“Okay, wait, wait,” Marina piped up with obvious confusion. “What exactly are we saying here? That three people are missing entirely? I mean, he did say two-hundred-and-eighty-seven before, then suddenly it was two-hundred-and-eighty-four. But… but how could three people just completely disappear from his memory like that? Wait, do you remember saying that?” Her focus turned to Sitter himself. “Do you know why you went from eighty-seven to eighty-four?”
There was a brief pause as the robot seemed to consider the question before his head shook. “I do recall it, of course. Now that it has been pointed out, the discrepancy is readily apparent. But no, I cannot say why the difference exists. My memory right now says that there are two-hundred-and-eighty-four guests. Yet the idea that I could have, as biologicals might say, misspoken before, is quite impossible. I must have seen the guest population as being two-hundred-and-eighty-seven at that time. Which can only mean that my memory has been adjusted between the time that I first announced the number of guests, and the next time.”
“Which was after we let down the time-lock,” I pointed out. You told us one number, then turned off the lock so they could move again, and suddenly the number adjusted by three.”
Dakota piped up quickly. “So those three must’ve done something to change his memories.”
My head was slowly nodding. “Yeah, I mean they had to have. I dunno why, maybe all three of them were involved in the murders. Easiest way to hide would be to make you forget they exist. But you said they couldn’t possibly get out of this place, right, Sitter?”
“Yes,” he confirmed. “Until the murders are solved, there is no way to escape this vault. Even if they could breach the walls, it would not lead them anywhere, as we are in a pocket reality. Only once the murderer is identified will the knowledge of how to turn off the lockdown enter my programming. And even if they were aware of how to do that themselves, which is quite impossible on its own, I would detect the moment the procedure began. It has not.”
“Which probably means they don’t know how,” I agreed with a murmur. “But they did change your memory. And that–hang on. No one came around you. We know no one came up with a screwdriver and wrench or whatever to do some reprogramming while we were standing there.”
Making a noise in the back of her throat, Denny hesitantly spoke up. “Um, I… remember something from Ammon’s… uhh, memories. There was one time when he had to change some camera recordings so his dad wouldn’t find out what he was up to, but instead of going to each camera, he made a guy let him into the main server room to change just that.”
“Hey, yeah,” Dakota agreed, looking back to our robot guide. “Do you have a server somewhere that controls your programming and all that? It’s not all just inside this shell, right?”
My head was already bobbing. “There has to be something like that. You keep saying that your programming will be updated with the knowledge of how to undo the lockdown once the murderer is caught. And since the man himself isn’t here anymore, that has to mean there’s another system somewhere waiting to update you with the new knowledge, right?”
“Just like how whoever this was updated him with new memories of how many guests there are,” Sesh pointed out, giving a double-take that way as she showed her impressive rows of teeth. “Does that mean they’re in the special server room right now?”
“There is another server room which runs every system in this vault,” Sitter confirmed. “It is also where my core programming is stored. I do not believe that anyone could access the important details, but… theoretically it is possible for someone to have infiltrated the room and make certain minor adjustments, such as the number of guests currently within the vault. That is something which changed semi-regularly, so it would not be particularly well-locked information.”
“So let’s get down there,” Marina immediately put in. “Even if they’ve already left, there might be, you know, clues or something. Plus–wait, hang on.” She did a quick about-face to look back into the other room where the rest of the guests were all waiting. “No one in there brought up anyone being missing, right? Not in any interview or when you were looking through their memories.”
“They didn’t,” I confirmed while shaking my head. “Which means whoever did this probably adjusted those memories when they made them each think they themselves were the murderer. We already knew they were pretty good at changing that sort of thing.” Belatedly, I added with a grimace. “Good enough to fool me, anyway. If Sariel was here, it’d be a different story.”
Marina’s hand moved to my shoulder. “Hey, she’s also had, what, several thousand years worth of practice? Give you that much time and I’m pretty sure you could slam dunk your way through noticing and fixing those memory adjustments too. Err, wait, which is better, slam dunk or homerun? I’m not really that much of a sports person.” She paused briefly, then added, “Please tell me they’re not both from the same sport.”
