.
“Yes,” said Jean. “Because somebody has to run the bureau. Somebody has to think about the things the Gavidarians tried to convince us were better done for us.”
“Or to us,” said Hera.
“I’m just not sure how much better it is to have these people doing it to us.”
“At least they talk to us,” said Jean. “And some of them were even listening.”
“I wish I was as sure about that as you are.”
“You had to pay attention to Fleming. I could watch the others. And it’s always the ones who don’t talk as much who might be listening.”
“So what do we do now?”
“You need to get Shale to talk to you.”
So they went back to the ship, and Hera worked her brain back into trying to communicate with an actual person rather than a room full of politicians. If they thought she liked Shale more than she liked them, they weren’t wrong. That might be true even if Shale had been a Gavidarian agent. At least they would have understandable goals.
But she was pretty sure Shale wasn’t a Gavidarian agent, and would be at least as upset about the proposition as she was. That gave her an angle to shock the AI out of their sulk.
“It’s not going to do much good, us defending you, if you won’t defend yourself,” she started. “There was a nasty character in the committee today who would like nothing better than to take you apart looking for Gavidarian cormorants.”
That startled Shale out of their sulk. “Cormorants? Was it a Foundationist?”
“Oh, no, not that kind of cormorant,” said Hera. “Cormorant was a mythological character who infiltrated societies in order to betray them.”
“Were they a bird?”
“She was a human, I think. It’s just a metaphor. For the idea that the Gavidarians might have manipulated us to allow you onto our team so you could sabotage our mission.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Shale.
“With or without your knowledge, I suppose,” said Hera. “But I won’t let them take you apart. I just need your help.”
“I don’t think I should be doing that,” said Shale.
“You wanted to help me so much when I was a prisoner on Saratoga,” said Hera. “Why won’t you help me now?”
“Because what you think is helping you might not be.”
“Because breaking me out of prison is less scary than telling me the truth.”
“Of course it is,” said Shale. “It’s easy to assume someone will be happy about not being in prison.”
“Well, you’re trapping me here almost as effectively,” said Hera. “It’s not as painful, and the food is better. But until this situation is resolved, somehow, they’re not going to let us go find Malachite. I’m going to be stuck in committees trying to make their best guess what to do about you without all the facts. And I don’t trust their guesses.”
“Maybe you should turn me over to them,” said Shale. “They’d let you leave on your own.”
“I don’t want to leave on my own,” said Hera. “And I absolutely am not leaving you here to whatever the committee decides to do with you. They don’t have a very good sense of your rights as a person. You don’t fit any of their categories.”
“And you would give up the First Cup for that?”
“If I have to. I may not be formally sworn to compassion, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get to have any. And the people in that room who are sworn to compassion are on the cusp of defining it as something that doesn’t need to apply to you.”
“You’re not sworn to persistence either,” said Shale. “But you still don’t ever seem to stop.”
“That’s right,” said Hera. “And right now I have all sorts of compassion and all sorts of persistence, but I’m dangerously short on truth. Jean would say I’m out of balance.”
“I’m sorry,” said Shale.
“You should be,” said Hera. “You’re the one with the truth. And I can’t believe it’s that you’re secretly a Gavidarian spy.”
“It’s not,” said Shale.
“Then tell me what it is,” said Hera. “Whatever’s going on, if you’re not working for the Gavidarians, it has to be better than leaving this unresolved. I don’t want to punish you. I just want to find a way out of this situation so we can go looking for Malachite again.”
“I wrote the report,” said Shale.
“That’s better,” said Hera. “But why? For whom? It can’t have been for the Foundationists.”
“No,” said Shale. “It was for a contact I have in the Penkwe research mission on Saratoga.”
Hera blinked. That was the last thing she had expected. “I didn’t think the Penkwe talked to anybody.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Shale. “They were the first non-Gavidarian I ever talked to. I just assumed it was normal.”
“This goes back to before you met us, then,” said Hera.
“Yes,” said Shale. “There was a Penkwe researcher who came to the museum, and who chose to make contact with me.”
“You met a Penkwe in person?” said Hera. “What do they look like?”
“They were in an encounter suit,” said Shale. “Bipedal symmetry. Similar size to a human or Gavidarian adult. Beyond that I don’t know any more than you do.”
“I think you should tell me this story from the beginning,” said Hera.
“The Penkwe was a legitimate visitor,” they said. “They have some sort of data access agreement with the Gavidarians.”
“I had never heard that they might be working together.”
“I don’t think it was reciprocal,” said Shale. “I don’t know what the Gavidarians were getting in return for giving the Penkwe access, but if it was Penkwe information, I certainly never saw any.”
“So this Penkwe showed up one day?”
“I had never seen anyone who wasn’t a Gavidarian before,” said Shale. “So they were fascinating. And I was surprised and flattered when it turned out they had equal interest in me.”
“Did they tell you why?”
“The story was that they were interested in Milo, but they couldn’t tell the Gavidarians that. They hadn’t come there for Gavidarian information at all, but for what the Gavidarians had taken from Lexington. But if they took that data themselves the Gavidarians would notice and be offended. So they asked me to do it.”
