Kurt's magnum opus, a 4,000-word blog post covering: how he was persuaded to 'save' the Cube; what happened on The Night; an encounter with Caine; doctoring the puzzle cards; getting friends killed; and whether it was all worth it.
Can you keep a secret?
Three years and two months ago:
"You see a symbol in a puddle of beer, and you that makes you think someone's going to steal the Cube?" I said, incredulously.
"Stop twisting my words. It wasn't just the symbol, it was the way he acted," replied Violet.
I'd just moved into a new apartment earlier that day, flush with the success - and financial security - of having made it into the Academy Special Projects division. I needed to get some fresh air after moving all my boxes, and Violet needed a stretch from having to watch me and give sarcastic comments, so we went for a walk in Magine Park.
"Maybe it was the way he threw you out of his bar."
Violet shook her head in mock sadness. "If only, Kurt. I've been thrown out of more bars than you've ever set foot in. It's not something I take personally. But this was different. I really think they're planning something."
"So what? A barman's orchestrating the most daring heist of the century in his spare time? Do you have any idea how good the security is at the Academy Museum?"
We walked on for a little while, negotiating the long grasses by the lake. Violet had claimed she knew a shortcut to the observatory, but it seemed like we were going steadily off-course.
"Fine. I'll just look into it myself then," said Violet.
I sighed theatrically. "Okay, okay. Tell you what, I'll look into the Museum security, see if there are any potential holes or exploits. You can go and... I don't know, get thrown out of more bars." Violet smiled triumphantly, and to be honest, I was feeling eager about looking into the Museum security. Special Projects members have an exceptionally high level of access and freedom.
I met up with Violet the next weekend, at a party being held by the socialite wife of some Academy fellow. During a lull in the festivities, I grabbed her for an impromptu meeting on a balcony.
"So I looked into the security at the Academy Museum," I said.
"And?" prompted Violet.
"It's good. Very, very good. Plenty of failsafes and redundancies, plus it runs on its own electrical circuit, backed up by its own generators. It's a solid combination of cutting edge tech and reliable practices."
"But there's at least one way you could compromise the system. Maybe two. By compromise, I mean that you could get someone into the Museum undetected, get out again, and also wipe the logs. It's only theoretically possible though. I don't know whether you could do it in practice."
"So? No, wait, I'm not just going to stand here making single-word replies. Could you do it?"
I knew she was going to ask. I feigned deep and intense concentration, although I'd been mulling it over at length for the past week.
"Yes, I think so. The conditions would have to be perfect, though. Reduced security presence, distracted guards, monitoring systems at the max."
Violet nodded to herself. "Ball Night. On the 15th. That's when-"
I touched her on the shoulder. A couple walked past the balcony window, cocktail glasses in hand, laughing at some private joke. We looked around guiltily, and Violet continued.
"That's when they said they were going to do it. A party on the fifteenth."
I leaned forward against the railings, and stared out onto the city. I hadn't been having fun at the party, and this wasn't helping matters.
"We'd better tell the police then. Or the Academy. They can increase security, post extra guards," I said.
"No! No," said Violet sharply.
I turned to look at her in surprise. "Why not?"
"They wouldn't believe us. Remember what you said when I first told you about this? A symbol in a puddle of beer. They'd just think it was Sente's daughter looking for attention. As for my dad... I don't think he wants to listen." She looked in the direction of the spires of the Academy, their lights faintly visible in the west. "We'll have to do this one ourselves."
The lights and chandeliers inside the apartment were dazzlingly bright, ruining my night vision. Yet even silhouetted against the window, I could still see the sparkle in Violet's eyes.
Three years and one month ago:
The cobblestones of the Buttered Bridge hammered against my feet, encased in gleaming black formal shoes. I ruminated on the entirely obvious fact that full black tie dress just wasn't made for running. I could see the edge of the Great Lawn in the distance, surrounded by crowds of people coalescing from the ball attractions scattered across the campus. Two minutes to reach the lawn, and another two minutes to the control box. Five minutes until the start of the fireworks. Far, far too tight.
"Ah, Mr. McAllister," said a polite voice from the end of the bridge. It sounded like Sente. I slowed down.
"Master Kiteway, good to see you," I said, attempting to control my breath. It was Sente.
"Off to start the fireworks?"
"Uh, yes," I replied.
"I must say how grateful I am that you've agreed to run the fireworks again. They were truly spectacular at last year's ball." He checked his watch - a real, old-fashioned watch - and looked up. "Anyway, don't let me keep you, we wouldn't want our visitors to remain in suspense. Good evening."
