Chapter 22 – Priming the Pump (Part I)

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The “highly orchestrated action in Student Records” would begin to play itself out in mere minutes; but Elaine found herself far away from the activity: across campus, standing right outside the Engineering Computing Commons in the air conditioned antechamber of Engineering Wing H. Frog sat on the stairs fiddling with a small laptop open on the landing; Hadaly’s rendered image appeared in a large window in the middle. Elaine kept her goggles down so that she could see the same screen (and Frog) as well as some extra information.

The spy-hunt operation would have to execute without her—although Elaine really desired to micromanage them to make sure nothing went wrong—she’d briefed and re-briefed everyone involved, set parameters, carefully compartmentalized information, and set every actor in motion. It would run fine without her involvement; but she saw no reason to leave anything to change. No reason except necessity.

“So the FBI agents are going back to the dean’s office in—” Elaine checked the time in the bottom corner of her vision, “—about two hours twenty-two minutes. Why?”

Frog nodded. “Hadaly, you spoke with Tango in WoW recently, can you say why they might be back on our turf again?”

“Back?” Hadaly said. “Tango never left our turf. From what I’ve gathered there’s at least fifteen ‘Tangos’ and they work in shifts. However, the amphibian is correct: the one I took for a tour of the Deadmines is probably our Tango. He’s a total noobcake and he plays Alliance.”

“Okay, so he has poor taste,” Frog said.

“We talked about Bitcoin,” Hadaly said. “He has a lot of interest in the subject. I don’t think that has much to do with anything to do with us, though, it’s not like anything we’ve been doing with that could catch official attention.”

“We are missing a piece of this puzzle, and we’ve been missing it for a while because I haven’t been paying attention to Tango,” Elaine said. She pushed her goggles onto her forehead and looked at Frog for guidance—the presence of Tango never did correlate with the investigation or her school work; therefore her advice would probably cover the situation. “We’ve been focusing on the client. Is that a problem?”

“It shouldn’t have been,” Frog said. “Something hasn’t felt right about this entire situation. An entire office full of FBI grunts has been watching Hadaly online, Tango seems to think that Hadaly is Elaine—now that must be insanely confusing—and if Tango is indeed one of the FBI agents who bugged the dean’s office there must be something criminal going on…”

Elaine rubbed her hands together. “It suggests that it’s related to our case.”

“Or it’s entirely unrelated and we’re caught in the middle,” Frog said.

Laughter bubbled up from the laptop as Hadaly snickered gleefully. “I don’t think so,” she said.

“What makes you say that?” asked Elaine.

“I just did some feeling around based on the IP addresses the Tango’s use to access forums and I am seeing a lot of movement across ASU’s records… In fact, I’d say that they’re investigating the dean’s entire department and the College of Mathematics for some reason. I can see FBI fingerprints everywhere.”

“Why would the FBI care about a postgrad cheating scandal?” Elaine said.

“Misappropriating Federal funds, I bet,” Frog said. “You said that whatever has been changing the decision making of the college might be sabotage—or it might be designed to game the system. Money is a powerful motive.”

A cheerful trill from Hadaly brought attention back to her virtual avatar. She grinned hugely at Elaine’s raised eyebrows and Frog’s pursed lips.

“I have something even better for you,” the AI girl said, “as per Elaine’s instructions I expanded my search through historical grade data across the United States and I found another event very similar to ours.” She flashed a grin at both Elaine and Frog from the window into her virtual space. “Sending it to the Enoch right now, boss.”

“Receiving,” Elaine said, she pulled her goggles down again and perused the datasets that flickered in front of her eyes like digital fireflies. Multiple graphs and charts expanded from a small point to push in and out of focus—in them, she saw all the familiar patterns: zones of light, zones of darkness, and a series of manifolds that intersected and feathered against one another.

The effect looked far simpler from whatever was affecting ASU and it had a much shorter reach—only affecting Economics graduate programs and it centered around a Minnesota university that she knew nothing about. However, the similarities were distinct and purposeful.

“This looks like a primitive version of the effect we’ve witnessed here and now,” Elaine said. “I think we might be looking at the second version of the spell software with what’s happening to ASU right now.”

“Now tell me you love me,” the AI said, she preened proudly behind the screen and even gave herself a slight halo radiant light off her virtual skin.

“We love you, Hadaly,” Frog said.

Elaine ploughed on with her analysis without remark—the lights and the data surrounding her gave her an intense desire to determine the holes in the puzzle.

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