XLI. What's Past is PretextPrevious Next
The door to Sarah's office opened.
"Hey," she said, looking up. "Whoa, uh. It's good to see you."
She got up and they hugged awkwardly.
She pulled away and she took a good look at him. "I wasn't sure there, if--"
"No, you were fine. It was fine." Dave shook his head. "I just needed to let it run its course, I guess."
Sarah nodded, and looked him up and down. "You look like you've lost ten pounds."
He chuckled. "Heh, only 'till I get my hands back on a camera."
She nodded. "You're sure we're cool?"
His smile faded. "You're fine. I'm sorry I stopped answering the calls and texts." He shook his head. "That first week there, I just kinda... I got in this place where I just had to keep watching the footage we had. Anything that showed it, especially right before the end. Was like scratching a really really bad itch or... taking your hand off a hot stove. It just kinda dominated everything, you know?"
Sarah just nodded.
"Then a week ago I got a really bad fever, and I guess it just broke. I kept watching the footage but it was doing less and less for me. Spent a couple nights not sleeping, then it stopped doing anything for me at all. It was rough at first, but uh, I think I'm actually back to... something workable. I can point a camera and I'm not going to run off to chase the first emergency vehicle I see with flashing lights."
Sarah nodded and cracked her fingers. "Well, I think I might have something for you to point your camera at soon. Adam and Jason will be here shortly. You want coffee?"
"I'll get it, boss lady," he said, giving her a mock salute.
"This is why you're my favorite, Dave," she said.
"Ahem," Adam said from the door. "I'll have you know Jason and I are late because we brought donuts."
"See, this is why you and Jason are my other favorites."
Jason rolled his eyes and wedged himself into a chair. "So what is it this time? Hang-gliding into a volcano? Underwater footage of piranhas? Going undercover with the mob?"
"Piranhas actually don't attack people."
"I'm so glad you're back, Dave."
"Right," Sarah said. "You three, donuts in faces and I'll tell you what I've got."
"Aye, aye, cap'm," Jason said, stuffing a glazed donut grotesquely into his maw.
"So, I got this anonymous tip by email. Somebody cross-referenced a lot of Nocter Pharmaceutical's records. There's a lot of pretty obvious corruption going on. There's defense contractors that are owned by Nocter-controlled shell companies. Those defense contractors get contracts from the United States government."
"So the President gets to buy weapons or contract mercenaries with taxpayer dollars? From himself? At a profit?"
Sarah slid printouts over. "Yes, and that's bad enough on its own, but it gets much weirder very fast. My informant has access to a facial recognition ID database, it seems."
She pointed to a list of names. "Those are the identities of the President's new Air Force chaplains. And in the right-hand column, you can see..."
"They all worked for one of these companies," Adam said, leaning closer. "Every one a Nocter subsidiary."
Sarah's mouth was set and her eyes were alight. "They all worked for the President before enlisting."
"Looks like they all go to the same church, too," Dave said, flipping to another page. "This whole thing was already skeevy from a separation of church and state angle, but..."
"Yeah," Sarah said. "And this weird sect they all belong to? It split off about four years ago. Give ya three guesses who owned the company the founder used to work at."
Dave spoke up. "So where's the story, here? We're not C-SPAN. Peters is super corrupt, and his new priests are creepy, but everybody already knew that."
"Well, for one, there's a weird amount of biochemistry PhD's in Peters' new militia-cult. For another thing, that sword he used? It was a prop."
The three men looked at her.
"I mean, duh?" Jason spoke with his mouth full of donut. "Like... it's not like it was a real magic sword."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Okay, but I know who made it. And who bought them out."
There was a beat of silence, then Jason spoke up. "Okay, so he not only had the Air Force design a super secret weapon that he's going to use to start a new imperial age, but he's actually in charge of his own new religious sect, owns the companies that make whatever the weapon really is, as well as the company that manages the new weapon's visual representation?"
Sarah made a gesture of agreement. "Basically, yep."
Jason looked pensive. "Can we maybe go back to getting footage of sea monsters or something?"
"Seriously, though, where do we even start?" Adam shook his head. "I know you wanna do big, impactful work, Sarah, but this? We don't have Washington connections."
Sarah gave him a predatory grin. "Ah, but this president isn't about Washington connections. He's all about corporate connections."
"Why does that give me a terrible feeling?" Jason frowned.
Sarah flipped to the last printed page. "Have you ever heard of something called "social engineering"?"
Dave and Jason nodded. Adam looked back and forth between the two. "What, is that some kind of like, planned economy thing?"
Jason scoffed. "Did you even do the required security training they make us click through every three months?" He frowned. "Made us click through," he quietly corrected himself.
"Of course I did. I clicked right through it. What's social engineering?"
"It's like this," Sarah said. "Nocter's defense subsidiaries are gearing up for something big. It started right after the election, not before. So either it's not whatever the "Godblade" weapon was, or they're scaling it up, or something."
"Sounds really secure and hard to get information about," Adam said.
"Right. And it would be. Except," Sarah pointed. "The fact that they're amping their operations up so hard, making all these purchases right now? Especially through all these shadowy back channels? It means they've exposed enormous amounts of attack surface."
Adam blinked. "Attack surface."
Jason jumped in. "Every time somebody picks up the phone, every time somebody gets an email, every time somebody picks up a flash drive off the ground in the parking lot, that's an opportunity for an attacker to find a way in," he said. "If you can sound convincing, you can walk right into lots of supposedly secure areas. Server rooms, network points of presence, secure records facilities-- they get into a routine, and if an attacker can work out part of that routine, they can exploit it."
