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The Path of Least Time

Three Years

Monday, February 19 2007, 05:06 PM

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?"

"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."

"What? How?"

"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.

Now:

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?

I can.

The Sum of Good Intentions

Thursday, February 8 2007, 12:02 PM

I wonder what the Third Power thought of me. I can imagine Roberto Solitano, or whoever the leader of the Third Power was, smirking as he read a report of how the Academy's star scientist had been completely fooled by two agents in succession. When he walked past me in the corridors of the Academy, what did he see? Someone who didn't have the wit to look for the long solution, only the answers in front of his nose? Someone laughable?

The truth is, he probably didn't even see me. I was just another source of information, someone to keep track of in case the Academy got too close to the Third Power. Caine was spying on the whole Cube Retrieval Team, not just me, and it would've been Sente's portal that'd be the focus of his investigations. Violet and me... well, we were extra-curricular entertainment. Maybe he started getting concerned when we were at Lancewood, and obviously he would've been very careful when Scarlett was kidnapped, but I doubt we were ever taken seriously.

I visited Scarlett in hospital yesterday. I almost didn't want to... I don't like seeing her in this state. Physically, she's recovering very well. And in some ways, her mind, her character, it's still the same. It's her world that's changed. It used to be that people were basically good, that she could trust her family and friends. That safety was something you assumed as a right.

I don't know whether she'll ever feel safe again. People she doesn't know have tortured her for information she doesn't have. Her father was keeping dark secrets from her, for reasons that impacted millions. Her friend was a killer. And every time she tries to catch a breath, the world changes again.

Everyone has to grow up eventually. But it shouldn't be like this.

They say that men are always more aggressive than women, and there's only one time where that's not true. That's when a woman's children are being threatened. I've seen Violet being angry before, but I've never seen it so terrible or so focused as I did after we discovered that Caine was in the Third Power. I think Violet sees herself as being responsible for Scarlett, in place of their mother. And I think she believes she's failed.

I wasn't angry when I discovered the truth about Caine. I just thought, there's one more person who sees others as just counters on a board, points on a score. Everything he did was a lie, and he's dead to me now. Caine and Miranda, and all of the Third Power, were dazzlingly brilliant people who believed they were justified in doing anything in the service of their own goals. Anything.

I look at the Academy and the city, and I can see that the most conspicuous signs of our power and progress are the ones that are most easily destroyed. It's happened before, with the war.

And yet this city - this civilisation - has recovered. It took almost three hundred years, but we recovered and we rebuilt. We didn't have any saints, we just had millions of people with their own good intentions. People trying to make things a tiny bit better. It doesn't matter whether you succeed or fail. It matters that you tried, because otherwise, no-one else will.

We picked ourselves up, and we kept on going. That's what we always have to do.

The Cost

Thursday, February 1 2007, 11:42 AM

All members of the Third Power captured or killed. Scarlett rescued. Helena Frye seriously injured, along with three other team members. Two police killed.

That's the result of Operation Bayonet. A stunning victory - the end of the Third Power in Perplex City, and the end of the fear and murders and death that's been stalking us since the Cube was stolen. At least, that's what the police say. I even believe it, at least for now. The Third Power might have evaded us in the past, but this wasn't a trick or a diversion - this was their real base of operations, which they'd set up following the evacuation of the underground complex containing their portal.

They've lasted for hundreds of years. I wouldn't count them out for the long game. For now, we can breathe easy, if only for a while. I think we all need to. The attack in Ascendancy Point fried my nerves, and even though I was only a spectator to the firefight, it was enough to disillusion me about any action movie. Violet and Scarlet... they'll need some time to recover. I doubt Scarlett will ever be the same person again. She's been through too much. I just hope that she finds some way to move on and forgive.

Caine impressed me yesterday. I admit that I was furious when we spotted him by Ascendancy Point before the operation - we didn't need any distractions and to avoid him making a scene with Violet, we had to bring him along. Of course, we confiscated his key - no-one was carrying unsecured keys during the operation, otherwise it would've been trivial for the Third Power to track us.

Caine didn't know everything that was going on last night, but he understood that it was important. So while he was a serious pain in the ass while we were going through those puzzle locks on the way to the lifts, he more than made up for it by picking a fight with those guards and allowing us to get through. He could've been seriously hurt - not just in that fight, but afterwards, when he was picked up by the Third Power. I hope he'll be able to help Scarlett - she seems to trust him. At least they're both alive.

Patrick Harrison was killed during the firefight. I'd been getting to know him. He was a good guy, very smart. Harrison had barely completed basic training in firearms, but he went in with the rest of them.

There's always a cost to the victors in a battle. I hope we've paid it now.

All in

Tuesday, January 30 2007, 06:16 PM

We're heading to Ascendancy Point now. We're as ready as we can be. Everyone is quiet and focused - the jokes and bravado ended when we started checking the weapons. There's nothing else to do now except perform the operation.

There aren't any higher stakes than this. See you on the PCI within an hour.

