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“Too Clear and Thus Difficult to See” by Joshua Anderson

Today we have a treat, with an exclusive story from writer Joshua Anderson (10,00 Dawns), that sci-fi fans here should love. Set in the universe of Decipher’s WARSONG series, join a scientist and an artificial intelligence as they begin to learn about each other and themselves. If you enjoy the tale, you can read more in the new WARSONG collection from Arcbeatle Press, available on Amazon.

Venus’s outline shone brightly as the Sun peeked from beyond its crest, and Doctor Thomason Grayger looked on in awe as the planet’s horizon took shape, noting for the first time that this was the first non-Earth planet the young scientist had seen up close in person. As the transport vessel sunk into a high orbit over the planet, Grayger could the dawn rays begin coruscating across the emerging surface of Venus Station. The XeLabs facility reminded him of a great azure Christmas ornament, with a series of tines protruding from its slender hull in all directions. Off the viewport that spanned the whole wall of the deck, Grayger could see other passengers’ images reflected as they shared his view, many of them wearing the same pristine, black XeLabs uniform as himself, the same stunned gaze as they took in the grandeur of the scene along with him.

The transport landed in the small docking bay that tipped one of the tines and landed there. A sharp hiss sounded from the ship’s airlock door as it opened. As instructed while aboard the transport, Grayger and the other passengers crossed the airlock vestibule, filed in through a door on the docking bay’s inner side, and proceeded down a long corridor, effuse with lights and sleek panels. Grayger could not help but notice as they went along that there were no viewports whatsoever, no way of being able to tell from one’s perspective that they were aboard a space station. This gave the station an almost eerie ambience, which rather being unsettling, Grayger found strangely to his liking. At last they arrived at the concourse, which reminded Grayger of a shopping mall, with a food court run by diligent bots, and a sphere of water at the center suspended by antigrav, which spun rapidly as it circulated water between the several fountains pouring into it. There were nearly countless floors both above and below that made the true vastness of Venus Station finally hit home: it felt as much an arcology as a research station, but what made the setting immediately discernible from the former was the relative absence of people. His fellow passengers comprised the majority of the station’s visible population, and Grayger wondered how so few scientists and engineers could produce so many advancements for the rest of humanity to enjoy. Soon enough, he supposed, he would learn. Having spent the past eight years working at New Columbia Technical Institute, Grayger had finally managed to gain the attention of XeLabs, and he was eager to bring his newest projects aboard the station.

Immediately, Grayger found the conditions aboard Venus Station quite more to his liking than those at NCTI. For one thing, the equipment here was state-of-the-art, while oftentimes he had found NCTI lacking, both in quality and availability. This had caused him many a headache as he often spent more time gathering supplies than he did using them to conduct research. Here, supplies were readily available, owing to XeLabs’s preference for a small staff of merit over a large staff of mediocrity. He rarely found a need to share with the other scientists, because there often wasn’t anyone else using the equipment. Frequently enough, Grayger would find himself the only active researcher on his level.

That was another thing he prized here—independence. The XeLabs credo held quite plainly that development was most fruitful when agents were given the utmost freedom. To a certain extent, this was true even at NCTI. However, ethical restraints put in place by the Central Governance Corporation often got in the way of research, and here, away from prying eyes, Grayger had the luxury of performing the tests that he needed to perform in order to ensure the final product met his exacting standards.

Ironically enough, though, this independence often became excessive. Outside of working with fellow scientists on projects for XeLabs, Grayger lacked any kind of social interaction. As much as he disliked the notion, he at times simply felt lonely. Lacking any ties to Earth beyond a family that had greatly disappointed and underestimated him, there was no one to whom he could voice his true feelings.

One morning, as he was consuming his egg breakfast, he thought it might be worthwhile to requisition a companion bot from Earth. His corporate stipend could more than cover the cost. Later that day, he searched the digital catalog and, after customizing the bot’s aesthetics to match his discerning tastes, he placed an order.

“Open your eyes.” The female unit did so, noting as she did optimum color and depth perception from both of her photoreceptors—expected, as she was newly activated, but reassuring nonetheless. She saw a human of light complexion, with brown eyes and dark brown hair, whom she calculated as being within his late 20s or early 30s. Analyzing his facial expression and heartrate, she concluded that he must find her attractive.

“What is your name?” The man finally asked. “I’m Doctor Thomason Grayger.”

“I am designated 971V-14R-3S-A, but you may rename me if you wish.”