Sarah nodded in agreement. "They've gone out of their way to make it more difficult to audit everything. That's where we slip in."
Jason swung on Sarah. "We're not going to attempt that against the military-industrial-cultist complex, are we? Please? As a personal favor."
She grinned. "Not the military or the cultist parts, no. But Nocter's making lots of acquisitions fast across a broad variety of companies, and I think we can get into the ones I'm curious about."
She spun her chair and typed at her laptop for a few seconds before swinging back and turning the screen to the other journalists.
"All right, you've lost me again," Adam said. "What does Positron Mobile have to do with anything?"
Sarah pointed to a paragraph further down in the somewhat dry financial reporting. "They're installing new next-gen antennas across the country."
"And they've subcontracted a new company to perform the installations, and yes, it's another one from the list."
Dave shivered. "So they might be putting Godblade technology..."
"Everywhere," Sarah said.
"Tell me again how you talked me into this," Jason murmured into his collar.
"You'll be fine," Sarah crackled in his ear. "Easy part time job. Little extra money on the side. No big deal."
"You say that like you're the one planning on breaking an NDA," he said without moving his lips. He looked around the room.
It was a dingy back room of an office, and the hallway had been made into a waiting room of sorts. Jason and three other new employees sat or stood.
Jason pretended to read the faded bits of paper that clung to an ancient corkboard in one corner.
"All right, everybody who's here for the three o'clock, we'll be starting in five minutes," came a gravelly voice.
"Here we go," Jason breathed, and glanced around. Two of the three real applicants looked normal enough to him. The other one was wearing a t-shirt with a stylized sword on it. The guy had a tattoo of the sword design, too.
Jason filed into a room with a projector screen setup, a couple of tables, and not much else. The bored-looking supervisor scratched his face, took some names as well as Jason's fake name, and started playing a presentation.
"Not doing any more of those," Jason said, ripping his earpiece out and tossing it carelessly into the back seat. "I never want to have to fill out another form again."
"Well, did you get it?" Sarah looked at him intently.
"I got snaps of the address they get the antenna devices from," he said. "You were right, looks like they ship them from the nuclear plant."
"Wait," Dave said. "Are you telling me this sucker's nuclear?"
"No, no, no, this sucker's electrical," Jason said. "They made it abundantly clear that the grunts aren't supposed to be touching anything that'll require an electrician, but these things aren't set up to draw much power. They're black boxes, totally sealed up from the factory, but they're doing something with them at the power plant first."
"What else could they be doing with them? They have to be charging them," Sarah said. "If those things are related to the Godblade, they must use huge amounts of power."
"If they have batteries in them, can they hold a charge all that long?" Adam shook his head.
"Maybe they have new battery technology," Jason said.
"I guess if they have one new technology out of nowhere, there could be others," Adam said skeptically.
"Or," Sarah said, "They could be planning to use it very soon."
They all went silent at that.
"Gah," Danielle said. "You didn't say there would be homework."
She glared out at a space filled with massive, multicolored interacting fields.
IT IS NECESSARY TO HAVE A GROUNDING IN MY PEOPLE'S CULTURE TO COMPREHEND THE TRAITOR'S MESSAGE.
So far as she could tell, this was particle physics. On the one hand, it was much prettier than she remembered ever imagining particles to be.
On the other hand, the little she remembered about physics from high school was not serving her well here.
"So your people's entire culture is homework."
WE TEND TO PREFER IT TO GROUP PROJECTS.
Danielle laughed, then groaned. "It is so not fair that you are picking up humor faster than I'm picking up Librarian culture." She sighed. "Can't you just download this into my brain? Make it so I can remember this stuff without having to learn it?"
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW?
Danielle's eyes crossed at that thought. "Wait. Are you messing with me? I have absolutely no way to tell if you're messing with me."
I AM CONFIDENT OUR SHARED UNDERSTANDING WILL GROW. BUT FIRST. CONSIDER THE HYDROGEN ATOM.
"I'm considering it."
SEE THE VALENCE SHELL?
She reached out and her hand passed through a buzzing multicolored cloud.
YES. A SINGLE ELECTRON OCCUPIES THIS PROBABILITY FIELD.
Danielle frowned. "But I thought electrons were like particles that orbit protons like planets orbit stars."
ANALOGIES CAN BE DRAWN, BUT SUCH ABSTRACTIONS CAN LEAK. THE PROPERTIES OF MATTER AND ENERGY CAN BE VASTLY DIFFERENT AT VARIOUS SCALES, AND YOUR PEOPLE GENERALLY INTERACT WITHIN NARROW SCALES OF TIME AND SPACE.
"Hey! That's not quite true. We've built big stuff and little stuff! Transistors and the Empire State Building and stuff!"
The octopoid creature sent a flicker of amusement her way and the memory of the ring around the black hole rose in her memory, as well as some of the alien's memories of manipulating individual proteins and nucleotides.
"...Okay, fine. Not that big or small."
YOUR PEOPLE HAVE EXPLORED SOME THINGS MORE DEEPLY THAN MINE. SCALE IS NOT ONE OF THEM.
"Oh, yeah? I bet there's more stuff we're good at you haven't thought of yet. I'll tell you when I figure one out."
I LOOK FORWARD TO DISCUSSION OF SUCH THINGS, IF WE SURVIVE.
Danielle set her jaw. "Right. Okay. Tell me about the stupid hydrogen."