Rolling the Hard Six

Monday, January 29 2007, 05:25 PM

Here's the plan. Tomorrow, we're going to break into Ascendancy Point from the underground and then launch a network superiority attack; with all the bugs we've planted in the building, we'll just be able to flip a switch and take over complete control of the network. The Third Power won't notice a thing - everything in the building will appear to be normal according to their information, but in reality we'll be doctoring everything they receive. We'll make our way up to Level 110, patch into the building's sensors so we can see exactly where each person is standing, blast through the doors and stun them. Until the moment that we start shooting, they won't have any warning that we're coming. Simple.

Except...

We've had a setback. One of Harrison's team got caught by internal security while posing as a decorator in Ascendancy Point this morning, planting some network devices. She got detained, building security did a sweep of the entire area and removed all the bugs we've placed. Luckily, she remembered her cover story and pretended that she was 'merely' conducting corporate espionage, so I don't think news of this will have reached the Third Power - but it does mean that our perfectly good first plan is dead in the water.

This being a police operation, there are all sorts of contingencies. The problem is that none of them are pleasant to consider. I've seen plans that call for 'aerial insertion via jumpjet (35% chance of failure)', 'localised EMP shock (40% chance of failure)' and something profoundly scary called 'intelligent microexplosives (70% chance of failure)'. Thankfully we decided to keep it simple and stick with the reliable method of getting our team up to L110 the long way round. There's a twist though.

The bottom line is that even without network superiority, we still need some kind of network access. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, we don't want to get seen by the Third Power. We aren't going to be walking around in public spaces with full combat gear if we can help it, but there really are cameras and sensors all over the building, and we can't get up to L110 and avoid them all. We need some way of blinding the sensors in specific areas.

Secondly, assuming we don't get spotted, we still need to get up to L110. There are dozens of lifts in Ascendancy Point, and they work according to a complex system, with intelligent routing across multiple stops. We don't want to be bumping into all sorts of different people on our way up, so we're going to have to commandeer a lift. Unfortunately this also requires network access. Cue a meeting.

"How are we supposed to get network access then?" asked Helena.

"Well, there's one way that'll always work: gaining physical access to the hardware it runs on. Then you can bypass the firewalls and all that other stuff. It won't be full access, but it'll be better than nothing," I suggested.

Fitch nodded. "Makes sense to me. It's a bit risky..." he trailed off. "They have a patrol and iris scanner around the network service rooms. Nothing too tough. I'm pretty sure I could get one person in."

"Okay. We'll need a hacker who's very fast, very experienced and has good physical fitness," said Helena.

I looked at Harrison, who definitely didn't fit the 'good physical fitness' criteria. Everyone else looked at me.

Fitch clapped a hand to my shoulder. "And I bet you were worrying you wouldn't see any action tomorrow!" he beamed.

Looks like I'll definitely be needing your help tomorrow... there are more details about the operation on the police intranet. It'd be a good idea to read up on them.

1111

Friday, January 26 2007, 11:49 AM

A cocktail of adrenaline and fear meant that I didn't sleep long yesterday. Lying awake in one of the cots that Helena's group had set up in a nearby room, I felt as if I was in the centre of the world, events whirling around me that would change the lives of millions of people I don't know, and one person that I do. I wondered whether I should have done anything differently.

Eventually, I closed my eyes, and exhaustion stopped me from opening them again.

A few hours later, I woke up. A shiver of disorientation ran through me, and for a second I didn't know where I was. I thought - Babel - Academy Ball - Scarlett - Helena - Police - and regained my bearings. My key was blinking with new messages, but I ignored it. The world could wait for five minutes. I got up and pulled on a T-shirt and trousers in the dark, and then walked out. It was some time late at night, so the lights were all dimmed, but I could still hear the sounds of quiet talking from down the corridor in the ops room. Perhaps half the people were still sitting at their desks, or clustered around wall displays, pointing at building plans and drawing graphics. I headed another way.

The kitchen here has all the staples of people who work in high-pressure, time-sensitive environments, with boxes of energy bars, soft drinks, milk shakes and microwave meals stacked on the floor and left open on the counter top. I grabbed a microwave meal - something with chicken in it - and tossed it inside one of the ovens, where it began to cook automatically. A glass of water and a couple of pills from the Cognivia dispenser were next. I quickly thought about what work I'd be doing in the next 12 hours. Probably nothing too analytical. I opted for a Ceretin and Synergy, and sat down at a table. Someone had left an old copy of the Sentinel on a reader. It was something about snowball fights. I realised that I hadn't been outside for the last four days.

I pushed the reader away and stared blankly at the opposite wall, waiting for my breakfast - or dinner - to cook. Someone opened the door cautiously, and Violet's head poked around it. She smiled, and sat down beside me. I nodded, not sure what to say.

"What did you take?" she asked, looking at my half-empty glass of water.

I cleared my throat. "Guess."

"Ceretin. And Cardinal."

"One out of two," I said. "I had Cardinal yesterday, needed it to do the search through the radio space. It was Synergy. I think I'll need to be a bit more creative today."

"What for?"

"I don't know. That's the point."

The microwave beeped, and I stood up to fetch a plate and cutlery. Violet kept on talking.

"You don't need to take those pills, you know," she said.

"I'm fine," I said, with my back to her.

"You didn't need them at the Academy."

"I'll be fine," I repeated, pouring the contents of the meal onto the plate. Chicken casserole with rice. It smelled good enough. I brought it to the table and stared at Violet silently while it steamed. She studied me back, inscrutably.