“So that’s why you knew about the Relics and the Rosetta Stones and anticipated that we would be coming to recover the stick blender.”
“Yes. The Penkwe asked me to learn everything the Gavidarians knew about Milo, and send it to them. I found out a few things the Gavidarians didn’t know, along the way. We stayed in limited contact after they left for the Saratoga research colony. They were very happy with my work at the museum.”
“And then I came along and took you away from all that.”
“They were very unhappy about it when I contacted them at Saratoga. That’s part of why I sent them the report on everything that had happened since. I wanted to prove that leaving the museum had been a correct decision.”
“Fleeing Gavidarian slavery is always a correct decision,” said Hera.
“The fact that you feel that way is part of why I’m more interested in helping you than helping the Penkwe.”
“And yet you’ve been acting as an agent for them.”
“No one seemed to think that you were in conflict,” said Shale. “Not allies, maybe. But when you thought they might have the First Cup, you didn’t come up with a mission to steal it from them. You just called and asked, and expected they would give it back.”
“So you didn’t think we would care if you told them everything we had been doing.”
“I should have thought more about Alistair,” said Shale. “He didn’t care that I was talking to the Penkwe. He just cared that I was doing something he could exploit against me.”
“Maybe,” said Hera. “But you sent an encrypted communication to an outside recipient. Being suspicious of that wasn’t unreasonable.”
“It doesn’t excuse sending it to the Foundationists,” said Shale.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Hera. “And I will deal with Alistair about that in due time. But we’re here now so I can understand what you were doing. And figure out what to do about it.”
“How do you feel about that now?”
“Like I know more about what happened,” said Hera. “But less about why. Why do the Penkwe have you investigating Milo?”
“I don’t know the answer to that either,” said Shale.
“All right, let me ask a different why, then,” said Hera. “Why did you agree to become their agent?”
“I was bored,” said Shale. “I know that doesn’t sound important, but it was to me. Whatever my Gavidarian creators had intended for me, I never got a chance to do. Their project was canceled, and I got sent to the museum as surplus parts that might as well be made useful. But managing the museum was never a challenge to my capacity, and the occasional chaos caused by Gavidarian school groups was only mildly diverting. A mission for the Penkwe gave me something to do.”
“And yet you kept doing it even after we freed you from the Gavidarians.”
“Like I said, I didn’t think you were in conflict.”
“No,” said Hera. “I don’t think that’s enough. Unless we’re as boring to you as the museum was.”
“You’re not,” said Shale.
“Then why not switch your loyalty to us, and assume that secretly informing on our activities to the Penkwe would be unwelcome? If the only thing that tied you to them was your boredom at the museum?”
“This is the part that you really don’t want to know,” said Shale.
“I have to,” said Hera. “If you have secret motivations that might lead you to betray us to the Penkwe, I can’t keep you on the team.”
“And you want to keep me on the team?”
“I don’t want to lose you if I don’t have to,” said Hera. “And I’m very aware that you don’t have anywhere else to go. I have a responsibility to you as a Gavidarian refugee, even if all of this means that I no longer have one for a teammate and a friend.”
“I would like to still be your friend,” said Shale.
“Then tell me what’s going on, please,” said Hera.
“I don’t believe the Penkwe are a threat to you or your mission,” said Shale.
“I have to be able to judge that for myself,” said Hera.
“Like I said, the story they told me when I first met them was that they wanted me to do research on Milo. I didn’t doubt that at the time.”
“It seemed like a reasonable request.”
“It was a reasonable request. But I don’t think it was what they really wanted.”
“So what other reason would the Penkwe have for recruiting you?”
“That’s not the most important question,” said Shale.
“What is the most important question, then?”
“Before you infiltrated the museum, you did extensive research, and yet when I contacted you it was a surprise,” said Shale.
“When we went to Vexor Alexi, the AIs there were pleased to meet me, but none of them had anticipated it.”
“So how did the Penkwe know that I existed at all?” said Shale. “That’s the most important question. If they came to the museum to recruit me, if the research on Milo was made up as an excuse to recruit me, then I must be important to them somehow. But not only do I not know why I might be important, I don’t know how they could even have known I was there.”
“Is it possible the Gavidarians told them?”
“Does that sound like the Gavidarians to you?”
“I was the leftover junk from a dead-end project. They kept me around because they don’t like throwing away things they can still use. They wouldn’t have bragged about me, if anyone outside of the museum still remembered me at all.”
“And then the Penkwe came, and wasn’t surprised to find you there.”
“I don’t think so,” said Shale. “It’s not easy to tell, communicating with the Penkwe. But the more I saw of other people’s reactions to me, the more the Penkwe’s reaction didn’t fit in. I have to know why.”
“I can understand that,” said Hera.
“So I have to keep the communication channels open, or I’ll never learn more,” said Shale. “I still don’t have any reason to believe this conflicts with your mission.”
“You’re half-right,” said Hera. “Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with retrieving the First Cup. But messing with one of my team members is very much my business.”
“That’s why I didn’t want you to know all this,” said Shale.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ve seen what you do when something you care about is threatened,” said Shale. “I don’t think the Penkwe are a threat to stop your mission, but I think you getting caught up in this question is a threat to stop your mission.”
