honing in on the heart of it all

pg-13 | no warnings apply

Patience was a virtue, her father used to tell her.

Alice stared at the projection on the wall as each new image appeared, trying to summon that elusive virtue. Phi was carefully scanning the files Sigma had stolen into the computer. The notebooks were handwritten - not that unusual for groups that want to ensure nobody can hack their information.

Even with the best security, computer systems always had a weak link - the people using them. Half the time, Ennea didn't even really have to try.

Leave a portable storage drive in a parking lot, or a lobby. Wait for some curious idiot to plug it in somewhere.

Send a threatening email to accounts payable and wait for some clueless moron to download the "overdue invoice".

And, of course, viruses on porn sites. With any large organization - or even any small organization - someone somewhere is looking for "big cock" or "amateur threesome" while they're supposed to be working.

But you can't hack a notebook.

If you think it's damn near impossible for someone to get your information, you make mistake #1 - using a weak encryption for your data.

Granted, it was impressive that they had even encrypted the data at all. Most people who used handwritten methods of recordkeeping often didn't bother, or they used a simple substitution cipher that was easy to remember. These "Cortex" people had at least gone a bit farther than that.

But, mistake #2 - while they encrypted the data, it was still clear what the data was: a ledger. Strings of digits with a dash over to a dollar figure. They even put "credit" and "debit" above the appropriate columns, in plain text. Arrogance or stupidity. Perhaps both.

Phi's computer program was putting the information into a document that could be manipulated, but there were some letters and occasionally whole words that weren't clear enough for the algorithm to read, so it left spots blank. Clover was dutifully checking each notebook as the blanks popped up, reading the missing numbers or letters out loud so Phi could input them. That meant long lulls of silence were interrupted by flipping pages, Clover's "ummms," and tapping on the keyboard.

It didn't help that Sigma kept walking back and forth, grunting occasionally in pain from his injuries from last night's fiasco. There was no need for him to be here.

It didn't help that they were ten months out from Brother's Decision Game, eight months out from their agency's uneasy alliance with Akane, and they had little to show for it beyond tenuous leads and a board full of "possible" religious fanatics. There wasn't a religion in existence that hadn't been perverted and twisted to suit some megalomaniac's purpose. A group of radical Baptists in Texas who thought America had lost its way. A bizarre cult born from former Amish housewives that wanted men exterminated. A small terror cell that claimed to be Muslim but disregarded nearly everything in the Qur'an and operated off their Hadith.

And of course, the Scientologists.

Most days, Alice felt like they weren't getting anywhere. Or worse, being led astray.

She closed her eyes for a moment. She needed to focus.

Where the page number should be, "5183" was on every sheet. Was mistake #3 that they hid the information she needed in plain sight? Her mind factored it into 71 times 73 easily, and the cover on the front had said 731, so -

"You know you talk to yourself while you're doing that, right? Or are you just trying to impress us with your math skills?"

At Sigma's words, she blinked and the numbers she had been envisioning and rearranging in her mind disappeared. She turned her head to glare at him and saw he was rubbing his head just above his black eye. She was pissed with him enough as is.

"Should I go get Kwan?" Clover asked. Alice waved her off.

It was only a guess, but public-key cryptography wasn't obsolete yet, so maybe 731 times something equaled 1 (mod 70x72). She started with 5041 as Phi kept sporadically typing, as she heard Sigma pacing behind her, and it took her too damn long to get to 95761, divisible by 731 to produce 131.

She didn't bother to mentally check to see if the numbers were relatively prime; her instinct said yes. Alice sat down in front of the other computer and built the algorithm easily. It didn't take long to see that she was correct - the coded data was being converted into names of people and groups. Some of them were familiar - individuals who were already on the SOIS's radar, groups that were known or suspected terrorist organizations. Some were businesses and restaurants, mostly fast food. Some were just addresses with no names. Nona was going to be busy the next few days.

"How did you figure that out?" Clover's voice was full of awe. Alice didn't usually get a chance to show off her mental math ability much during their jobs.

"RSA," she replied absently. "They used values of insufficient length, so that made it easy."

"Oh, so it's like the Reamin' Hypothesis? You have to consider length, girth, lubrication?"

That got Alice's attention. Phi stopped typing and Sigma stopped pacing.

"The Riemann hypothesis has to do with a zeta function and its non-trivial zeroes," Phi said. "What are you talking about?"

Clover looked confused for a moment before her cheeks turned the color of her hair and she muttered her brother's name under her breath.