"What we're doing is important. We need every advantage we can get," I said finally. When she didn't reply, I began to eat. Violet pulled over the Sentinel and read it for a minute.

"I spoke to Helena... she's going to let me take part in the assault on Ascendancy Point. I need to be doing something, Kurt."

I nodded, not looking at her.

"I'm worried about you," I heard her say.

"I know. We just need to get through this."

She looked as if she was going to say something else, then it seemed like she'd decided that she would leave it for another time, and left without a word. I finished up my meal, cleaned up and went to fetch my key. Peter Townsley had emailed while I was asleep with the results of the triangulation; this was later followed up by Lysithea, who confirmed his calculations. Both Peter and Lysithea used similar, reasonably straightforward set of calculations involving pythagoras, the cosine rule and polar co-ordinates; oddly, I received a number of emails from others that approximated the height, but were off by 50 meters or more. Still, I appreciate the help from everyone.

I jogged down the corridor to the ops room, with my key in hand and the result in my head, stopping just before the threshold of the ops room to see who was inside. This place, it's a charged place, full of dangerous energy and potential. We're standing in the middle of history, and we all know it. I took a step forward inside, and felt the effect of the Ceretin beginning to settle, like a chill on my temples.

A lot of people believe Ceretin can make you smarter. It doesn't. It just makes you as smart as you are at your best. Have you ever walked outside on a sunny, crisp day, feeling alive and alert, with your mind as sharp and fast as it could be? Or been in a state of flow, when you're completely absorbed in your work and you're smoothly and methodically breaking down all the problems in your way, where everything just makes sense? That's what it feels like.

I stepped forward again. "We have their location," I announced to the room. "The transmissions are coming from 1111 meters up Ascendancy Point. Floor 110." A few people clapped, and I saw Harrison enter the data into his system. The wall display showing the time of assault frosted over, as it began to incorporate the new factors.

As I watched it, I was startled by a faint singing coming from the green schematics of the skyscraper on a nearby wall display. I turned to face it, and overheard a conversation from Fitch's team that felt like hard, smooth pebbles. The key I was holding tasted like apples; as I turned it over in my hands, I could sense the tartness. The Synergy pill was working, crossing my senses and making new inferences and logical leaps easier. It always starts this way, suddenly carrying you away, like a rip tide.

The singing changed pitch. I looked away from my hands and saw that the wall display had cleared. The time of assault was Tuesday 30th January, 7pm GMT.

Over the last two years, you've helped me every time I've asked, and you've gone beyond what could be expected from anyone. I couldn't have hoped for better allies, or for better friends. On Tuesday, we need to attack the Third Power in Ascendancy Point, stop them from finding the Cube, and save Scarlett. It's a risky, dangerous plan, but the prize is great, and the alternative is unthinkable.

We need your help, one last time. It is up to us to end this story.

Struggle

Thursday, January 25 2007, 04:47 PM

It's been a struggle at every step. We've had servers overheating, bugs in our hastily-written code causing crashes, we even had to send someone up to wipe snow off the antennas - but we managed to find the Third Power's radio messages about five minutes ago.

I've been staving off sleep with caffeine and Ceretin for the past couple of days, but they're beginning to wear off. Triangulating where the Third Power are broadcasting from shouldn't be too difficult with the information we have now, but I'm worried about making a mistake, so I'm going to leave this one up to you. We need this information.

One of these days I'm going to have to write a paper about the new search algorithm we came up with - surely enough to get me back into the Academy again...

The Tallest Tower

Tuesday, January 23 2007, 12:39 PM

6:10 PM Monday:

"Hey, everyone!" I hurried to the middle of the large room that serves as Helena's centre of operations, and waited until I had people's attention. The various analysts and detectives looked up warily but hopefully. "I've just received an email from Ben Forbes, one of my contacts on Earth. They've figured out the destination of the Third Power's messages!"

A ragged cheer broke out - everyone was working flat out, and it was good to see some progress. I tried to make myself heard over the noise. "It all checks out. This is where the server is!"

I pointed the nearest wall display and called up an image from my key. The tallest building in Perplex City, Ascendancy Point, loomed over us all. Some of her team visibly recoiled, and the cheering abruptly stopped. I looked around in confusion as Helena smoothly took over.

"Listen up! We all know it's a tough target. 50,000 occupants at any one time, 170 triple-height floors, millions of square meters of floor space. The good news is they've got an Eclipse Security system there, which means cameras and embedded sensors covering every inch of the place. If anyone so much thinks of hurting a fly in that building, we can see them." People nodded along and began pulling up building schematics and access protocols.

"The bad news - the really bad news - is that we have to assume the entire system has been compromised by the Third Power, so if you're trying to access Eclipse Security, you can stop right now. All the sensor feeds will be untrustworthy, and you can bet that they'll be watching for any unusual logins to the system." Everyone in the room was giving Helena their full attention now. She had the same presence as the best Academicians I'd ever seen.

"The Third Power have beaten us at every turn. Chances are, they've infiltrated the Council and the police. They have every right to be confident of success." She paused to let that sink in, to hurt people's pride. "But their confidence is their weakness. We know where they're working from, and though they have control over Ascendancy Point, we have the advantage of surprise."