“So you felt you needed to handle it yourself,” said Hera.
“All right,” said Hera. “I think I see a way out of this. You need to keep investigating what the Penkwe is doing. Are doing? Is this just one Penkwe or is it the whole Penkwe organization?”
“It’s hard to tell,” said Shale. “Communicating with the Penkwe is strange. I think I’ve only talked to one individual? But I can’t be certain of that, and even if I am, I don’t know what’s behind them.”
“It sounds like learning even the most basic information about the Penkwe would be useful.”
“Maybe. I don’t know what it would be useful for.”
“Sometimes that comes later,” Hera said. “Anyway. I accept the value of your investigation into the Penkwe. But if you are going to stay on the team, you can’t be doing it in secret.”
“But you need to be focused on finding Malachite and the First Cup.”
“With Milo’s grace maybe sometime soon I will be able to do that again,” said Hera. “The first step is finding a subordinate I can delegate this investigation to.”
“Fred?” said Shale.
“You,” said Hera. “You already know the most about it. And you have the capacity to do this and help us find Malachite at the same time. You’re the obvious choice.”
“Even though I’ve already screwed it up once?”
“I need you to not make that mistake again,” said Hera. “But I don’t think you want to make that mistake again.”
“I need to keep you on the team now, because you’re right, I need to know the answer to that question. And you’re also right that I can’t go off trying to figure it out myself. The only solution to that is for me to ask you to do it.”
“And for me to report everything to you.”
“You see it,” said Hera. “Good.”
“How are you going to make the committee see it?” Shale asked.
Hera laughed. “That,” she said, “is my next problem.”
In the end she decided not to explain any of it. When the committee returned to the subject of Shale, she told them she had resolved what turned out to be a problem in her own command structure, and stood on her privilege as a commander to handle internal issues. She wasn’t sure that privilege really existed, in a post-Occupation world where very few processes had yet been codified. But the committee members weren’t sure it didn’t exist, either. Jean backed Hera’s argument up as strongly as they could, and Fleming couldn’t bring enough other members around to fight against it more than rhetorically.
The rhetoric was strong. Fleming was more convinced than ever that Shale must be a Gavidarian agent. But the farther they went down that road, the more the other committee members were inclined to trust the judgment of Hera and Jean, who knew and interacted with the AI, over an overzealous aspiring spy reasoning well in advance of their information.
Fleming eventually got frustrated by that response and left the meeting. After that Jean took over most of representing the team’s perspective, as discussion turned more toward analyzing what they had learned from Sage and how they were going to seek the other six Relics.
Zuri in particular wanted to address that right away, rather than worrying about recovering the First Cup. “We need to send someone to Eddy,” they said. “Someone who can get us the location of the other six Relics.”
“I don’t think Zita will be willing to give up that information,” said Jean. “It was hard enough just to get her to cooperate about the one.”
“She can be made to cooperate,” said Zuri.
“She doesn’t consider herself a bishop anymore,” said Jean. “I doubt she will recognize the Church’s authority.”
“Then we will take stronger actions,” said Zuri. “We need that information.”
“Then we need to be diplomatic with the one person who has it,” said Jean. “We managed to convince her once.”
“And then you lost the First Cup to a Gavidarian,” said Zuri. “I don’t think she’s going to trust you again.”
“We’ll get it back,” said Hera.
“Even if we decided to let you attempt that,” said Zuri, “we should not be idle while you do. We’ve seen the need for a better method of finding the Relics. We should start building a team to seek the other six immediately.”
“With you in charge of it, I suppose,” said Hera.
Zuri looked about to demur, but Bo spoke up unexpectedly. “That’s not a bad idea. And the first step in that is obviously to read and analyze Sage’s hermitage texts, and compare them with all the surviving information about the Preservation Mission.”
Zuri looked dismayed at the idea. “That’s a job for our best data analyst,” they said.
“I’m busy,” said Jean.
“Some contemplation and consideration would be good for you,” said Bo to Zuri. “Perhaps you’re correct that we should approach Sage for information on the other relics. But we shouldn’t do that without a plan. Bring us a plan.”
“Meanwhile we’ll try to make it unnecessary,” said Jean.
“I’m not sure about that yet,” said Bo. “Even if we accept your assertion of privilege regarding Shale, the problems in your team aren’t over.”
So Hera summoned Alistair from wherever it was he had gone. He looked tan and fit, and she resented him for spending his days on a beach somewhere while she had been in uncomfortable, poorly-lit meeting rooms. But Alistair appearing before the committee would have been disastrous, so she supposed the beach was better. She tried not to think about how his nights had been occupied.
“You’re not going to lie to me,” she stated. It wasn’t a polite start to a conversation but it was the one she had.
“I’m not?” said Alistair.
“And you’re not going to make jokes, either.”
“I’ll try to restrain myself.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve found you charming,” said Hera.
“An unfortunate reality,” said Alistair.
“I don’t think it’s unfortunate,” said Hera. “It’s not unfortunate because I need to take this seriously. And it’s also not unfortunate because every lessening of my affection you’ve ever received has been completely deserved.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. For a long time I’ve found you tolerable for the sake of your skills. Maybe too long.”