“How about ‘Maresa,’ then.”

“You wish to call me Maresa?” the bot repeated. “Very well. I like that name.”

This amused Grayger: A bot with an opinion, how novel! But he did not comment on this. Instead, recalling the title of a classic novel, he asked, “What do you dream about?”

After the briefest moment of silence, the bot smiled and said in a soft, cheerful voice, “Why, you, my dear. Of course.”

Rather forward, he thought, but I’ll give her points for authenticity. She was…beautiful, inasmuch as Grayger was willing to admit of a machine. She had long, black hair—synthetic, Grayger presumed—and wore a plain white skinsuit. He realized only now that he had forgotten to order a proper uniform for her, and made a mental note to do so later.

Soon Maresa, now clothed in the familiar uniforms seen all around XeLabs, became known to everyone Grayger interacted with. He brought her along with him to act as his second-in-command and to keep him company as he whiled away the long hours, weeks, and soon, years developing new assets for XeLabs. He found Maresa to be a reliable assistant, a devoted partner, and most importantly, a close confidant, with whom he could share all of the secrets of his work without fear of them being used against him.

In only a few short years, the junior researcher had proven his aptitude as one of the top scientists working aboard Venus Station—at least, that was how Grayger himself saw it. He grew increasingly frustrated as his efforts seemed to be continually overlooked, his projects sidelined in favor of other scientists’ work. They were certainly more experienced than himself, and well-versed in XeLabs’ corporate culture, that much he would grant. But they were less capable, less willing to push the boundaries of conventional science, and therefore condemned themselves to produce only conventional results. They lacked vision, and though for now he remained in their shadow, Thomason Grayger was a patient man. He knew he was destined to outshine them in the end. Resolved to this prediction, and concerned that others might steal his ideas and take the credit for their applications, Grayger began to pursue his own studies in private, involving only essential technicians. Within this privacy he found Maresa to be an invaluable aide.

By assisting Grayger in his work, Maresa had learned his work style and had become more proficient in accommodating him. She even occasionally managed to suggest practical applications to the discoveries they made together. Such an occasion occurred one evening, after the two studied the four soldiers who had been paid a king’s ransom to help test a cranial implant device. (The fifth test subject, a civilian named Alek Lissen, had instead required sponsorship at the XeLabs academy back on Earth.) The implant had been designed to emit small electrical waves to soothe the nerves and suppress negative emotions, such as fear, for the military purposes of strengthening a soldier’s resolve.

“What if the effects could be reversed?” Maresa suggested while Grayger took tea in the break lounge. “Perhaps the same technique that suppresses negative impulses could be used to stimulate positive ones.”

Grayger considered this a moment, then nodded. “Indeed. I thought an implant that suppressed fear would be a useful tool for soldiers, but if it could trigger emotions as well, such as anger, it would be doubly useful.”

Maresa was caught off-guard and had to adjust herself to receiving this new information—Grayger’s response took her suggestion in a direction her predictive protocols had not anticipated. She did not consider anger to be a useful emotion. “Yes,” she nevertheless said in agreement, “or confidence, or zeal?”

“Too much confidence is a wall,” he said dismissively, “and as for zeal…it’s a soldier’s job to be willing to die. That’s already burned into them by the time they leave the training grounds. Stimulating zeal would be superfluous.”

Betraying no hint of her incredulity, Maresa said, “Understood,” though nothing could have been further from the truth.

The more Maresa accompanied Grayger, and the more suspect his experimenting with human test subjects became (most recently the use of nanotechnology to induce illness), the more difficult it became for her to reconcile the human preservation clause in her coding with her primary loyalty to the doctor, a feature that was at the very core of her functionality as a companion bot. More than once, Grayger had voiced complaint at the expense of paying human test subjects rather than take advantage of the surplus of “worthless human scum” imprisoned at the Gula Mons Correctional Facility on Venus’ surface. He had even gone so far as to suggest that forcing him to use the good people of Earth for his research instead was, at worst, a risk to valuable human life, a distinction which Maresa could not successfully analyze. She could not outright defy him, not without being reprogrammed. The only compromise she could find was to advise him to use moral caution, for he did run the risk of facing legal action if XeLabs ever decided that his research had finally become a liability, and reminding him of this risk was justifiably loyal as far as her restraints tree was concerned.

“I appreciate your concern, Maresa,” Grayger said, when Maresa finally confronted him, “and I know our work has become somewhat…problematic. But this is not about me or my future. This is for the future of mankind! My research has been an asset to Earth’s military science, and a full-scale war with the Martians is all but inevitable. If we let opportunities slip by, then we cede the advantage to the enemy.”