"What's the plan?" asked Harrison, a SigInt guy. "Network superiority operation? We put in our own sensors, then take over theirs."

Some heavy-set guy who looked like he was from the military shook his head doubtfully. "That sort of thing only works in simulations. We're up against people with some of the best military-level hardware, and they know how to use it."

"So do we," said Helena, glancing at me. "We have the Academy's expert in crypto and networking on our side, and he's already tracked them down. Fitch," she said, looking at the military guy, "your team has more combat experience than anyone else in the police. You'll work on the attack plans. Harrison, Lang, your teams will work out how to get into the building and create our own independent sensor network, and how to overwhelm theirs when the time comes. I want an estimate from all of you of when we can move in, in two hours. It's time to win."

Helena walked away as the teams clustered together and began buzzing with their new tasks. I followed her into her office, and closed the door. For a detective, it was pretty good size, although I supposed she wasn't part of the normal hierarchy. In any case, the office hardly seemed to matter to her - she spent most of her time out in the ops room anyway, so she'd left her desk and furniture huddled in one corner. Maybe it was just were the movers had left them when she'd taken the office. I turned to face her.

"Helena, I might be the Academy's expert, but I can't do magic, and neither can your guys. Ascendancy Point is practically an entire city. The Third Power could be anywhere, and we don't have enough time to spread our own sensors and cameras around the place."

She went behind her desk and collapsed in her chair. "I know, I know. But we don't have any other options. We'll just have to get lucky or think of something else." She looked outside into the ops room, frustrated.

"Look, I have an idea." This had been bugging me during Helena's speech. Ascendancy Point seemed like an odd location to base your operations; it was big enough to hide in, but it was very high profile. It did have one unique feature though... "We might be able to narrow things down. We know that they're only using the Relaynet for receiving messages from Earth. We don't know how they're sending messages to Earth," I said.

"So?" she replied irritably.

"So they have to be sending them somehow, back to the CRR. They won't be using the normal data networks - they know we can monitor them and do traffic analysis - that's why they used Relaynet. No, they'll be using another custom method, something suited to their location again. Ascendancy Point's over a mile high, a transmitter there could reach anywhere in the city. I think we can pinpoint their floor by figuring how where they're transmitting to."

Helena stared at me for a few long seconds. I held her gaze.

"You think this will work? I don't have many resources to spare," she asked.

"It'll work."

Helena nodded in satisfaction. "Then maybe you can do magic after all."

That was last night. Since then, we've requisitioned four extremely sensitive prototype radio antennas from the Academy and mounted them on top of tall buildings near Ascendancy Point; four will be enough to triangulate the location of the transmitter. That's the easy part.

The hard part comes earlier, and requires us to successfully search through the clamour of other radio signals and noise that bathes Perplex City to find the Third Power's messages. We've been tweaking the software radio associated with antennas and have commandeered a significant percentage of the entire computing power available in the city to match and discard all identifiable signals, but it's still hard to tell how long the search will take. It might be three hours, it might be three days. We'll see.

The work and the challenge keeps my mind occupied, away from Scarlett and what might be happening to her. The Third Power are a very smart, pragmatic organisation. I just hope that Scarlett is worth more to them alive and healthy than otherwise...

Violet doesn't have my advantage, and she just seems to lurk in the background here at the police HQ. I don't know what's going through her mind. The only good news is that Helena's teams have settled on the evening of Tuesday 30th as the time for the assault on Ascendancy Point; they think they'll need a week to set up their sensors and draw up their plans. You can keep track of what we're up to in the usual place on the Operation Bayonet page on the police intranet.

I want to thank all of you who emailed in with information about the Ascendancy Point location. Ben Forbes might have been the first, but the working supplied by others was invaluable, including Danielle Lockwood, Chris Warren, Xena, Glen Watts, Kristina Lopez, Neal Kelly, Aaron, Nathan Beardmore, Hugh O'Byrne, Peter Townsley, James Boyd and a whole host of others who helped them.

I'll let you know as soon as I have more information about the Third Power's transmissions. Chances are that we'll need your help again soon, and definitely on Tuesday 30th.

Relay Race

Monday, January 22 2007, 04:35 PM

Violet isn't one to get stressed out easily. It's one of the reasons why she's a good poker player - she manages to keep composed and rational even under pressure. Even when she and Scarlett were on Lancewood, at apparent risk of being killed, she managed to stay in control.

In control. The problem now is that she isn't in control. Scarlett's been kidnapped and there's absolutely nothing she can do about it. She's been reduced to hanging around my apartment all weekend, waiting for Helena Frye to call. At one point on Sunday I had to talk her out of marching down to the police headquarters to find her.

At noon, I got the call from Helena. Violet was curled asleep up on my couch - she hasn't been sleeping well at all - so I took my key into the kitchen and quietly closed the door.

"So?" I leaned against the kitchen door, stretching my back, waiting for her answer.

"Everything checked out. We found the messages on the Babel site, and I've decided we'll investigate it further."

"Great! What's the next move? Have you had any luck checking out the CRR?"