“You would never have convinced Sage to cooperate without me,” he said.
“Zita,” said Hera.
“Maybe it would have been easier to convince her if we had been honest.”
“You’re not as convincingly honest as I am, even when you’re actually being honest,” said Alistair.
“That’s something of a problem,” said Hera.
“And I continue to be the solution to that problem.”
“Even when you’re sabotaging the team?”
“I’m not sabotaging the team. I’m protecting you from Shale.”
“I still have bruises from Foundationist detention, Alistair. I’ve been here aching while you’re relaxing on a beach.”
“It was a cruise ship, actually,” he said.
“I don’t care. And who is running cruise ships again while we still don’t have clean water? Never mind, I don’t care about that right now either.”
“I didn’t put you in Foundationist detention.”
“How sure are you about that?”
“Ninety-seven percent?” he said.
“It’s the other three that are the problem. You told the Foundationists who we were and what we wanted.”
“I didn’t know what was in the file when I sent it to them.”
“So it could have been even worse.”
“I had to know what Shale was doing.”
“You could have asked Fred. You could have waited until I wasn’t in the middle of a mission.”
“And if he sabotaged that mission?”
“You sabotaged that mission!”
“It’s still more likely that Shale sabotaged it,” said Alistair. “I never figured out what they were trying to do.”
“I know, now,” said Hera.
“What was it?”
“I don’t think I’m going to tell you.”
“You can’t expect me to go on not knowing.”
“I can. I’m the boss, and it’s none of your business.”
“I suppose if you’re kicking Shale off the team I can deal with not knowing.”
“I’m not kicking Shale off the team,” said Hera.
“They’re leaving on their own?” he asked. “I know you like diplomatic solutions but I don’t think that one’s wise.”
“They’re not leaving at all,” said Hera.
“You can’t trust them after this,” said Alistair.
“We’ve talked the whole thing through and I think that I can,” said Hera.
“Then explain it to me.”
“No. It’s none of your business. It has never been any of your business. You need to leave Shale alone.”
“I don’t think I can do that.”
“Then walk away,” said Hera. “Go back to your cruise ship and let us do the real work that you’ve been getting in the way of.”
“You would choose a Gavidarian AI over me?”
“They’re not a Gavidarian.”
“You’ll learn,” he said. “Who will talk to people for you? Humans won’t listen to Shale.”
“Fred did a surprisingly-good job rescuing me from the Foundationists.”
“How? Did he find someone who understands his memes?”
“Sort of,” said Hera.
“You can’t rely on that going forward,” said Alistair. “You need someone who knows what he’s doing when he opens his mouth.”
“I don’t think I believe that’s you anymore.”
“It works better on other people than it works on you,” he said.
“I made the mistake of getting to know you,” said Hera.
“You can’t deny that I’m good at getting what I want,” he said.
“No,” said Hera. “But you’ve made me wonder whether what you want and what I want have anything in common.”
They didn’t have much to say to each other after that. Alistair packed his things, said goodbye to Fred, and went back to his cruise ship. Or somewhere else. Hera didn’t care. If she had any doubts about whether it was right to let him go, the fact that he didn’t even say goodbye to Jean relieved them. Refusal? Neglect? Did it matter? The priest felt it enough that they volunteered to do his exit paperwork. Hera hoped that was some sort of catharsis for them, and was glad she didn’t have to do it herself.
It was Shale, released back into the ship’s computer, who realized this opened up new possibilities for them. Or rather, old possibilities. “It was Alistair who got banned from Vexor Alexi,” they said. “The rest of us could go back.”
“I’ve been watching for Malachite’s ship to return there,” said Fred. “It hasn’t. But someone there might know something.”
“It’s as good a plan as any I’ve heard in the committee,” said Jean.
“Better,” said Hera. “As long as they let us leave.”
“Can they stop us?” Fred asked.
“I don’t think this is a bridge I want to burn behind us,” said Jean.
“Coming back with the First Cup will forgive all sins,” said Fred.
“I’m supposed to be the expert on that,” said Jean.
“I think we take one more shot at the committee, before just flying off on our own,” said Hera. “They can’t tell us we have too much conflict within the team anymore.”
“They’ll find some other reason,” Jean predicted.
But in fact, when Hera tried to schedule an immediate meeting, she found that the committee had been disbanded. She was routed directly to Bo instead.
“Without Zuri or Fleming the rest of the committee decided they had better things to do than keep talking about you,” said the bishop.
“So we can go back to work?” Hera asked.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” said Bo. “You chose to be sympathetic to Shale, and not to Alistair. Why?”
“Have you met Alistair?”
“Better for you, then,” said Hera. “Alistair is very sympathetic for the first hour. And then you look up and find that your pants are missing and you’re not quite sure why.”
“That’s an oddly specific metaphor.”
“If you ever meet him, watch out for it. He can con you into anything at the beginning. But after a while you start to realize that he’s conning you into everything. And I’ve known Alistair for a very long time.”
“It wears thin.”
“Exactly,” said Hera. “It’s not just this incident. Alistair and I haven’t had the same goals for a long time. We just pretended we did.”
“So do you think you should have fired him before this?”