Smiling just a little, I gestured. “It’s the thought that counts. And yeah, you’re right, she has a bit of a head start. Rght now we’re what we’ve got to work with. So let’s go down to that server room and see if we can figure out who those three missing people are.”
Sesh gestured over her shoulder back toward the auditorium. “Maybe someone should stay here and talk to these guys? I know their memories have been screwed up, but if we point out that there’s a few missing, maybe it’ll trigger something. Whoever did this couldn’t have had that much time to make their adjustments perfect, you know? Ask the right questions and we might be able to poke enough holes in adjusted memories to make something important fall out.”
Considering that briefly, I nodded. “Uh, yeah just be careful about it. They’re pretty delicate right now, what with finding out their friend was murdered and one of them could’ve done it.”
“I’ll stay with her,” Marina announced. “We can talk to them, find out if anything pops up when they start thinking about missing guests. And yeah, we’ll be careful.” She hesitated, then looked toward Denny and Dakota. “Do you guys want to stay here, or–”
“We’ll go with Flick and Sitter,” Denny immediately replied, her gaze snapping to me. “I mean, if that’s okay?”
“Hey, sure thing.” I wasn’t sure how much of her immediate answer had to do with wanting to help me in the server room and how much had to do with not wanting to potentially have to use her power to interrogate the other guests. But either way, I wasn’t going to argue. They could help wherever they wanted to help.
Dakota was nodding. “Yeah, Flick shouldn’t go off all on her own. Err, I mean, not that you’d be completely alone.” She looked toward the robot standing nearby. “But, that is–”
“It is quite alright, Lady Dakota,” Sitter assured her. “You have only barely met me, and it has already been proven that my memories can be tampered with. While I still believe such adjustments would not be possible when it comes to my actual important, core programming, you can hardly be faulted for wishing to be more careful. Looking after one’s friends is important.”
Focusing on Marina and Sesh, I spoke up. “You guys be careful in here too, okay?” With that, I dug into my pocket and came out with a small, already enchanted coin, passing it toward the older girl. “Here’s an emergency alert spell. Anything happens, trigger it. I uh, assume you know how.”
“Yeah, I’ve used them before,” Marina confirmed while tucking it away. “So you’ve got one of the opposite coins?”
Nodding, I gestured to my pocket. “You set that one off and mine’ll start raising hell. And vice versa. We might not be able to communicate with the outside world, but we can at least let each other know if something goes wrong. And speaking of which…” I focused for a moment. “Okay, I set my taboo word as bletherskate. If you say that word, I’ll see your face and hear one word before it and one word after that. You could say, ‘need bletherskate help’ and I’ll hear all three words. It’s not a lot, but between that and the alarm spell, we should be okay.” That all explained, I paused before adding, “Be careful in there, guys.”
“You too,” Marina insisted before looking at Dakota and Denny. “All of you be careful.” The girl reached out, tugging me by the arm to take a few steps away before lowering her voice. “Take care of them, okay? They both want to help, but just… just be careful.”
I nodded, meeting her gaze. “I will. Believe me, I’m not about to let anything happen to them.”
With that, Sesh and Marina went back into the auditorium to talk to the rest of the guests, while the three of us followed Sitter to the elevator. On the way, Dakota spoke up. “Do you really think there could be three extra people hiding somewhere in this place?”
“The entire facility is quite large,” Sitter replied while stepping onto the elevator and gesturing for us to join him. “I find it plausible that a trio of unknown beings could remain out of sight. Particularly if they have some way of identifying our location, such as a gift allowing them to sense others from a distance.”
“I’ve got a sense like that myself,” I agreed while stepping onto the elevator with the others. “It doesn’t stretch very far, but maybe theirs does. Or they have really good hearing, or x-ray vision, or–” I coughed before waving a hand. “Let’s just say it’s not exactly a short list. There are a lot of different ways they could keep track of where we are. Hell, they might even be listening to us right now. To which, I would say–” From my pocket, I produced a different enchanted coin. This was the same privacy spell used so often last year, but not as much now. Still, I had plenty already prepared. Activating the spell, I tucked the coin away while continuing, “There, it’s not perfect, but this should keep them from understanding what we’re saying from now on. That way, if we do find something important, they won’t know about it. Unless whatever power they’re using is stronger than this privacy spell. Or they’re using some sort of visual thing to see what we’re doing. Or–”
“It’s okay, Flick,” Dakota put in. “We just need to be careful, right? If they do know what we’re doing, we’ll uhh, have to make sure they can’t do anything about it. And keep our eyes open so we don’t get murdered too.”