"Not so much at the CRR. The place is locked up tight, and if we went in there, there's a good chance that they'd notice. But we had a tip-off on Friday about the Third Power using a system called Relaynet. Have you-"

I jerked my head up in annoyance. "Wait, you knew about this on Friday? Why didn't you tell me? I could've been checking it out this weekend instead of sitting around and wasting time!"

"Look, shut up, Kurt. You're not the only one who has something at stake here. My team has been going after the Third Power for years and we aren't going to jeopardise a lead by you setting off alarm bells everywhere. We have to do this operation carefully, and that meant checking out all the information, including you."

"It wasn't just a lead, it was my lead." I held the key closer and whispered furiously, "And I don't just have 'something' at stake, I have a friend who's been kidnapped and interrogated. My girlfriend was one of them, and she tried to kill me. The Third Power aren't just another star on your shoulder, they're murderers. So don't tell me to shut up and wait around while they kill someone else!"

Helena went quiet for a while, and I wondered whether I'd blown it. She was probably deciding whether it was a mistake involving me at all.

"You mentioned Relaynet." I forced myself to calm down and think. "No-one uses Relaynet any more - it was abandoned decades ago. Low data rates, plenty of lag, plus it needed signal boosters. They switched over to copper bundles pretty quickly, then fiber. But..."

I saw the answer in a rush of insight, revealing connections between facts and ideas that I'd learned long ago. "It was a military project. A military prototype, an experiment to see if they could make a hardened communications network that could withstand attack and multiple failures. So, it definitely would've been buried underground. Around the same time that the subway started up. It probably even used some of the same tunnels!"

"Go on," Helena prompted.

"So you think the Third Power are using it, but you're having problems tapping into it," I guessed. But that didn't make any sense - it was so low tech that it should've been easy to listen in. It had to be something else. "No, you can tap into it, but everything's encrypted. Okay, scratch that - that's not the issue. You can't tell where the messages are going. Hah! I remember, my tutors said Relaynet had a bizarre routing system, the messages went all over the place before getting to their destination."

"That's good enough," interrupted Helena. "It took us hours to dig up that information, so let me save you a little time. Our tip-off was that the Third Power are using Relaynet to receive messages from Earth via the CRR. Like you say, we can intercept the messages, but they're using strong encryption. At the moment, we can't figure out where they're going either, but one of our sigint guys has said that - in theory - we should be able to extract how long the messages bounce around the network before they reach their destination from the servers.

"Right, right," I said, "and combined with the lag times across the network, you might be able to deduce the destination. So, what's the holdup?"

"We can get the lag times, that's easy. But extracting the time to reach destination, that involves querying the servers, and I'm informed it's 'non-trivial'."

"No problem. I want to help, I have a few ideas. I can be there in about twenty minutes, if I leave now." I glanced at my watch, and thought about subway times. "I just have to-"

"I've got a car waiting outside for you. Hurry up." I ended the call, and walked through into my living room. Violet was still asleep. I briefly considered just leaving a note, but concluded that she wouldn't be pleased if I'd taken off when she woke up.

I gently shook her shoulder. She sighed, but didn't wake up. "Violet," I said.

"Hmm?" she said, tiredly looking up at me.

"Helena called, we have to go to the police headquarters now. Come on." She nodded, rubbed her eyes, picked up her bag and stood there, waiting for me.

We're in Helena's offices now. I was pulled into a technical meeting with the sigint guys as soon as I walked in, and have been analysing the raw data dump we got from the servers. I think we have something. It's not a lot, but we managed to pull out the transit times of five messages.

Helena's put all the information on her page on the police intranet - I said that I had a team on Earth who could help me find where those messages are going. Let's get to it.

A Break

Saturday, January 20 2007, 10:13 AM

"I was wondering when you were going to call."

Helena Frye is a very smart, reasonably successful police detective. By all rights, she should've made Captain by now. My feeling is that her impatience is what's stopping her. I'd planned to launch into a detailed explanation of why she had to help us find Scarlett, but her first remark on answering the call threw me. I should've remember she's not one for pleasantries.

"Why's that?"

"You've been suspended from your job at the Academy. Word is that you only just missed out on being fired. Either way, you've got a lot of free time at the moment. Ever thought about joining my team?"

I almost laughed. "What, join the police?"

"Technically, yes. But we both know that I'm not part of the normal police force. You've got some impressive crypto and network skills, you could make a real difference."

"Thanks for the offer, but I'm not sure a uniform would look good on me," I replied.

"Anyway, think about it. I'm told that girls like a guy in uniform." True enough, I admitted inwardly. "So why did you call? Getting into trouble again?" asked Helena.

"The Third Power thinks Scarlett Kiteway stole the Cube, and they've kidnapped her to find its location."

Helena went quiet for a few seconds. "Did she steal the Cube?"

"What do you think? Of course not!" I exclaimed.

"Hmm..." she said. I could visualise Helena's thought processes, trying to decide whether it was plausible that Sente Kiteway's younger daughter was capable of stealing the city's most valuable object.

"Look, whether or not she did is besides the point. We need to get Scarlett back, and you want to find the Third Power. I have a solid lead, but we need to move fast."

"What's your lead, then?"

"You know the Babel site?" I asked.