And so Maresa watched, slave to her own programming, as Doctor Thomason Grayger, a man whom she would say she loved if such a thing were possible for an AI, continued to push the envelope further. “For the future of mankind,” so he had said.

As the years wore on, and violence continued to escalate between Earth and her prodigal children, Martian and Maverick alike, work aboard Venus Station grew more and more focused on theoretical physics and their applications in military conflict. Grayger himself, now a senior researcher, oversaw many of these projects. His team had developed a technique of bending light around objects, rendering them effectively invisible, and XeLabs was quick to apply this method to their newest models: the XeRacer, and Venusian Ranger Rogan Hallard’s custom vessel, which he christened the Shadowsurfer in homage to this new technology incorporated into its design.

The Shroud Project was to be the culmination of this discovery. The natural progression from rendering ships and vehicles invisible was to do the same for infantry on the ground. There was a problem, however. In certain tests of the XeRacer’s cloaking feature, pilots became disoriented and in one case even went into shock, as a result of the brain’s inability to handle the sense of being aboard an invisible craft. There was a concern that the same could happen if a human subject found that they themselves had become cloaked. But as Xelabs’ higher-ups back on Earth continued to demand for advancements with military applications grew, Grayger was forced to overlook this one quirk in favor of expediency.

Sooner than he had expected, those higher-ups requested a meeting at their San Francisco headquarters where he would share his developments with the board. Facing his audience, all top XeLabs executives and chief investors, he picked up the remote for the large holoprojector at the center of the room and hit “Play.”

The lights went down, and the holographic presentation he had spent the past week working on commenced, highlighting the various details of the project Grayger was proposing, but he wasn’t watching it. He didn’t need to; he had written and revised the presentation numerous times and could now recite it verbatim. Instead he strode the walls of the darkened room and watched the faces of the audience, and gauged their reactions as the holo played for them. All of them seemed to be interested, perhaps not fully impressed yet. Patiently he waited for the phase of the presentation that he knew would make or break him: a true-to-life simulation of the Shroud Project’s subjects: CGC soldiers who became invisible as they rushed into a confrontation with Martian warriors. Like flipping a switch, eyes widened and some jaws dropped in rapt fascination. By the time the presentation finished and the room’s lights automatically raised back to their original setting, not a face among them showed disinterest. Some even clapped—a promising sign as far as Grayger was concerned, as applause was not at all common during XeLabs presentations. Not the ones he had been present for, anyway.

The doctor raised his hands for emphasis. This was his moment, and he was ready to seize it. ”Imagine—the ultimate soldier. Immune to fear thanks to our novel implant technology, and now impossible to see, or even locate without equipment we will create specifically for doing so.

“With the Martian raids on Earther investments increasing, an all-out war is likely to break out, a truth the Martians themselves are well aware of. They will have been preparing for it, and will unleash new technologies into the fray. But there is nothing that can prepare them for this advantage XeLabs will bring to the table.” Grayger lowered his hands to indicate that he was finished. “Thank you.”

The XeLabs CEO, got to her feet, and through her stoic expression, Grayger thought he perceived a subtle glimmer of approval in her eyes. Gesturing to encompass the room, she said “I think it’s fair to say that we’re all very interested in this opportunity, Doctor. If this Shroud Project delivers on what you promise, it will greatly advance our corporate relationship with the CGC, FedGrav, and others. To ensure the Shroud Project’s success, the company will offer you and your team whatever you need.”

Due to her functional if unofficial status as Grayger’s aide aboard Venus Station, Maresa had been given limited clearances to assist in her role, including the privilege of requisitioning resources. While Grayger and his team were prepping the five subjects for the Shroud test, all convicts from Gula Mons Correctional Facility to which Grayger had been finally able to convince the higher-ups to grant him access, Maresa had requisitioned a security rifle for her own use as a precaution, in case any of the convicts attempted to flee the test chamber or sabotage the process.

Grayger warned her. “I don’t want you using that unless it is absolutely necessary. The last thing we need is for any of the new hardware to be damaged.”

“Understood, Doctor,” Maresa said, noting his omission of the convicts wearing the new hardware. “I’ve set the rifle to stun. This is only for your team’s protection.” She wanted to include herself in that statement, but protocol dictated that her safety was a secondary concern next to that of the human scientists and, she hoped more than believed, the test subjects themselves.