"Good evening, Master Kiteway." He began walking off briskly down the bridge. Away from the fireworks. Strange. Still, I was just glad that he didn't probe into the reason why I was running there. Telling him, oh, I was just making sure that our security systems won't notice your daughter sitting in the gallery next to the Cube... that wouldn't have gone down well. Let's say that wasn't the first or last time I had doubts about the sanity of this project.
I made it to the fireworks hut at the north end of the lawn just in time. Last year, I spent the entire time monitoring the fireworks sequence from the hut, along with a student from Natural Sciences. This year, I had volunteered to do it on my own, since I'd coded up some new software that would automate much of the procedure. No-one questioned this, partly because I was known to be a good coder, and partly because no-one wanted to be stuck inside a hut away from the fireworks. So there was my convenient alibi.
(Incidentally, I think Violet's timings of events in the Sentinel are way out. I don't know whether she did it deliberately, but the times don't make any sense. Maybe she wanted to see if anyone would notice).
I pressed a button marked 'Begin' on a display there, and the fireworks started. While everyone's attention was drawn upwards, I snuck out of the hut and ran through the shadows back towards the bridge.
All buildings not directly involved the festivities are locked down during the ball; security didn't want to have to deal with drunken revellers stumbling into rooms and making a mess. Since I was a member of Special Projects, this didn't apply to me, so I had set up a temporary command centre (at least, that's how I liked to think of it) in a faculty building.
When I got back there, there were some unusual readings on the Academy networks. I was expecting a certain level of unusual activity due to my own intervention, but there was something else that wasn't me. As I looked more closely at the servers concerned, a blue flash lit up the wall beside from, coming from one of my fireworks, and then suddenly processes began sprouting on all systems. Someone was attempting a network superiority attack on the Academy - a complete takeover of the systems. Security systems began to fail in cascades. It was almost graceful.
"What's going on?" asked Violet, through my earpiece.
I ignored her, typing rapidly. The intruders were destroying the Academy's security system and simultaneously setting up their own, blocking my access to the security cameras and sensors in the museum. Everything was happening far too fast.
"I don't know. Something, there's some process running... It's going faster than I can keep up with."
I mentally scanned through my options, and landed on a final, unpleasant route - I started to join the intruders in knocking down the Academy's security. I was basically helping them unlock all the doors, shut down all the alarms and wipe all the logs - but it gave me the chance to put my own monitoring systems in place.
My camera feeds flashed back online. Heat, visual and vibration sensors all registered unauthorised visitors, but they were taking time to pinpoint their location.
"Someone's coming, Vi. Just like we thought, someone's coming and I don't know how to..."
I frantically tried to wrestle control of the blast doors that surround the Cube room away from another unseen hacker, and gave up after a few seconds. The security systems were in a mess, neither of us could be able to open or close them. At that moment, the museum sensors resolved the intruder's location.
"They're coming your way through the main entrance. Run. Run!" I shouted.
I watched impotently from the cameras as Violet raced along the long gallery into the Cube room, followed implacably by the black-clad intruders. There wasn't anything I could do now except watch.
"Kurt, are you sure they're coming? I can't see anything," whispered Violet.
"They're definitely coming," I said, seeing them turn a corner. Who were they? I willed Violet to hide somewhere, anywhere. If we couldn't stop them from taking the Cube, at least Violet could save herself. Instead, suicidally, she rose up and strode over to the Cube. Just as she was lowering her hands towards it, one of the intruders walked through the Cube room entrance and saw her, raising a weapon.
She touched the Cube, and vanished.
I scanned all the different sensor feeds from the museum. She really had vanished. The intruders ran into the room, weapons at the ready, searching all the areas and then the adjoining rooms. After a minute, they returned to the Cube room to inspect the plinth, arguing. Simultaneously, they cocked their heads to one side, as if listening to someone. A few seconds later, they began to walk out of the room, one of them shaking his head angrily.
I remained focused on the room. What had the Cube done? No-one knew what it was capable of. Maybe it had made her invisible or something. I willed Violet to suddenly reappear, safe with the Cube. But it didn't happen, and I realised that I had work to do. I did a complete restore of the security system, unhindered by anyone else; clearly the intruders' hacker had just abandoned their efforts. It was all automated, and I slumped back in my chair as a long list of files it was altering or wiping scrolled across my screen.
The fireworks finished, and a loud cheer went up. I tidied up the room, and went to rejoin the party, empty. There were old stories about the Cube. None of them ended well.
It's not unusual for people to skip work on the day following the ball. I stayed at home, shell-shocked. I just couldn't comprehend what had happened last night. Lamely, I tried calling her on her key, but it couldn't connect.
I curled up in my bed and thought back to what happened after I returned to the party. I'd stumbled towards the bar, aiming for a drink. Before I reached it, some irritatingly cheerful guy from Special Projects intercepted me and put his arm around my shoulders.