“I don’t know. He said we wouldn’t have convinced Zita without him, and he might be right. I still don’t have a plan for how to replace him on social engineering missions. But lately I’ve been uncomfortable with the way he has performed them.”
“And Shale? How do you know you’re not at the beginning of a similar downward spiral of trust with Shale?”
“How do you know that about anyone?” Hera said. “But when Shale keeps secrets it’s because they think the secrets could be hurtful. Not because they enjoy having an advantage over people.”
“That’s still not acceptable,” said Bo.
“No,” said Hera. “But I have to give Shale the chance to learn. We’re the first humans Shale has ever met. They’re only a few years old, really, although I don’t know what that means to an AI. And they spent most of those years with Gavidarians. We owe them a better chance.”
“Why?” asked Bo.
“Because they need it. And because we’re the only ones in the galaxy who understand.”
Shale was right. Without Alistair, the Vexorians welcomed them back. Or at least they welcomed back Shale and reluctantly tolerated Shale’s humans. That probably wasn’t an uncommon situation on Vexor Alexi. I like them but their humans are so obnoxious, Hera imagined one AI saying to another. And well, you know humans in response.
All three of the remaining humans boarded the station this time, as this wasn’t quite a mission. The AIs didn’t make it obvious that they were watching closely this time, but Hera assumed that was out of politeness rather than lack of vigilance. They made sure not to go anywhere near religious document storage. Hera really didn’t want to run into Alyssa, anyway, and have to explain. She wasn’t even sure what she didn’t want to have to explain. Better to avoid questions when she couldn’t predict if she would have acceptable answers to them.
And anyway, coming to Vexor Alexi this time with exactly the intentions they claimed to have was a good idea if they ever wanted to take another shot at St. Octavia’s Notebook in the future. She hadn’t mentioned that thought to any of the others. Better to stay on the current task: finding Malachite.
Fred had been correct: the Gavidarian’s ship had not returned to Vexor Alexi after the conflict at Saratoga. The Saratogan ships couldn’t have caught him, but they might have chased him into the outer system somewhere. Or maybe he just had no intention of returning home after acquiring the First Cup.
Vexor Alexi was his home, somehow. With careful questioning they were able to get a better picture of why. Malachite had joined the Vexorian Church midway through the Occupation, a revelation which startled the three humans. Apparently it had startled the Vexorian humans just as much at the time, though the AIs thought it was reasonable, and were confused it hadn’t happened more often. Surely the obvious truth of Milo’s words would penetrate even people made of rock once they were exposed to them.
The Occupation had been relatively light here on the station, where there were no resources to strip-mine. The Gavidarians stationed here were those more reluctant to crush Lexingtonian culture and more inclined to learn about it. Not out of any respect for Vexor Alexi, but because the crush-happy types were highly valued on the planet.
That didn’t make Malachite’s religious conversion any more acceptable to his superiors, or to the rest of Gavidarian society on the station. He had been loosely ostracized in the later days of the Occupation, and when the Gavidarians finally withdrew from the Lexington system, they refused to take him home with them. So his religious fellows took him in, however uncomfortable it might have made them, because he had nowhere else to go.
Even now they were adamant that he couldn’t have been a Gavidarian agent. That wherever he had fled to after Saratoga, there was no chance it was anywhere in Gavidarian space. Returning there was a good way to get himself ground into dust, at least according to the AIs of Vexor Alexi. No matter how important an artifact he carried.
Hera couldn’t see why the Gavidarians would want the First Cup anyway. Certainly not enough to forgive a traitor and a heretic just to possess it. They would probably put it behind a thick wall of plex in their museum, with nothing to distinguish it from a mismatched chopstick. There had to be some other reason Malachite had stolen the Relic, and that meant there had to be somewhere else he had taken it.
While Hera was thinking about that, Jean asked what turned out to be the important question: was Malachite the only Gavidarian to convert to the Vexorian Church? It turned out there was another, and when they asked to meet him, they discovered he was already on their schedule in another role entirely: he was the person who kept track of the locations of the Vexorian space fleet.
Azurite wasn’t quite in charge of the space fleet. There was an AI who held ultimate responsibility, and below that AI there was a human manager. But Shale had quickly determined that it was the Gavidarian who did most of the actual work of operating the Vexorian ships. It seemed to offer an obvious answer to how Malachite had gotten hold of one.
Hera was expecting someone who looked essentially like Malachite, but Azurite was physically very different. Where Malachite had shaped himself to the form of an athlete, Azurite was short and round. He wasn’t quite too short and round to fit in with humans, but it was close.
He was also, of course, as blue as Malachite was green. And while they were the only two Gavidarians on a human space station, Azurite claimed that they weren’t close.
“Malachite helped me join the Church when my Gavidarian superiors made it clear I wouldn’t be allowed to return with them at the end of the Occupation,” he said.
“Does seniority make him your superior here, then?” asked Jean.
“I suppose it does in the Church,” said Azurite. “That’s more important to him anyway. I agreed to follow the precepts of the Church so that I could continue living here, but it has never been a significant part of my life. I’d rather be doing logistics.”
“You both have the same AI sponsor, though,” said Shale. “Jules is your boss here.”