"Never mind," she said when she realized everyone was staring at her. "I'm going to ki - wait, Phi, go back. I know that address."

"Which one?" Alice asked.

"The one in Toronto. Mountbatten Avenue."

"That sounds familiar to me, too," Phi muttered as she typed in a search query. She hit enter and frowned at the screen. "Well, that was pointless."

The address led to Cosmic Colouring, a company that "produced amazing hair dye with colours that were out of this world".

"That's where we know it from," Phi said, flatly. "I get Refined Moondust delivered four times a year."

"Mine is Tarantula Nebula," Clover volunteered.

Not likely to be a front, then. Payment was made to them, so they weren't funding terrorism.

She almost dismissed it and moved on, but chose instead to do a quick search for Canadian exchange rates. That told her $127.03 USD was $150 CAD, which according to their website was the price of a three-month dye and touch-up kit, with free shipping anywhere in North America.

It couldn't possibly lead to anything.

But she had never been one to dismiss a clue, no matter how small.

Alice located two contact emails and dropped Nona's spikes in both of them, routing it through their proxy server in Connecticut. Now they just had to wait to see if someone fell for "URGENT OVERDUE INVOICE" or "h0t gurls want u".

In the meantime, they set about highlighting the data from the notebook.

Green for known criminal entities, yellow for ones they only suspected of being such.

Blue for people, organizations, and addresses that had no known criminal ties.

Red for those who were completely unknown.

It didn't exactly narrow their focus. The Cortex had connections to The New Nazi Nationalist Party - funneling funds to them shortly before their bombing in New Orleans, she noted - but also eco-terrorists, the Army of Islam, a subset of the Mormon Church that wanted to bring back polygyny and child brides, and a fringe group that advocated the extinction of humanity so animals could rule the Earth.

There were donations to both Republicans and Democrats, as well as several thousand dollars to an Independent candidate in the last Presidential election.

And some of the smaller transactions were benign and likely to lead nowhere - $42.75 at a Dunkin Donuts. $35.99 at a gas station.

Anarchists, perhaps. No endgame except chaos. She had seen it before.

Maybe Akane's intel was wrong. It wouldn't be the first time.

Nuclear war would bring about chaos, yes, but most anarchists wanted to be around to view the fruits of their labor. Not to mention, if your goal is the end of the world, why bother balancing your checkbook? Why dutifully record that they spent $19 on a turnpike?

Nona's program dinged, a sign that someone had opened a spike and downloaded it onto a workstation at Cosmic Colouring. They had gone for the invoice, not the porn. Surprising. Phi got into their books rather easily and did a search for transactions of $150 CAD, going one week forward and one week back from the date in the ledger, even as she posited aloud that such a search would easily bring up hundreds of transactions.

Three hundred forty-two, to be exact.

There was no easy way to narrow it down, and this could end up being just another wild goose chase, just like London. Three weeks of surveillance, an agent's cover completely blown, and they had nothing to show for it except a small scar on Aoi's leg.

She could give the list to -

"Phi, look."

Alice glanced up to see that Sigma had moved over behind his daughter and was now pointing at something on the screen. Phi furrowed her brow for a moment before clarity blossomed on her face.

"That's our connection," she said, turning to Alice. "One of these shipments was made to the ACME compound."

"Why would someone there send them hair dye?" Clover asked.

"Simple," Sigma said, with his typical arrogance. "Someone in this organization lives there."

"Not just someone," Alice pointed out. "Someone high enough up in the organization that nobody questions them using the group's funds for personal items."

"Well, there's no name on the order." Phi started typing again. "Name on the credit card is bound to be fake. But we can see what was ordered."

Alice suspected she already knew what it would be - a color that matched Idylla's platinum blonde hair. There were only 5 people who actually lived at their headquarters, allowing them to exploit a tax break -

With a small beep, the computer displayed:

One (1) Supply of Carina Nebula (Deep, Daring Blue)

The assistant. The meek girl who seemed so sweet and kind, utterly out of place in a room full of racist hatemongers.

"Nuria?" Clover's question was nearly drowned out by a now-familiar sound - Sigma's fist pounding on a table.

"Okay, that's our connection. Let's go get her."

"And do what?" Phi asked before Alice could.

"Bring her back here!" he bellowed. "Interrogate her. Get the truth out of her so we can stop this nuclear war from happening! This ends here."

"Oh, for fuck's sake; this is exactly the kind of attitude that got your ass kicked last night!" Alice shot back.

"I did not get my ass kicked!"