"How's it going, Kurt? Nice to have you on board in Special Projects, it was getting a bit stale," he shouted into my ear.
"Thanks," I muttered, trying to push through the crowds to the counter.
"You don't look so happy." He leaned back, frowning. "Hey, you know Sente's girl, she's supposed to be fun. Isn't she supposed to be around?"
I looked away from him, and asked for a beer. "Scarlett? She'll be around somewhere," I replied.
"Not Scarlett, I mean Violet. You know, the librarian?"
I flinched, and he started laughing. "Ah, so that's how it is! Don't worry, I won't go after her. Actually, let me give you some advice about women. See-" he began.
I shook his arm off. "Sorry, I've got a call on my key, got to go," I lied. His face reminded me of an employee roster I'd seen on the Academy directory though. "It's Tristan, right?"
"Caine. You can call me Caine." His smile tightened.
"See you around." I walked away, anywhere.
Later in the morning, I read about the break-in at the Academy from the Sentinel, and realised that I had no choices left but to call the authorities. It wouldn't be good for me, but it'd be the only way of finding out what happened to Violet.
I was on the second draft of a lengthy letter to Sente that evening when my key beeped.
"Kurt," said Violet.
I started laughing in disbelief. "Violet, what... what happened?"
And she told me.
Three years ago:
I tossed the book back from hand to hand while lying down on Violet's turquoise rug.
"I'd really prefer it that you didn't do that," said Violet.
I ignored her, and addressed the ceiling. "What would Varkin know about Wanions, and why would she write a book about it, eh?"
"Varkin is one of the Perplexian literature's most respected authors, and just because you skipped your literature classes in favour of playing with your key doesn't mean it's not important."
"Right. But it's still about a saucy butcher boy," I pointed out. Mid-flight, Violet snatched the book away from me.
"That's a first edition, and it's expensive. So is the rug," she snapped.
I sat up, feeling my aching back click. Violet's living room came into focus, and I could see the rain streaming down her windows. She was busying herself with reordering her bookcase yet again. "Fine, fine. But it's very orthopaedic. You're a librarian, do you know what that word means?"
"It means, shut the hell up Kurt, and tell me what my dad said."
"He's setting up a special team to find the Cube, within Special Projects. You know the Academy said that they'd pinpointed it to Earth a couple of weeks ago?" Violet rolled her eyes and nodded. "They've figured out a way to communicate with them."
"I don't know. Some wormhole thing, it's high energy physics. Bottom line is that they can send messages to Earth's networks." I reached over to grab my glass of wine, and saw my reflection in a mirror. I looked pretty tired. I felt a lot worse.
"So, he's going to tell Earth about Perplex City and the Cube? Give them the tech to locate it? Hmm..." Violet thought it through. "Wait, that's not so good."
"Well, he's not doing that. The Council has prohibited any kind of technology transfer, even if it would help to find the Cube. Earlywine said that Earth was screwed up enough without us giving them extra ways to blow each other up." I gulped down some of the wine.
"Bloody Earlywine," murmured Violet, studying two books.
"It's not clear that coming out and telling Earth would work, anyway. They probably would think it was just some bizarre hoax or game. So Sente's idea is to present Perplex City to them using puzzle cards, and offer a prize for finding the Cube. Two million lecks."
"It could be two billion lecks and it wouldn't help," said Violet. "They won't find it. It's in the middle of nowhere, and you just said that they can't send any technology to Earth."
"I know, it's bizarre. He doesn't normally do these long shots, but I guess it's the only thing that could work. Maybe he hopes that Earth will figure out how to build Cube finding tech on their own, or we can pinpoint it remotely."
Violet slotted a couple of books in, stepped back and looked at the shelves critically. After a few seconds, she sat down on a sofa, satisfied.
"Great. So my dad really has no plan," she sighed.
"That's right, and I have to help him." Violet stared at me. "I'm on the Cube Retrieval Team."
"The what? That's a ridiculous name. Here's an idea. If you're on Sente's team, you could contact someone on Earth, get them to dig up the Cube."
"Apart from the fact that all communication's monitored, who are we supposed to trust? And why would they do it, just because some random person emails them about some mystical Cube in a wood in England?" I leaned back, irritated. "But maybe-"
Violet was nodding, and continued excitedly. "The cards. We could slip information into them. That doesn't mean we'll be able to trust them, though, and even if we could, there's still the real thieves. Whoever those people were, they're good. We might be able to get past the Academy, but they could always be listening in."
"Yeah, they're good," I said, thinking back to the night of the ball.
Violet continued, on a roll. "So we make the clues hard. Really hard, so that you'd need hundreds, thousands of people working together to figure them out. Any one of them could find the Cube. Those are better odds than before."
"I don't know," I replied, rubbing my neck distractedly. "Who says we can trust them?"