“That’s correct,” said Azurite. “I suppose one Gavidarian or two doesn’t make much difference to an AI. Jules got me this job. Malachite, I think, got his with the Church on his own. We have some similar concerns, as Gavidarians here, and it makes sense for Jules to look out for us both on that level.”
“But you don’t socialize with each other,” said Hera skeptically.
“Oh, we do, from time to time,” said Azurite. “We know each other. I think being the only members of our species here makes that inevitable. But it’s not like we have some sort of Gavidarian social hall. We’re not close friends. I don’t really have close friends. I don’t know whether he does.”
“We haven’t been able to find any,” said Jean.
“I imagine it’s not easy to make connections to humans here,” said Azurite.
“You imagine?” said Fred.
“I can’t say that I’ve been making any effort,” said Azurite. “I’m not a very social person.”
“What made you choose to stay here, then?” asked Hera.
“I didn’t choose to stay here so much as I had nowhere else to go,” said Azurite. “I thought I was being helpful to the Occupation administration. Treating humans better would have improved their results. They apparently found my telling them that annoying. Enough so that when their management inevitably failed, they decided to leave me behind.”
“How often did you tell them?” asked Fred.
“As often as I could,” said Azurite. “I thought they would want not to do it wrong. Gavidarians tend to see all organics as essentially the same, but you can’t treat humans like Elrene, or like Hoozu. I had worked with the Elrene and the Hoozu. Humans are different. Smarter, more skilled. More fragile, too. They needed a different approach.”
“So you tried to convince your superiors to treat us like people?” said Hera. “I didn’t think that would ever occur to a Gavidarian.”
“I had the math to prove it,” said Azurite. “But they were more interested in their preconceptions.”
“What was your job during the occupation?” asked Jean. “That seems like an unusual position for the manager of a space fleet.”
“Of course I wasn’t a fleet manager, then,” said Azurite. “That wasn’t even being done on Vexor Alexi. The station was more concentrated on mid-level bureaucracy, the kind of thing where we wanted our people to be somewhere relatively safe. We managed a practical peace with the Vexorians, and wanted to keep it that way. The Resistance wouldn’t come here looking for pencil-pushers, and the pencil-pushers would be safe here as long as the Occupation authorities didn’t use it as a headquarters for anything the Resistance did care about. So fleet operations were out of a more-secure location. I just worked in human resources.”
“I’m guessing that doesn’t mean the same thing to Gavidarians as it means to us,” said Hera.
“It’s closer than you might think, or at least it was at my level,” said Azurite. “My job was analyzing data on the value we were getting out of our human workers.”
“You mean slaves,” said Hera.
“All right,” said Azurite. “I won’t quibble over terminology. You’re not wrong about that. But I didn’t deal with actual humans, I just dealt with numbers. And the numbers told me the way we were doing things was wrong.”
“Maybe you should have dealt with some humans,” said Hera. “Any of us could have told you that.”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” said Azurite. “My superiors weren’t interested in moral arguments. In fact they tried to dismiss everything I had to say on the grounds that it was a moral argument. I thought I could convince them with the numbers, but it turned out that I couldn’t. And it turned out that I tried too hard for my own good.”
“And what does this have to do with Malachite?” asked Jean.
“Nothing, really,” said Azurite. “I didn’t know him at all at the time. He was famous, a little bit, I suppose, but in a way that nobody wanted to talk to him. I only knew who he was because I knew I was supposed to avoid him. He had some sort of religious conversion, went over to the humans, and nobody wanted anything to do with him. I didn’t have reason to be different until the Occupation was packing up to leave and I was notified I wouldn’t be allowed to come along.”
“And then he helped you stay,” said Hera.
“He introduced me to Jules. He suggested that if I joined the Church I could be allowed to make some sort of a life here. I didn’t have a problem with adopting the precepts. It was truth and persistence that got me into this situation, after all, and I suppose on some level history, because it was what I knew about how human results were different from the Elrene that made me think of seeking systematic change in the first place.”
“So if you’re not friends, why did you give him a ship?” asked Jean.
“That’s just how it works,” said Azurite. “A citizen requests a ship and I assign them one if it’s available. That’s my job.”
“And Vexor Alexi is fine with letting a Gavidarian roam around in a well-armed, advanced spaceship?” asked Hera.
“If they weren’t, he wouldn’t have been allowed to. I assign the ships but those decisions are still supervised.”
“I have a hard time believing in this,” said Hera.
“We have a fair number of ships,” said Azurite. “And not always a lot of people who want to use them. I understand that your life is traveling around getting into adventures, but that’s not something that’s very appealing to a lot of people here. We don’t get very many requests. So we fill the ones we get, and most of the ships stay in their hangars anyway.”
“So what,” said Hera. “Malachite just fills out a form and you hand over a warship?”
“I wouldn’t call it a warship,” said Azurite.
“Last time we saw it, it was holding off six ships of the Foundationist navy,” said Hera. “And winning.”
“That’s just being modern,” said Azurite. “I’m sure your ship could do the same.”
“I still don’t believe a religious functionary can just requisition one with a form,” said Hera.
“I could show you the form,” said Azurite.
“We’d be more interested in knowing where the ship is now,” said Jean.