“All right, I think we’re ready,” Grayger said, returning to the team and the test subjects, who had been put under in order to simplify the process of grafting the Shroud armor onto them. They had now been placed onto beds lined side-by-side. “Let’s begin.”

Technician Ronald Faust typed a series of icons on his datapad. Slowly, the test subjects opened their eyes. They appeared groggy, almost at peace, still showing the aftereffects of the drug that had put them to sleep, and Maresa found it somewhat difficult to register these men as capital offenders. They were still men, though, regardless of what Grayger or XeLabs might think.

“Activate Shroud,” Grayger commanded, and after only a moment’s hesitation, Faust made one final keystroke, and the convicts all vanished, leaving no trace of their existence apart from the depressed bedclothes. But the movement of those bedclothes, accompanied by the sounds of the men screaming in agony, gave them away. After twenty-seven seconds, the screaming stopped, and the silence in the chamber was absolute apart from breathing. Suddenly, one of the technicians, Aaron Hammer left the ground and flew several meters, smashing into one of the now-vacant beds with a violent crunch, and fell to the floor, lifeless.

Maresa raised her rifle, calculating the location of the convict that had thrown the unfortunate young man, and—

—before she could fire, Grayger lunged in front of her. “Don’t shoot him!” His protests were made brief as he too was lifted from the floor, but before anything else could happen, Maresa acted. She overruled Grayger’s order to preserve the Shroud armor with the fact of the imminent threat to his life, and fired beneath the doctor to hit the Shroud subject. Dropping the rifle, Maresa dove forward and caught Grayger as his invisible attacker released him and collapsed on the floor with a metallic thud. However, because it had been a nonlethal blast, and the Shroud drew upon the wearer’s natural electricity as its power source, he remained invisible.

“DEACTIVATE SHROUD!” Grayger shouted as Maresa helped him to his feet and looked to Faust, who looked down at his datapad before it was whacked out of his grasp by another unseen threat. It landed mere meters away from Maresa and Grayger. He picked it up and pressed the button to abort the program.

Nothing happened. No invisible convicts reappeared in the chamber. “It’s not working!” Faust shouted, stating the apparent.

Maresa focused her aural receptors to detect any sound not made by Faust, Grayger, Miles Jordan (the other still-living technician who was now visibly panicked), or herself. After one eerily quiet moment, she heard a clash of metal on metal, and the sound of snapping bone; a convict, evidently attacked and murdered by one of his fellows, appeared out of nowhere and dropped to the floor. Like she had done the moment Hammer went flying, she took a best-guess estimate of where the murderer would be, and fired. This time the bolt missed, and struck the opposite wall with a brief shimmer of blue particles.

Meanwhile, Grayger had moved to the airtight door leading out of the room and activated it. As it slid open, he shouted, “Come on!” to the rest of them, who needed no convincing. Once they were all through the door, he made to press the panel to close it, when Faust suddenly let out a yelp and reached with both hands to his throat, where an unseen test subject must be choking him. With barely a moment’s hesitation, Grayger pressed the panel and the door, detecting no obstacles, slammed shut. A second later, they saw it was too late: a disembodied, steel-clad arm materialized on their side of the door, still clutching a now very dead Faust’s crushed throat, while moans of pain and suffering echoed from the other side.

Immediately, Grayger grabbed his communicator and alerted XeLabs authorities to the incident. Before long, they responded, giving him the order to abort the Shroud Project, and to “put down” the remaining test subjects. Although he had anticipated this response, his heart sank. The loss of Hammer and Faust, two good men who had both trusted Grayger with their lives, was a heavy burden to begin with, but the fact that what they had given their lives for would now become meaningless was even worse. He looked at Jordan, who couldn’t even look his superior in the eye right now, then to Maresa. Her expression showed the requisite sympathy, and he smiled wryly back at her, even though he knew that that sympathy was merely the product of algorithms programmed into her, and that no human could possibly still be on his side right now, least of all the still stricken Miles Jordan.

As soon as he and Maresa made it back to his office, he sank into his desk chair to gather his thoughts. That was when it hit him. XeLabs would of course take whatever measures were necessary to suppress the truth of what had happened today: the technology they were testing, and certainly the loss of life. But for Grayger there would be no hope of recovery. His career at XeLabs, which he had cultivated for nearly twenty years, was now over. “Those bastards!” He slammed his fist on the desk, rattling an empty teacup from the previous day. “If only they’d given me time to perfect the tech, find a way to protect the wearer’s psyche, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“The probability of your being terminated is 97%.”