"Yes, the one you were suspended for," she said helpfully.

"The Third Power have been using it to communicate with their agents on Earth. My own contacts on Earth intercepted two messages that indicates they were behind the break-in at Sente's house. They found an object from Earth there - a real object, from the time of the original theft of the Cube - and for some reason, they decided Scarlett was the thief and kidnapped her. "

"Why didn't I hear about these intercepted messages?"

"Maybe it's because I actually have a good relationship with the people on Earth, unlike the Council. I'll forward them to you, you can check them out yourself."

"Okay... Kurt, you have to understand that this is hard to take. An Earth object in Sente's house? I don't know..."

"You have to believe me! I'm not going to pretend I have all the answers, but Scarlett has gone missing. Her key's gone off the grid, and the messages from the Third Power point to her. If I'm right and you let this one go, they'll kill Scarlett and they'll have the Cube."

Helena snorted. "You might be smart, Kurt, and I know you're honest, but you're naive. The Third Power are experts at disinformation and confusion. Chances are, this is yet another decoy. Still," she continued, "I don't have anything better to go on. Send over everything you have. I'll see what I can do about tracking those transmissions at the CRR."

"Thanks, Helena," I said. "And please try and keep this quiet."

"You don't need to tell me that. I'll be back in touch soon."

Making the Call

Friday, January 19 2007, 04:22 PM

As soon as Scarlett's call finished, Violet called me back and played a recording. It doesn't take a genius to realise that it was made under duress. She sounded scared, nothing like what she normally sounds like on calls. What's more, I'm convinced that she didn't make it using her own key - I did a search during the call and her key simply didn't show up.

"We have to call the police," I repeated. "There's no way we can find her on our own."

"Why not? You found Miranda and she didn't have a key," said Violet.

"Miranda was different. It took me weeks to track her down, and she was working on her own. Scarlett's been taken by a group of professionals, she could've gone anywhere."

It didn't just take weeks, I thought. It also took your help, for which I'm always grateful. I have a feeling I'll need it again to find Scarlett. Keep ready.

Violet continued, "Fine. But the police won't be any help, they'll never believe Scarlett's been kidnapped. She's only been gone for a few hours, and she even left a message saying that she's going undercover. They're more likely to make things worse."

"I agree," I said. "I'm not talking about the normal police though. I'm talking about calling Helena Frye."

"Helena... do you trust her?" asked Violet cautiously.

"I think so. She's helped us before, told us about the Third Power's portal, and she seems to be capable of working outside of Council or Police authority." Positively happy about it, I thought. "She's got the team and the access to find Scarlett. We don't have anyone else to go to."

"So you're going to help, then?"

I shook my head in disbelief that things had gotten this bad. "Violet, you never have to ask me that question."

She chuckled. "Make the call, then."

Taken

Friday, January 19 2007, 04:04 PM

I was picking at some leftover pizza and attempting to beat some upstart in a game of Speed Counterpoint on the PCAG servers when the call came through. I ignored it for a couple of minutes while I surreptitiously opened up a chasm beneath all of her strongholds.

eat it punk, I typed into the chat box.
you suck :p, announced 'serenad', signing off.

I stood up and yawned. Then I inspected a plant pot lying on the floor. Was this from Miranda? It looked like it might be. Hmm. This would require further investigation, but I decided Violet had waited long enough, and answered the call.

"I thought you weren't going to bother me again," I said. It sounded a little more resentful than I'd planned, but it'd do.

"Scarlett's gone," said Violet.

"What do you mean, gone?" I asked, starting to pay attention.

"She went to meet someone at the Sentinel this morning, to talk about Sente. I haven't heard from her since, and she was supposed to check in two hours ago. Can't reach her on her key, either."

I tapped a few commands into my key. "Huh. I can't locate her key at all. Either she's turned it off, which would be really odd, or..." I trailed off.

"We have to find her," she said quietly.

"Maybe she went undercover, or her key's malfunctioning. She might have gone down into the tunnels - key signal won't penetrate that far."

"That's what Caine reckons. But she would've told me, I'm sure."

"Are you?"

She paused. "Yes. Maybe not in the past, but today, yes."

"Okay. Let me have a think. Maybe I can do a wider scan for her key, check if she's just gone to another town." I glanced at the plant pot, then checked my email to see if Scarlett had sent anything. Nothing from her, but I saw a few from other names I recognised: Marc, Isabella, Cassandra.

"I've just found some emails from our guys on Earth. They intercepted two messages from the Third Power, sent from Perplex City. First one is from early yesterday, says they 'gained access'," I read.

"The break-in at my dad's house?" suggested Violet.

"Looks like it. The message also says they found a 'genuine, non-repro Earth artefact dating from the time of the original theft'. Yeah, I don't know how that's possible either. Then there's the second message from just a few hours ago." I didn't bother to add that this was around the same time as Scarlett's disappearance. "That one simply says 'Package onboard, in transit to secure facility. Not long now'."

"They got Scarlett. They think she knows where the Cube is," said Violet flatly.

"We have to tell someone. The police, they might be able to-"

"Wait, I've got another call coming through. From Scarlett." The line clicked, and went silent.