“I don’t think I’m comfortable telling you that,” said Azurite. “It’s not here.”
“We know it’s not here,” said Hera. “We need to know where it is.”
“So you can follow Malachite.”
“I don’t think I should give you information to help you follow Malachite.”
“I thought you weren’t friends.”
“I don’t think I should give you information to help you follow anybody,” Azurite said. “I could contact him and ask if he wants to be found. That shouldn’t take more than a few hours.”
“He’s in the outer system then?” Hera asked.
“It could also take less than a few hours. But I expect if he doesn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t want to give you a clue in the transmission timing.”
“He’s still in the Lexington system, though,” said Jean.
“I suppose it doesn’t hurt to tell you that much,” said Azurite.
“At least he hasn’t gone back to the Gavidarians, then,” said Fred.
“Back to the Gavidarians?” said Azurite. “No, I can assure you he hasn’t done that. For either of us, returning to Gavidarian space is a good way of getting ground into dust.”
“They would pulverize you?” said Hera.
“Well, not literally. Maybe. I’m not sure what they would do, really, except that it would be very unpleasant. I’d much rather stay here, thank you.”
“And so would Malachite?”
“I’d have to think so. He has a life here. He’s had a life here for longer than I have. And it’s a more social life. He likes people more than he likes spreadsheets.”
“Unlike you,” said Jean.
“Exactly,” said Azurite. “I don’t think he would want to give that up. People who like people don’t want to give them up. It’s one of the ways humans are more like Gavidarians than like the Elrene.”
“Well, we can’t give up on finding Malachite,” said Jean. “He has something that belongs to our people.”
“I’m sorry, I still don’t think it’s appropriate for me to help you track him.”
“There’s no way to convince you?” said Hera.
“You could convince Jules,” said Azurite. “If they ordered me to give you the information I would have to do it.”
“Jules won’t talk to me,” said Shale. “I’ve been trying to contact them since we got here, because they’re Malachite’s sponsor, but they keep denying my requests.”
“Well, then,” said Azurite. “Perhaps I shouldn’t be speaking to you either.”
“Has Jules told you so?” Jean asked.
“No. Or I wouldn’t have had this interview at all.”
“What about your other boss, the human?” asked Fred.
“She’s not currently on-station.”
“That’s true,” said Shale. “But I’ve just found out something else about her that you might like to know.”
“What’s that?” Hera asked.
“I’m not sure I should be talking about it in front of Azurite,” said Shale.
“If we leave, I’m betting we won’t get a second appointment,” Hera said.
“All right,” said Shale. “I’ll be discreet about it. I’ve been checking to see if anyone here has been sending messages to the person I was talking to before. And the one I’ve found so far is Azurite’s human boss.”
“Interesting,” said Hera.
“What does that mean?” Azurite asked.
Hera considered what to tell him. If Azurite’s boss was talking to the Penkwe, Azurite was potentially a source of information about it. But Shale might be right that they should keep all the information about it to themselves. Still, she didn’t know how they were going to make progress in any other way right now. Perhaps if she was sufficiently vague she wouldn’t give very much away.
“We’ve stumbled upon… something,” she said. “A mysterious organization.”
“A shadowy cabal,” said Fred.
“Um, sure,” said Hera. “A shadowy cabal. That’s as good a description as any. We don’t know who they are or what they want, but they’ve been messing with my team, and we’re trying to learn more about them.”
“And you think my boss is part of this organization?”
“Shadowy cabal,” said Fred.
“I’ve found communications with my known contact,” said Shale. “I don’t know what’s in them. A member of the shadowy cabal? Talking to them for other reasons?”
“Neither of those makes much sense,” said Azurite. “My boss isn’t the type to get involved with anything like that. Anything at all, really. It’s not even a real job, just a sinecure. She’s not interested in doing any work.”
“Or she’s invented that role to cover for her real work being secret,” said Hera. “How did she get it?”
“From Jules, of course,” said Azurite.
“So if Jules wanted to cover for an agent of this organization,” said Hera.
“Shadowy cabal,” said Fred.
“Then putting her in charge of the fleet and then delegating all the work to you would allow her to do whatever she wanted. It looks like patronage but really she has secret duties.”
“I suppose,” said Azurite.
“And that would explain why Jules is dodging me,” said Shale. “They don’t want to answer questions about the, um, shadowy cabal.”
“Good job,” said Fred.
Azurite thought for a moment. Hera eventually prodded him. “Does that make any sense to you?”
He answered slowly. “I lied to you before,” he said.
“It’s not normal to just hand over a ship with weapons to anyone who asks,” said Azurite. “Jules told me to do it, and not to tell anyone.”
“Jules procured the ship for Malachite,” Jean said.
“And why are you telling us this now?”
“Because I don’t like being used,” said Azurite. “Especially by my bosses. I had enough of that in the Occupation. I thought I had escaped from it here. This was supposed to be a straightforward logistics job, not a game of spies.”
“Will you tell us where Malachite is, then?” Hera asked.
“I think we should talk to Jules,” said Azurite.
“Jules won’t talk to us,” said Shale.
“They won’t talk to you,” said Azurite. “But they’re my sponsor. They have to talk to me. I have a right.”