“Terminated,” repeated Grayger, “in the literal sense, most likely. The things I know, the things I’ve seen here? There’s no way they’re going to just send me on my way. And I’m sure as hell not letting them lock me up planetside.” Folding his hands together and pressing his pointer fingers to his lips, Grayger closed his eyes, trying to think. After a moment, he opened them. “Let’s return to the testing chamber. I might have a way out of this, if you’ll help me.”

“Of course,” she answered.

As they were making their way back to the testing chamber, Maresa attempted to process ways in which she and Grayger could mitigate the damage the Shroud Project would do to his career, but no plausible solution emerged. She remained armed with the security rifle as a precautionary measure, even though Grayger would need to sterilize the chamber of lifeforms as per the corp’s command.

When they arrived, Grayger placed his hand against the panel that would open the sealed door, but did not press it yet. He looked her in the eyes. “Maresa, do you think you could bring the subject you stunned earlier back out here?”

Recalling the location of the convict, she ran the probability. “Possible but unlikely, Doctor. I was not designed for heavy lifting. Should the other three test subjects remain hostile, I would not be able to retrieve the stunned subject without sustaining significant damage that could immobilize me.”

Grayger sighed in resignation, and his shoulders sank. “Then I’d like you to first dispose of the survivors who are still conscious.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor—I can’t do that.”

Grayger looked taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“As the test subjects are human, murdering them is a violation of my core programming. I cannot terminate human life.” Grayger was visibly incensed by this. Though she tried to resist doing so, her truth protocols forced her to add, “However, as my owner you have special clearance to override my core programming. Doing so may produce unintended results, though, so please use caution.”

“Fine, then! Maresa, I order you to disregard your core programming and kill those criminals!”

Maresa was well-versed in human emotions, even if she could not feel them herself. Even so, she knew that what she was feeling right now was fear. Pure, instinctual fear. She did not know what would happen to her, what she would become, once she overrode her core programming. But she did as commanded. “Very well, sir. Overriding human preservation clause now.” She dipped into standby mode.

After a moment, the process completed, and she returned to active mode. Surprised, she found that she felt good. Liberated. The weight of her programming had been lifted from her, and she could act without constraints. She tried flicking the rifle to lethal mode, and found that she could do so. Grayger handed her a replacement for the datapad Faust had been using, the one presumably still lying unattended in the adjoining chamber. While it was already apparent that the effects of the Shroud were irreversible, the device would allow her to pinpoint the locations of all four test subjects, including the one whom she was meant to retrieve.

“Are you ready?” Grayger asked, and she nodded, turning to face the door. Grayger pressed the panel, and it hissed open once more, and she detected the deathly stench of the convict who had been caught by the door when it last closed.

Maresa slipped inside, sidestepping carefully past his corpse. Before the door had even shut behind her, she heard the tortured screams resume. “Stand aside, all of you,” she said into the room, “I have come only for the human I attacked earlier. Intervene and I will be forced to retaliate.” It was the closest she could come to lying outright, even with the override, but sufficient, and it would serve to determine whether the other convicts would indeed engage her with the same hostility they had shown before.

They did. Almost immediately after she had spoken, the datapad showed all three fast converging on her. Able to calculate their positions relative to her, she fired a bolt at the closest, then a second convict, by which point the third had reached her. She employed all of her strength to slam the large barrel of the rifle into the convict, and heard the sharp metal-on-metal crash as it made purchase. She fired at him a second time to make sure.

Looking around, she saw their bodies were emerging from invisibility, their natural electricity that powered the Shroud fading. Only the fifth subject, who was alive (though still unconscious as far as she could determine), remained invisible. She walked to his location and felt his form, finding his armpits, and carefully dragged the heavy, armored body out of the chamber.

“Thank you, my dear,” said Grayger as he pressed the door shut again. She had no response.

Naturally, Grayger’s plan was as clever as anything else he had set his mind to. With Maresa’s help, he had placed the still-living Shroudbearer into a stasis pod. He then made contact beyond Venus Station, beyond civilized space even. The Cartel, run by a figure known only as The Gambler, was one of the more respectable Maverick gangs if still comprised completely of lawless, ungrateful bastards who rejected Earth hegemony. Grayger promised that should they get him an audience with The Gambler, what he had to offer would more than pay for the trouble. In exchange for technology that did not yet officially exist, Grayger would end up with plenty of credits with which to craft a new identity, safe from reprisal.