Do Not Disturb

Thursday, January 18 2007, 10:09 AM

One of the many, many advantages that keys have over your amusingly quaint 'mobile phones' is that they support presence states. In other words, I can tell people when I'm bored and would appreciate a call; and when I really, seriously, honestly don't want to be disturbed unless you're a movie starlet who's suddenly discovered a penchant for suspended Academy scribes.

I've had my key set to the 'movie starlet' mode for the last couple of days while waiting for the Saptivan to kick in and rid me of my hangover. This morning, my key rang. I groaned in a rather satisfying, self-pitying way, and very slowly stretched my hand out to the bedside table.

"Kurt, you-" she said.

"Wait. Is your name Joya?" I asked.

"No."

"Is it Natalie Portman? Did you, by some chance, discover a way to travel between worlds? I saw your picture on Von's screen, you seem like a very nice-"

"No, it's Violet."

"Obviously you didn't read my Do Not Disturb sign, then," I said, disappointed.

"Stop fooling around, Kurt. You don't know any movie starlets, and even if you did, they wouldn't be interested in you in this state."

"And what state is that?"

"A self-pitying bum who's lying on his bed trying to decide what sort of takeaway food he's going to have in lieu of breakfast."

Damn.

"Well, I'm getting hungry, so why don't you go and tell me what this is all about," I said after a pause.

"My dad's house got broken into last night."

"That's too bad."

"Aren't you bothered by that?" asked Violet.

"Not as much as I would've been if you were a real movie starlet."

"Scarlett could've been there! She might have been hurt! And who do you think would be able to get around his security to get into his house? This is a big deal." Violet sounded like she was getting emotional. I hate it when this happens.

"No, it's not," I said, in the special voice I reserve for particularly slow or cute students, or Violet whenever I want to annoy her. "Firstly, Scarlett obviously wasn't there, because you just said 'could have'. Secondly, statistically speaking, people don't get hurt in break-ins. Thirdly, we both know that Academy security isn't all that it's cracked up to be. I could break into that house in five minutes, I bet."

"That's because I told you the security code, you idiot!"

"Finally," I continued, "it was probably just the press or the police throwing their weight around. Nothing to worry about. Sente will have all his really important stuff encrypted anyway."

"Fine," said Violet, in a tone that suggested she was exactly the opposite. "You don't care about anyone else, do you? I won't bother you again." The line went dead.

I looked up at the ceiling, frustrated, thinking of a number of snappy lines that I could've employed if I was faster. "Try getting suspended from the one place you love working, and see how much you care about that." Not bad, but a bit too wordy. "How about you stop 'caring' about everyone else, and sort out your own dead-end life?" Too hurtful. "Call me when there's something worth caring about." That was pretty good.

Although "I'll have a pepperoni with extra chillis, thanks," would've worked equally well.

When everything's right...

Wednesday, January 17 2007, 08:24 AM

Drowsington's a lovely place - in May. In January, the town's wreathed in a wet fog that turns into drizzle around 6am. I know this because that's where I woke this morning, wearing a ruined tuxedo and a novelty tretretretre hat.

I wasn't in the best mood to go to the Academy Ball on Monday, having been suspended from work for something that wasn't my fault, but Caine and Violet came over in the afternoon and forced me to put on my black tie outfit.

It was awkward right from the start, I remember that. While queuing up in Taversen Square, Garnet came over to speak to someone in front of us in the line - some Council functionary or Defense Forces officer, no doubt. When he looked my way, he hesitated and then gave me a curt nod. I ignored him. As soon as we made it inside, I left the happy couple and Scarlett to head for the bar.

Myra Champaign was the star of the proceedings, with a halo of fans and journalists asking her about the secret of her success. She was more than happy to oblige them, telling everyone in her high-pitched voice about her natural talent and the awful, awful challenges she'd been through to win the championships. I lurked on the periphery, grimacing into my drink.

I wasn't the only person feeling sorry for themselves at the ball: Von was grimacing into his soft drink beside me.

"Sorry to hear about the suspension," said Von. "I know it can't have been your fault."

"Thanks. How's university?"

"Boring."

We both stared at Myra for a while.

"I was sixteen once, you know," I said. Von nodded thoughtfully, and took a swig of his orange juice.

The awards ceremony was predictable as ever, although there was some comic relief in seeing the ever-diplomatic Sente shake his head just the slightest bit when he handed the trophy over to Myra, which set Violet and Scarlett off into giggles. Thankfully the awards ceremony itself was shortened ever since somebody realised that being able to solve puzzles doesn't mean you're a brilliant orator, so we got stuck in to dinner without much delay.

I was making good progress into our table's supply of wine when there was a disturbance at the back of the hall. No doubt you've heard by now that Sente was arrested. It may not seem like a big deal, but having police walk into the Academy Ball and arrest the Master was a brazen show of power by the Council. Right now, I don't have the presence of mind to analyse the political side of this, although I'm not sure I care anyway.

Scarlett predictably broke down into floods of tears and had to be consoled by Caine; Violet was the responsible one and ran off to follow her dad to the police station, after giving me a dirty look; and I kept on drinking.