“Yeah, not getting murdered too is a good idea,” I agreed with a grimace. “So, you’re right, let’s keep our eyes open and make sure they don’t catch us with our pants down. We know there’s three of them out there, wherever and whoever they are. Sitter, I don’t suppose going back over all your memories shows any… conflicts that would explain three missing people? Or at least imply their existence?”
There was a brief pause as his head slowly turned to me, those mouth lights shifting to a soft blue. “I have indeed been going over memories. I believe you are correct, there are several missing people who should have been there. Putting together the amount of food consumed, chairs and other furniture used, time taken to clean, chores assigned, and more all implies the presence of at least two to three more people. I cannot, however, narrow it to more detail than that. Not yet, in any case. Given more time, I may be able to determine more information through exact dietary and medical needs.”
Reaching out to squeeze the robot’s shoulder in a gesture that was probably completely pointless given the whole ‘robot’ thing to begin with, I replied, “Well, good luck. And here’s hoping it’s that easy. I mean, not that that sounds easy, but… more information is good.”
“Yeah,” Denny put in quickly. “If you can figure out what type of people we’re dealing with, maybe that’ll tell us how they’re hiding. And if we know how they’re hiding–”
“Maybe we can find them!” Dakota finished. She and the other girl high-fived then, before both sobered as she turned back to me. “Do you think they’re all trying to get out of here? I mean, did they all kill Valdean Ecclestone together, or are they just friends, or…”
“I dunno,” I replied with a helpless shrug. “All I know is three of them are missing and it can’t be a coincidence. It has to be connected to the murders. So we find them, and we’ll probably be able to find our answers.”
“I’m glad,” Denny murmured while the elevator rose up one level before starting to slide backwards on its way to our destination. “I mean, I’m glad it wasn’t one of the people in there. I liked them.”
“That’s a good point,” I agreed. “They were all nice. If we can find out and prove that the real murderer is one of… or all of these three, it–well, it won’t be good, but at least we can tell the others that they’re all innocent. But uh, that’s probably getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s focus on getting to this server room to see if they left any clues behind.”
Almost as soon as I said that, the elevator stopped and Sitter announced that we were there. As the doors opened, we found ourselves facing a fourteen by fourteen foot room with one large black computer server running down the middle, leaving only about a foot of space between it and either end wall. The server reached almost all the way up to the ten foot high ceiling, and stood two feet wide. Beyond that, there was a desk in one back corner of the room with an actual computer terminal on it. Probably connected to the main server.
Taking all that in, I made a face. “You know, it’s just now occurring to me to wish that we had someone with real technical expertise in here with us. I mean, my dad might think I’m a genius because I know how to set up an ad blocker on his browser, but somehow I don’t think that’s gonna help right here.”
Denny gave a slow nod. “Uh huh, and even if I wanted to use the you-know-what power, it doesn’t work on computers. See, I’m pretty useless.”
Dakota gestured. “Hey, my thing is all about using plants. This isn’t a plant. But I’m still gonna try to help. Besides, we’ve got Sitter.” Her hand reached out to pat the robot on the back. “He can probably take care of any technical stuff, right?”
Mouth lights shifting to green, Sitter confirmed, “Yes, Lady Dakota. I will begin searching the server for any record of tampering or access. This will take several minutes.” He immediately stepped over not to the actual computer terminal, but the server itself. His hand rose and some sort of plug in jack extended from his palm before finding its way into an outlet there. Then his mouth lights began to cycle through every color imaginable as he worked.
”Okay,” I started while turning back to the other two, “why don’t we look around here? It doesn’t look like there’s much room for them to have left anything behind, but you never know. They might’ve dropped something, or touched something, or whatever.”