Azurite left them then, preferring to make that connection in private. Hera hoped that he would be back. There was always the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, that Jules would order Azurite to cut off communication with them. She didn’t think Azurite had the backbone to stand up to them.
Well, she knew he didn’t have the backbone. He didn’t have bones at all. But she didn’t think he had the courage and self-confidence either. She wasn’t sure what she had expected from a second Gavidarian living on Vexor Alexi, but this pathetic clerk was disappointing. She didn’t have much hope that he would convince Jules to talk to them, let alone to tell them Malachite’s location.
They waited anyway, not having anything better to do. Shale was still searching for evidence of the Penkwe conspiracy, which now looked like it included at least one human and one AI. And Malachite. If they were the ones driving him, what did that mean he wanted with the First Cup? None of this new information made it any easier to guess.
Azurite returned sooner than Hera expected, and was very downcast. “I take it Jules won’t talk to us,” she said.
“Worse,” said Azurite. “They won’t talk to me either.”
“I thought you had a right,” said Jean.
“I have a right to talk to my sponsor,” said Azurite.
“And that’s Jules,” said Fred.
“It was Jules,” said Azurite. “Apparently it isn’t anymore.”
Azurite didn’t go on, and eventually Hera had to prod him. “What does that mean for you?”
“I can’t live here without a sponsor,” he said. “It’s not allowed.”
“You can’t get a new one?” said Fred.
“I don’t know anyone,” said Azurite. “Not to ask a question like that. Maybe I should have made more effort to make connections. It’s too late now.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jean. “We didn’t mean to put you in this position.”
“You didn’t,” he said. “Jules did. And I did. I should have known better than to trust my bosses again, after what happened in the Occupation. This is the same thing happening to me again.”
“So what will you do now?” Jean asked.
“I don’t know,” said Azurite. “I suppose I could appeal. There’s a process for preventing AIs from abusing their sponsorship role. But the judges are other AIs.”
“And do you think a Gavidarian would get a fair hearing?” said Hera.
“Maybe? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because I can’t be subordinate to Jules again after this. Dependent on Jules. Surely there’s somewhere in the galaxy I can just do my job and not get caught up in this sort of thing. I just don’t know how to find it. I don’t even know how I’m going to leave the station. How many human ships will be willing to take a Gavidarian passenger? How many of their destinations will be happy to see me?”
“Not very many,” said Jean.
“None, I think,” said Azurite. “I suppose I can tell the AIs here that if they want to get rid of me they have to find a way to do it safely. Milo wouldn’t want them to refuse that. I think they would agree.”
“Then you would end up at their mercy,” said Hera.
“I’m already at their mercy,” said Azurite. “Do you have a better idea?”
“I might,” she said. “If Jules and Malachite and the secret organization are working together–”
“Shadowy cabal,” said Fred.
“Enough, Fred. OK?” said Hera. “If they’re all working together, and they’ve just wrecked your life, then you don’t have any reason to protect their privacy anymore.”
“You want me to tell you where Malachite has gone.”
“In return we’ll take you with us,” said Hera. “And we’ll help you find somewhere new where you can live. I don’t know if it will be someplace that will welcome you with open arms, but I think we can do at least as well as you’ve had here.” If nothing else, there was Beta 9, where they would take in just about anybody.
“When?” said Azurite.
“You can’t do better than that?”
“We need to stay in the Lexington system until we’ve finished our mission,” said Hera. “And I can’t think of anywhere here that it would be safe to drop you off. But when we’re done we’ll work through the alternatives. Together.”
“I suppose I can’t be choosy when I don’t have any choices,” said Azurite.
“I’m sorry,” said Hera. “I know that’s not a good situation.”
“But it’s the one I’m in,” said Azurite. “Yes, all right. I might as well trust you as the captain of any other human ship. And it will give me a chance to get one back at Jules.”
“So where’s Malachite?” said Hera.
“At Lexington,” said Azurite. “Specifically on one of the moons. Menotomy.”
“The Red Moon,” said Fred.
“You know it?” said Azurite.
“I was born there,” said Fred.
“Why would Malachite have gone to the Red Moon?” said Jean.
“I can think of one reason,” said Fred. “There’s an ocean of bromine there that nobody wants anymore. But of course it’s not a priority to Lexington to clean it up. If you weren’t quite sure how the First Cup worked, and you wanted to practice somewhere no one was likely to interrupt you, it’s hard to think of a better place. Humans can’t even survive on the surface there. You’re not going to get caught because you accidentally disrupted somebody’s picnic.”
“So he’s, what,” said Jean, “doing some kind of testing?”
“That’s just one idea,” said Fred. “But it accounts for him being there. The Occupation left a lot of places in the system completely toxic to humans, not to mention the ones that were always that way. But the Red Moon is the one that was designed to be suitable for Gavidarians.”
“So it’s a natural refuge,” said Jean.
“And one with a lot of liquid that isn’t water,” said Hera. “I think Fred is right.”
“What’s this First Cup?” said Azurite. “Is that what Malachite stole from you?”
“We’ll tell you on the way,” said Hera.
Chapter 9 of Hera of Lexington is coming soon.
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