"Can we not yell?" Clover asked.

"If we fail, it'll be because of the arrogance of you, and Akane, and everyone in this damn organization!" she continued, ignoring her partner. "You should have taken someone with you on that damn mission!"

"I didn't want to put any more lives at risk!"

They could probably hear the shouting all the way down the hall in the biolab, but Alice didn't relent.

"We have to put lives at risk! If this information is important, and you had died trying to get it out, then we wouldn't have it right now. If what Brother told you is true, and Akane is correct, someone is probably going to fucking die, and that's just the price we have to pay. Maybe it'll be you, maybe it'll be me, it might even be Diana, but this isn't some damn book or movie and there's no benevolent author or screenwriter who's going to make sure there's a happy ending and everyone makes it out alive. People die, Sigma; it's what they do!"

Clover gasped as Phi let out a deep exhale at the mention of her mother. Sigma's eyes were wide, his entire face tinged red.

"I refuse to believe that."

"Then you're a fool."

He glared at her for only a moment more before storming out. Eight months ago, she would have followed him to make sure he wasn't doing something rash. But she had learned that when he was enraged about something, he usually just sought out Diana to vent to her. She would calm him down, or more accurately, get him to accept what he already knew - that rushing in and grabbing Nuria would be a waste of time.

They knew virtually nothing about the Cortex. Akane claimed the information she got from Brother was sketchy - so much so that it had taken almost a month just to confirm they exist. This ledger gave them no real clue as to their purpose. If they even had one. For all they knew, Nuria and the Cortex were in the nebulous gray area that the Crash Keys inhabited - villains doing work towards a prosocial goal. Maybe Idylla's hateful cabal really was the force behind the apocalypse and Nuria was infiltrating them just like they were.

Sigma's 'punch first and worry about consequences later' attitude was entirely too dangerous.

Caught up in her thoughts, Alice didn't realize Phi was right in front of her until fingers wrapped around the lapel of her jacket. When Phi spoke, her voice managed to be soft and menacing at the same time.

"If something happens to Diana or Sigma or anyone here and I find out you didn't help them because you thought they were acceptable losses, I will kill you."

She could break Phi's arm and have her on the floor before the other woman could even blink. Instead, she simply put her hand over Phi's wrist and pushed down in a tender spot, just enough to get her fist to unclench. She knew what losing a parent did to a child, and if Alice was in Phi's position, she would be saying exactly the same thing.

"There are no acceptable losses," Alice said. "Only unavoidable ones."

"I refuse to believe that," she replied, echoing her father's words as she yanked her arm out of Alice's grasp and left.

When Alice turned around, she saw Clover flop down into the chair Phi had vacated, her mouth contorted into a grimace.

"Alice..." It was the same tone Clover used whenever she had to resort to drastic measures to get information out of someone. Even though - if Akane was telling the truth - there were timelines where Clover had used an axe to take revenge on those she believed killed her brother. And others where she threatened to kill everyone on the moon to avenge Alice's own death.

"Sugarcoating things doesn't help anyone." But even as she said it, she hated the look on Clover's face. Undoubtedly, she was thinking about Light, and how his survival wasn't guaranteed, either. Nobody's was. This could be the timeline where they fail horribly and mankind pays the price.

Uncertain what to do, she closed the distance between them and gently caressed Clover's cheek. Almost instantly, though, she remembered that Phi hadn't closed the door to the computer lab and she whipped her head around to make sure they were alone.

"Nobody's here to see," Clover said, rather dejectedly.

There had been dozens of conversations about how secrecy was necessary, about how they could lose their jobs, about how it could put them in more danger if their enemies knew of their weaknesses. She wasn't ashamed of Clover, or their relationship, but it was simply impossible to be open about it with their circumstances.

If one of them transferred to a different department ... but neither of them wanted that.

"Well. We're not getting anything done hanging around here," Alice said.

"What are we even going to do?" She shrugged her shoulders, her frown getting deeper.

They needed to modify their surveillance. Develop a plan for Phi to get closer to Nuria. Find out if, like Idylla, her fingerprints had been altered to be unreadable. Put her into the facial recognition database and see if the OVERSIGHT program could pull up images from airports, hotels, etc.

"Try to make the unavoidable avoidable," she offered instead.

It wasn't enough to get her to smile, but it did pull the corners of Clover's mouth up into a neutral expression and get her to stop slumping over.

As they headed to the exit, Alice let her fingers brush the back of Clover's hand, just slightly. Enough to look accidental, if anyone were to see it.