Her pen hovers over the paper. She should be asking a question, but she keeps getting stuck on that last sentence.
"This isn't another glorified chatbot, Em," Darren says.
She's rereading the conversation again.
She doesn't know what she's doing.
"I'm not qualified for this," she says.
"You think we should pack up."
"You know we should pack up."
She looks at the book, puts it down, walks over to the door, and hits the intercom button. "Can we get an advisory?" she says into it. Seven seconds later, the acknowledgment beep comes.
"You think your judgment is compromised?" says Darren quietly.
"The thing was tagged abstract contagion."
"Potential abstract contagion. I think you're just being you."
The light by the camera turns blue. A prerecorded message says, "Reseal and report to the directed location."
The was quick. Which means something is wrong. It takes ten minutes to get someone scrubbed in. Which means either Layer 2 hit the panic button, or Layer 3 requested an advisory before she did. She tries to remember what the briefing said. It appeared in the Chief Director's office. It came up null to Spectro. The Chief Director called for black box. She looks at the book again.
"Emily. Quit while you're ahead."
"I wasn't going to," she says.
The outside guard isn't there when the vault door hisses open, letting them out. They follow the lights on the floor to a screening room, where another roboticized voice splits them up and puts them through a Master-Stranger battery. It's not part of the protocol they signed in on, but they don't question the change. They answer dozens of the same questions worded in different ways on the polygraph. What did it feel like when the book wrote to you? Would you be interested in writing in it again? Imagine that you're studying a totem that was previously animated by a supervillain. It comes to life and speaks to you. How do you feel about that?
It's an excruciating five minutes in the dark until the lamps turns green one after another, and the doors unlock.
The lights don't take them to the usual exit after that. It brings them down a wing of the basement they don't usually go.
Their destination is a conference room, dimly lit like every other cell down here, but furnished like one of the classier rooms they meet clients in upstairs, with the good office chairs and a long table with inset sockets, some already plugged up to the occupants' laptops. At the table sit a guy in horn-rimmed spectacles and a poorly fitted suit, a woman in a decorated field uniform and an arm cast, and an bearded man in his seventies or eighties in jeans and a T-shirt. There's someone calling in remotely on the big screen, but all the display shows is the default profile picture and a meeting room code from Seattle. Standing in the corner of the room, trying to be invisible, is some kid who can't be a few years out of college. An employee's badge is slung around his neck.
Darren and Emily doesn't recognize any of them.
There are multiple conversations happening at the same time.
"—who decided to let the techs—"
"—read the transcripts—"
"—if it is Doc Ego we—"
"Debrief," says the person on the screen loudly.
Emily glances at Darren. He unclips the papers from his clipboard.
There's no photocopier to make copies, but the old man takes a scan from his phone and sends it around. Nobody sees fit to introduces themself. The two are drilled once again, but without the convolutions of M-S screening it doesn't take ten minutes to walk through all of it. The man in glasses is clearly holding himself back from scathing remarks, but it's the stern-looking woman's look of total contempt that stings the most.
The giddy feeling of discovery from forty minues ago is very far away now.
"This is salvageable," says the man in glasses.
"There is nothing to salvage," spits the woman. "This is a waste of time."
"It's not Doctor Ego."
"The book literally said, 'I've been a notebook since I decided that a notebook was the right kind of me for me to be.' You think there's two of them running around?"
"Ego's thralls would show up to Spectro," says the old man.
"Have we tested that, or are you just assuming?"
He shakes his head. "Low-hanging fruit. Get a volumetric imaging scan on that notebook, see if it's tinkertech."
Darren looks at Emily.
"It's not a trap," insists Glasses.
The woman snorts. "People can lie."
"Not when there are easier ways to get what you want. The notebook was bought off E-Shop, for Christ's sake." He flings an arm at the kid cowering in the corner. "The complexity of a plan like that—"
"Anyone can sell things on E-Shop."
"Mass-distributed infiltration tinkertech," muses White Hair. "Pure coincidence that it made its way to the Director."
"You're not listening."
"If your psychological profile matches no aspects of the known situation, your psychological profile is wrong—"
"I'm sorry," snaps the remote caller before it starts getting loud again. "Have we determined the object isn't an abstract hazard?"
Emily isn't sure if she's supposed to say something here. This isn't going the way she thought it'd be going.
"It's not," says the other woman. "These two were cleared."
"Agreed. Complexity penalty." Glasses.
The old man in jeans shrugs.
Screen Man takes a deep breath. "Joel is the interrogation specialist. He will talk to the notebook. The rest of you follow his lead. You two, you're off the case. Stay here. Whatsyourname from Reqs, you too." Chairs scrape as the new team moves to stand up. Darren raises his hand. "Yes?" prompts the screen.
"Er, are they trained on black box protocol—"
"I am lifting black box protocol," snarls the man on the screen. "And I will be supervising remotely. Personally. That will be sufficient."
"I want to ten minutes to get a volumetric scanner," says the old man.
"Granted. Get on with it."