So, the three of us spread out to search every corner of this small room. Just as I had expected, however, there didn’t seem to be anything worth finding. The place was pretty pristine. There were no secret coded notes, or a hat with convenient hairs in it, or a glass we could get fingerprints off of, or anything like that. If I hadn’t heard all about actual investigations from my dad over the years, I would’ve been surprised that crime dramas had been lying to me.
But that was the thing. If I knew one thing from all the talks I had with my dad about his own experiences, it was that no crime was perfect. The problem with trying to pull off the perfect crime was that you only had to make one mistake. Touch the wrong thing at the wrong time, forget one of the lies you told to someone, leave something sitting where you shouldn’t, or anything like that. There were too many ways for someone to screw up. And it only had to happen once for your entire intricate plan to come unraveled.
That’s what we were looking for, the one mistake. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like they’d made an obvious one here in the server room. At least, not at first. The three of us had given the whole place a once-over with no luck, and I was just about to tell Dakota and Denny that it looked like we were going to have to hope that Sitter came up with something. Except, just as I was turning to do that, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. One of the glass doors for the various shelving units that made up the entire server was very slightly ajar. It was incredibly easy to miss, given you had to stand at the right spot and look at it from the right angle to even notice that the glass door wasn’t shut and locked like the rest of them. Squinting that way, I leaned closer and gave it a slight poke with my finger. The door slid open, revealing the assortment of networked machines humming away behind it.
“Flick?” Dakota asked, stepping closer along with Denny. “What is it?”
“Someone left this open,” I murmured, giving both of them a look before turning my attention that way. “Something tells me it wasn’t Sitter. Let’s see…” With that, I leaned in, gaze sliding over the equipment in front of me. Not that I would’ve known if anything was out of place, but still. Someone had clearly been messing with this area recently.
Leaning in close to me while I was helplessly studying the complicated assortment of computer pieces, Denny pointed. “Hey, look. That’s probably not supposed to be there.”
My eyes focused on what she was gesturing to. A USB drive, sort of. It looked like a somewhat thick pen with the connector sticking out of one end and into the back of one of the bits of machinery. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but she was right, it didn’t look like it belonged there.
“Yeah, that’s probably something new,” I agreed, hesitating. “But what’s it for?”
“Location tracking,” Dakota announced. When we both looked that way, she held up a thick binder with an assortment of notes in it. “It was under the computer over there. It’s like an instruction manual or something. There’s a diagram of the server for a repair person to use, and this spot says it’s for location tracking in the vault. There’s no cameras, but he still keeps track of what rooms have people in them and how many.”
“That makes sense,” I murmured. “I mean, the system probably turns off lights, oxygen, temperature control, stuff like that in rooms where no one is. Even if he gave them privacy by not spying on what they’re saying or doing, he still has the system monitor which rooms are occupied in order to save power or whatever else.”
“So these guys put something in that system?” Denny asked before her expression twisted a bit. “Probably so no one would know where they were.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “It’s gotta be blocking the system from noticing that it’s giving power and light somewhere that’s supposed to be empty. So do we just yank it out?”
“Wait,” Denny quickly put in. “If you do that, they might know we found it. Or maybe the system will shut off the air and stuff in that area. They might be bad, but–”
I was already nodding. “But we don’t want to just kill them like that. Especially before we know the truth about what’s going on and why.”
Dakota leaned in closer to stare at that little device for another moment before tentatively asking, “Do you think Sitter can do something with it? Maybe he can figure out what areas it’s blocking, so we can find them.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I agreed before turning that way. “Hey, Sitter! We found something, do you have any idea how much longer your thing will take?”
There was no response, so I walked that way, seeing the robot standing there, still plugged in. “Uh, sorry to interrupt, but–” My hand reached out to touch his arm. But when I did so, he literally tipped over. His attachment came out of the computer, and his entire body collapsed to the floor with a startlingly loud clang right in front of me.
Jumping back in surprise, I found myself standing next to Dakota and Denny, who had come running up to see what was going on. Together, the three of us stared. Sitter was just lying there on the ground, his body completely motionless. His mouth lights were completely off. It was like he had been shut down entirely.
“Well,” I finally managed, “that can’t be good.”