Barely an hour had passed before the first reporters turned up outside Emma’s door. They rang the doorbell, milled outside with tablets in hand and wide, hungry eyes, begging for their questions to be heard.
Dr Gray muted the door, stared at the growing crowd with visible disapproval. “Unbelievable,” she said, for the third time. She turned to Emma, her face beautiful even when twisted into a scowl. “This is your fault,” she said.
Emma stood in the hallway, arms crossed, awkward. If only she’d never escaped the DEI. If only she was still locked up in that bunker. Anything was preferable to this public humiliation, her name and photo spreading across the web in a chain of sensationalist blogs.
Not that the content was humiliating—Mike had kept his promise, and not said one bad word about Emma. Instead he’d praised her: praised her for escaping unscathed from the theatre, praised her for coming forward with the truth, praised her for uncovering yet another government conspiracy. A pack of lies, but none of it was malicious to her.
The picture he’d painted of Lilith, on the other hand . . . .
The house phone rang. Dr Gray answered using the hallway monitor. “Walker residence.” After a few seconds she hung up. “Damn reporters.”
Dr Gray stalked into the living room, Emma trailing behind. “I can understand your mother not knowing much about basic security, but someone of your age?” She shook her head, paced in tight circles in front of the living room’s main monitor. She looked at her phone, seemed irritated when it did not ring. “No passwords, no voice or face recognition, no centralised AI . . . I’m surprised no one’s hacked into your systems before now,” she said.
“Not all of us can afford to throw money at problems until they go away,” Emma snapped, knowing that she was letting the anger get the best of her, but unable to stop herself. Home security software was a luxury reserved for Lower Hallers. Food, travel, bills, education—the average Middle Haller had so many more immediate demands, and that Lilith’s mother did not realise this struck Emma forcibly. For all her intellect and power, Dr Gray had a very limited view of the world.
“Passwords are free. Five minutes of searching will turn up hundreds of freeware equivalents.” Dr Gray’s gaze was cool, assessing. “I thought you would be a good influence on Lilith. Perhaps I gravely overestimated your intelligence.”
The comment stung. Emma stiffened, lifted her chin. “Hard to be a good influence when she has you as a role model.” It was a cruel thing to say, and the moment the words left Emma’s mouth she regretted them. Her face flushed, the tips of her ears tingling with mortification.
But Dr Gray was unaffected, flicking through command screens on the living room monitor that Emma did not recognise, long lines of black and white gibberish. She found what she was looking for. “That should do it,” she said. “Check the phones.”
The phone in the living room was dead, the screen blank and unresponsive. Emma went out into the hallway. Same thing. When she came back into the living room, Dr Gray had resumed pacing. “They’re not working.”
“I disconnected them.” Dr Gray looked at her phone, and this time it rang. She brushed her thumb over the touchpad to answer.
“L? Are you in?” She listened, nodded. Dr Gray had the ultimate in business phones: a thin, flexible touchpad around her wrist, with a wireless microphone and earpiece hidden in a small black clip on her ear. The most expensive models were noise-cancelling, and only transmitted the voice of the owner.
“Is everything installed? Great. Any trace of the reporter?” Dr Gray opened a browser to Down the Chute, scrolled through the latest theatre-related article. “No, leave the site up for now. We don’t want a martyr.”
She hung up, turned back to Emma. “All computers in your house are now locked to you, your parents, and me.” Her smile was cold. “Go on, test it. Check your emails.”
“But this is the living room computer,” she replied. “It’s not linked—”
“It is now.”
The challenge in Dr Gray’s eyes was impossible to ignore. Emma approached, cautious, half-certain it wouldn’t work. Her house didn’t have a centralised AI, and something so expensive couldn’t take so little time to set up. “Computer, any emails?”
The reply was immediate: “You have ninety seven unread emails, Emma. No priority messages.” Even the voice was different now, more feminine. “The majority are regarding the theatre. Would you like me to read a selection?”
“Good,” Dr Gray said, completely unimpressed by the AI. “It works.”
“I— how—” Emma looked between the screen and Dr Gray. “You did this?”
“We keep a hacker on retainer,” Dr Gray said. “For when official channels move too slowly.” Her phone rang again and she turned away as she answered, snapping terse orders.
Emma sank down onto the couch, overwhelmed. The monitor was directly opposite the couch, still displaying her inbox. “Computer, close emails.”
“Sure, Emma.” The window closed, returning once more to the front page of Down the Chute. “Anything else?”
“Um, no, thank you.” Emma wondered if there was a way to tone down the AI’s chattiness—its presence unnerved her, as if the screen had taken a life of its own and was now watching her back. “I’m just going to read this article,” she said, awkward.
Maybe it had sensed her discomfort, for the AI did not reply, although it did zoom in to the article and adjust the text so it was easier to read.
It was the second time she read the article, although what with the crushing anxiety and Dr Gray’s hovering presence, very little had sunk in during the first read. Now, calmer and resigned to what was happening, Emma could study the article with a clear head. It was difficult to reconcile Mike’s awkward clumsiness with the self-assured commentary before her, but she had to admire his writing. It was nonsense, the lot of it, but it was well-written, convincing nonsense.
Rather than make outright accusations, he suggested and implied. These were the facts, he said. Make your own conclusions. Yet the facts so happened to be presented in an order that only one conclusion was possible: the theatre attack was a government stunt to militarise the Upper Halls and begin a full-scale war against the infected.
Mike made it sound so plausible, but he hadn’t been there, hadn’t seen the blood or heard the screams and spatters of the dying. No human could have ordered that attack. No government would organise wholesale slaughter.
Emma closed the browser, put her head in her hands, and that’s when it happened.
The phone rang.
Emma stared at it, at the black screen, all its lights switched off. Her heart skittered in the long pause between one ring and the next.
The phone rang again.
Dr Gray’s only reaction was to narrow her eyes. Her lips pursed when she answered on a private channel, so that only she could hear the caller. “Walker residence,” she said flatly. “King. I thought it might be you.”
Emma froze. King. The DEI had found her at last. This was it: she was going to prison.
“This is your mess to clean up,” Dr Gray was saying, “and you can tell him I said that.” She looked at Emma. “Yes, she’s here.” She stepped away from the phone. “He wants to speak to you.”
Emma pushed off of the couch, felt her legs trembling beneath her and wished that the handset wasn’t upstairs, so that she could sit and talk, rather than stand. She walked over to the phone, stood in front of the monitor. The screen was blank, dead.
“Emma. You have a lot of explaining to do.” King’s voice was hard-edged, rough, appealingly masculine.
“So do you,” Emma replied, hoping to cover up her nervousness. “Dr Gray disconnected the phones.”
“Some phones can always be called.” He paused, then added wearily, “And don’t go changing your phone after this. It won’t make any difference.”
Before Emma could reply, King continued: “Under DEI orders, you are hereby banned from speaking to the press and from leaving the house without Arlene’s or the DEI’s knowledge. Any breaches to these orders will be dealt with severely.”
Arlene? Emma glanced at Dr Gray, who was once again talking to someone on the phone. Why was King on a first name basis with her? King worked for Lilith’s father, and the relationship between Lilith’s parents had always been strained. “It’s not like I could leave anyway,” Emma said. “There’s hordes of reporters outside.”
“We’ll clear the press,” he said, dismissive. “You just sit tight until the meeting tomorrow.”
“Meeting?” Emma felt foolish for asking but had to be sure: “So you’re not going to arrest me?”
“That depends,” King replied, “entirely upon you.”