The Academy Ball usually goes on into the early hours, by which time most of the hard-core have deserted it for other parties around the city. I'm fairly sure I went to some disreputable place called The Missing Piece on the opposite side of town - at least, that would explain the matchbook I unaccountably have with the name 'Call me, Jess' in my pocket, sadly with no key number. And possibly also the bruise on my face.

Exactly how I managed to get to Drowsington is beyond me - I probably had to be carried, and whoever 'helped' me disappeared long before I woke up, no doubt in search of a cocktail. As for the tretretretre hat, which says 'Property of Perplex City Kid's Zoo', I don't want to know.

Drowsington isn't just sleepy in winter, it's practically catatonic. I'd be hard pressed to prove that any of the commuters on the train I'm on back to Perplex City are actually alive. Perhaps they hibernate in winter. Sounds like a good plan.

The Beginning of the End

Monday, January 15 2007, 12:31 PM

I've begun to clear out my room in the Academy. Packing has never been a difficult task for me, so I've left it to the last minute to decide which of my commemorative mugs, puzzle toys and postcards I'll take back home and which I'll shove into the filing cabinet. More tricky will be the task of revoking my privileges on the Academy network, but somehow I doubt that's something they'll want me doing, with everything that's happened lately.

Whatever the Sentinel might say, the reason the link's been opened again is because it's been compromised by the Third Power - twice. During a very thorough scan of the link a couple of weeks ago, we picked up some anomalies; packets being dropped at odd times, odd patterns of latencies. Looking closer, it became clear that information was being transmitted. Messages.

What's disturbing is that it looks like the Third Power is responsible. Since the entire point of the firewall was to prevent this sort of thing from happening, everyone involved was alarmed. Earlywine immediately ordered us to stop the Third Power's messages, which I found to be pretty easy from a technical point of view, given that it was pretty fragile and subtle to begin with. Despite myself, I was very impressed with the Third Power's work. When constructing the firewall, I'd briefly considered the possibility that someone might try to send information through the firewall in this sort of way, but I concluded that it would just be too noisy and would require computing power of a kind unavailable to most.

From a political point of view, the situation was extremely sensitive. I'm guessing that no-one wanted to tell the public that the firewall had been compromised - that would seriously damage both the Academy and the Council. Equally, Earlywine won the election on a promise of openness, so if the news ever leaked out that he was trying to cover it up, it would be even more damaging.

In the end, Garnet and Henrik Tanner decided to force the issue by talking to the Sentinel directly. From the Academy point of view, this was the least worst of all possible solutions - it made them look honest (well, more honest than Earlywine, at least) and it prevented any accusations of a cover-up.

That's where things would have settled, if you guys hadn't discovered that the Third Power had managed to compromise the link again, through this mysterious Babel site. I appreciate you guys telling me, although I'm not so pleased that you also emailed Garnet. This time around, he and Earlywine moved immediately to limit its spread - if the news of this got out, it would be disastrous for everyone involved.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure it was at this point that the people at the top were searching for a suitable scapegoat.

My priority, though, was to try and figure out what was going on with Babel. See, the reason I called the site 'mysterious' is not because of the question of who this Babel is, but because it's completely invisible to anyone in Perplex City. It's like it exists inside the gap between the two worlds. That's a metaphor, by the way - it only looks that way.

A Digression on Babel

Obviously I can't see the Babel site, but I have read extracts of their writings that you've emailed to me. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what they mean, other than being some sort of clues to the Cube's location. The worrying thing is that if the Third Power have access to Babel's clues, then they might be able to find the Cube that way as well. The only hope is that because you are more familiar with Earth - since you live there - you have a better chance at decoding the clues than the 3P. But it could be a close-run thing...

End of digression

The way the Babel site works - the only way it could work - is through bypassing my firewall and sending data to Earth at some later point. My suspicion is that it's connected to the link at a hardware level, somewhere in the Centre for Reality Research.

It's only a suspicion because I haven't been able to follow it up. It would be perfectly easy for me to take a trip down there and inspect their hardware, but there are two reasons why I can't do that.

The first is that Earlywine and Garnet have lost confidence in the firewall. Even if I can track down this new infiltration, they believe that the Third Power will just find another way. I can't blame them for thinking this, after two infiltrations. Consequently, they've reasoned that the next best thing to shutting down the Third Power's communications is being able to listen in. So, no-one's allowed to do anything that might tip off the Third Power that we might be listening in, and that includes snooping around the CRR.

Given that the firewall just isn't working, Earlywine has agreed to lift it, particularly because the only way Perplex City can get intelligence about what's on the Babel site is through you guys on Earth. Having a huge firewall in the way doesn't make communicating that intelligence very easy. That's the real reason why the link is back up.

I said there's another reason why I can't follow up on this new Babel site infiltration. It's because I have a meeting with Garnet in half an hour where I expect to be suspended from work.

Everyone, from Nathan Earlywine down, is looking for a scapegoat to blame for this. I'm the person who set up the firewall, so it's my fault. I did point out that no firewall is 100% reliable, especially against an attacker who has access to the physical hardware, but I don't think they were listening any more. Garnet is sympathetic, but he doesn't really have a choice, and Earlywine certainly doesn't care.

The funny thing is that I still have an invitation to the Academy ball tonight. I doubt I'll be in the right mood to go though. It'll just be another reminder of the theft of the Cube.