"I think we can. And there's always my dad's project of introducing them to Perplex City. I'm sure the Cube Retrieval Team-" she guffawed at that point - "can sort that out."
I stared out of the window. It was such a desperate, reckless plan.
"We're going to have to play the long game," I said.
"I know. It's not going to be easy. But we can't trust anyone." She looked at me sadly.
One year and ten months ago:
I sighed, circling a wave three puzzle card on a tablet. My office at the Academy was full of prototype puzzle cards, bee keeping manuals, Earth star charts, cryptography textbooks and masses of reports left by other scribes. I'd already been in the office for two days straight.
The impossibly high expectations of the city - and the resulting media frenzy - had forced the seven members of the Cube Retrieval Team to withdraw into the confines of the Academy. Sente was unusually absent much of the time, away in committee meetings or research labs, which removed a lot of the control we had at the beginning. Two things could've happened next. Either we would gel into a tightly-knit team that worked together well, or we would implode quite spectacularly under the pressure.
Luckily it was the former that came to pass, largely thanks to the Academy psychologists who vet people for high-value roles like this, just like for your astronauts on Earth. The same psychologists regularly monitored our workload, making sure that we were pushed to our limit - but no further. It was a well-run, well-organised operation that seemed to be working fine.
What the psychologists didn't know was that one of their puzzle scribes had a considerable amount of extra-curricular work.
Violet and I had concluded a few months ago that we needed another way of communicating more directly with Earth. Through some monumental feat of persuasion, Violet had convinced Sente to allow her to set up a weblog viewable from Earth. That was the easy part. The hard part was screening it from Perplex City; it'd be no good talking about our investigations into the 'real' thieves after the Cube if anyone could look at it. This meant setting up an additional firewall on the Earth/Perplex City datalink - and keeping it invisible.
It was difficult. But it was perfect, as far as I could tell. And as soon as it had negotiated the protocols with the Centre for Reality Research - which was now an open box to me, after my infiltration - it would all be done.
We had other plans beyond a weblog for Violet and myself; we intended to set up another website, the Library of Babel. It could be another year before this happened, but we knew we had to take our time.
Twenty cards later, and my key beeped. The firewall was set up.
Seven months ago:
Anna's memorial service was one of the most painful experiences of my life: seeing her husband breaking down during his speech, asking why she had been taken from him. Why had this happened? Her children didn't understand either.
Violet was sitting with Caine for most of the ceremony. He seemed to take it badly. Of all the CRT, he'd been the closest to her and I thought, although he wouldn't say it, that he blamed himself for her death, for not getting to her fast enough.
Afterwards, Caine went over to talk to Fleming and the kids, and I went home. Later on, Violet asked me to come over for a walk in the park. It was a warm, gorgeous summer's day, with couples lying in the grass, talking softly. The world seemed to be saying, look, life goes on. But so does guilt.
"Do you feel guilty?" I said suddenly.
Violet didn't say anything. I turned and saw a tear running down her cheek. We stopped, and I hugged her. It seems like the sort of thing you should do in these situations.
After a while, I said, "I don't feel guilty about Miranda. I never have." This was a lie. "But," I continued, "we can't lose any more people. Not a single one."
"Not a single one," repeated Violet.
"This secret is killing people. Maybe more people would die if we told what really happened, where the Cube is, but we don't have the right to make that decision." I squinted at the sun unhappily. "She just died, and no-one even knows why."
Violet had always been the one who had insisted we keep the secret, no matter the cost. Even when Cymbalisty and Miranda died, she was adamant. But now, it seemed to be too much.
"Is that a deal?" he said. "Whatever happens, we won't waste a single other person?"
We shook on it.
And half a year later, we came close to the wire. Scarlett kidnapped and her father in prison, Violet out of her mind with worry with the secret, and my firewall potentially breached. But we knew we couldn't tell anyone. Publishing the location on my website would have alerted the Third Power immediately; we know that for sure, given the depth and skill of their penetration. None of us saw Caine or Miranda coming. What's to say that all the people reading this are trustworthy? Nothing.
But enough of you are, and that's what counts. You've saved my life enough times, and you deserve better than a lie - yet we had no other choice. You'll know Violet and I have already paid a heavy cost for what we've done, and even with a shiny medal and the Cube returned, I don't know whether it was worth all the deaths. I hope it was.
As for myself, I've been reinstated back at the Academy, in Special Projects. Not everyone agrees with this, but Sente insisted. I haven't spoken to him properly; he seems to be avoiding me, but I could be imagining that.
I'd like to say things are back to normal, but they aren't. There are only five people left in the Cube Retrieval Team, which is soon to be disbanded after all our reports are written.
Can you keep a secret that has killed your friends? A secret that could kill millions more?