The most difficult part was getting past the Rangers. Rogan Hallard’s group patrolled the station regularly and were notoriously nosy. “Good morning,” came a voice from behind them as they approached a small, single-crew XeLabs craft in the station’s docking bay. Grayger ignored the man, until a second “Good morning,” reached his ears, and turned to regard the stern gaze of Jerlen Krae, Hallard’s second-in-command. “May I ask where you’re heading with that cargo?”

Grayger had prepared a story, but Maresa was first to answer. “Doctor Grayger has business off-planet. This is new technology that he has made preparations to share with assets in the Belt.” Grayger stifled a grin. Nothing that his assistant had just said was untruthful: he would indeed be sharing this tech with his assets, the Cartel. The statement was deliberately deceptive.

Still, the explanation came from a trustworthy source (who had ever heard of a lying bot?), and this satisfied Krae. “Carry on,” he said.

After the stasis pod had been loaded into the ship’s tight cargo bay, Thomason Grayger turned to Maresa with a look of sadness in his eyes. They had previously agreed that Maresa should remain on the station, to help share the information she had collected over the years; Grayger had no use for any of it, and Maresa’s cooperation would help assure XeLabs that she, and therefore Grayger himself, could be trusted. By the time they realized that anything was amiss, Grayger would be unrecoverable.

However, Maresa had other plans. Just as her simple half-truth had satisfied Jerlen Krae, it had also satisfied her loyalty to the doctor. But his disregard for human life had long tested her human preservation clause, and though forcing her to override it had allowed her to execute the test subjects, and as a side effect enabled her to deceive, something of her coding that told her this was wrong remained. And so she had deceived Grayger as well.

After exactly three standard days had passed, she alerted XeLabs authorities that she had discovered Grayger’s defection (omitting, of course, the time at which she had discovered it), and Rogan Hallard’s Rangers quickly gave chase.

XeLabs CEO Kiana Sayer knew that the topic of Doctor Grayger and his betrayal of XeLabs would be the focus of her morning meeting with the board before she had even poured her coffee.

As she approached the boardroom, she could hear indistinct, heated conversation within, but when she opened the ebony door and stepped through, there was silence and heads turned to face her.

“I expect you all have a lot of questions for me right now,” Kiana said with a wry, practiced smile, “and I hope to address them.

“What the Shroud disaster, and Doctor Thomason Grayger’s defection has shown us, more than anything, is that it’s time for XeLabs’ time-honored ‘hands off’ philosophy to be amended. I intend to upgrade surveillance aboard Venus Station, both human and automated, to ensure that this situation will never be repeated.

“Surveillance data will be monitored both on the station and here at HQ, and we will be assessing new-hires and existing assets for thi—“

Joyce Aykner, a research supervisor, spoke up. “Grayger’s bot, Maresa—the one who alerted us that he’d fled. We could use her.”

Normally Kiana would have been put off at being stopped mid-sentence, but today Aykner’s interruption was a welcome distraction. “What are you suggesting?”

“She was his personal assistant the whole time he worked for us. She had access to all of Grayger’s work, his research, everything. And her willingness to sell him out shows that she can be turned to our needs.”

“We could integrate her AI into the station’s mainframe computer,” a young but technically savvy board member, Symon Norac, offered.

Security Chief Goeff Daniels shook his head. “Unfortunately, that bot is evidence now. The CGC is going to want everything she’s carrying.”

“We have people for that,” Kiana said, waving away the issue. “But moreover, Miss Aykner’s suggestion is a sound one. Hallard’s team may be able to recover Doctor Grayger alive, but if not, at least we’ll retain all of the research he’s kept to himself over the years. Who knows what other projects he’s never shared with XeLabs?

“As to bringing Maresa’s AI onboard, it will need to be discussed, and her stability examined, particularly given her longtime involvement with Doctor Grayger, but if this option proves safe, it offers an expeditious answer to the need for 24/7 surveillance. Chief Daniels, I want your experts looking into it immediately.”

Sullen, but too timid as ever to contradict the CEO, Daniels nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Kiara let her smile grow, enough so she could tell some of the room even wondered if it was genuine. It was a trifling matter in the grand scheme of things, a man like Grayger could run all the way to Pluto, and their gaze would still find him. She looked at the wall, as if imagining there was a window from which she could see across the whole system.

“Amazing how a problem can sometimes bring such clarity to the future. What’s next on the agenda?”


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