Homecoming: Part Four

Submitted by C B Wright on
Curveball, by Christopher Wright
Haruspex Analytics

The board room is large and windowless. It’s the first time Jason Kline has ever been in it, and something feels off balance. He fidgets in his seat, occasionally rubbing his eyes, chastising himself for not getting enough sleep the night before.

“Mr. Kline, how long have you been employed at Haruspex Analytics?”

The room is dimly lit, and The Chairman is almost covered in shadow. Jason can see him at the far end of the table, but not clearly. He’s leaning back in his chair, chin resting on his hand. The light is too dim to see his expression. Jason expects that’s intentional.

The other members of the board are easier to see, but they stare at him impassively, waiting for his answer. They’re not your usual board—there’s a pretty good mix of sexes, races, even ages. One of the board members actually looks younger than Jason. But they all stare at him impassively, betraying no emotion, waiting for his response. It adds to the unevenness of the room.

“Five years, sir.” Jason’s voice cracks slightly. There’s something wrong with the room and he can’t figure out what it is.

The Chairman waves slightly with his free hand, and a holographic image displays in the middle of the table. Jason has seen this once or twice, and the technology is fascinating: it always looks like you’re looking directly at a flat display, no matter what angle you view it from. It appears to be his personnel file.

“Five years,” The Chairman says. His voice is strong and rich. There’s experience in that voice, experience tinged with humor and anger both. It doesn’t speak to a specific age, though Jason suspects he’s older. In his fifties, perhaps. “And you’ve done very well for us. According to this file your service has been exemplary.”

“Yes sir,” Jason says. He’s not an arrogant man, but he doesn’t believe in false modesty. “I have.” He forces himself to acknowledge this: he has done incredible work in the last five years. Whatever they’re doing in this room to put him off balance, reminding himself of that helps him regain his focus.

“Tell us about your latest project.”

Jason steels himself. He doesn’t like delivering bad news. “My group was tasked with locating and gaining access to an email account. To date we have been unable to do so. We’ve only been working on it for a few days, and we certainly haven’t run out of options, but in my professional opinion we probably aren’t going to be able to do it.”

“I don’t want excuses, Mr. Kline.” The Chairman’s outline doesn’t move, but his voice is flinty. “I want results.”

“I’m not giving you an excuse, sir.” Jason allows his voice to harden a little in return—just a little. “I’m giving you my professional tactical analysis based on our experience so far.”

The room is silent. The board members continue to stare at him without expression. The Chairman doesn’t move, elbow still on armrest, chin still on hand.

Jason realizes what’s wrong with the room: it appears to be a circle, but it’s actually a slight oval—so slight you can barely notice in the dim light—and the table is turned clockwise about ten degrees off from the length of the room. That’s why nothing seems to line up correctly, and why his mind keeps trying to make it line up when it won’t.

“Go on,” the Chairman says. “Give us your tactical analysis.”

Now that he knows the trick, the room has lost its power over him. Jason feels his confidence return, and he leans forward to address the board.

“The email address makes the subject relatively easy to identify,” Jason says. “TTI is a Thorpe domain. Dr. Thorpe was a member of the New York City Guardians before he moved Thorpe Industries out of the United States. Liberty was using his own guardians.tti address to send the email. The address cb@chaos.tti obviously belongs to the hero Curveball…”

“Obviously?” The voice was female—one of the members of the board. “Why is this obvious?”

“He’s the only member of that group who would use ‘chaos’ as his domain name,” Jason says. “And he was Liberty’s… partner? Sidekick? They worked together for a long time, even before the Guardians. And they were enemies before that. Liberty’s email was sent to someone he knows, someone he’s close to, someone he shares a history with. It fits.”

He waits. No one replies, so he pushes ahead. “Unfortunately, knowing the identity of the recipient isn’t helpful from a purely technical perspective. We don’t understand enough about ThorpeNet to figure out how to crack it.”

“ThorpeNet?” A man’s voice this time. A very old voice, to his right.

“Dr. Thorpe is something of a prodigy in… well. In a lot of things. Cold fusion, cellular regeneration, alloys… and computer technology. Thorpe Industries uses its own high speed network for communication, and tti is the domain extension used to link that network to the Internet. And we can’t get past it. The man is decades ahead of us, sir. There are things we’re coming up against that I simply don’t understand, and I don’t know how to start understanding them.”

Jason relaxes slightly. It’s not good news, but he’s more comfortable now. “The file Liberty sent was encrypted. We haven’t been able to open it yet, and I’m not optimistic we ever will. The message Liberty sent was also encrypted—the only reason your people were able to read it in the first place was because they found it on Liberty’s own machine, which had the key.”

“But it didn’t have the key for the attached file,” The Chairman says.

“That’s right,” Jason says. “Obviously he had the key at one point, because he needed it to encrypt it in the first place. But he didn’t have it on that machine, and without it… it’s going to take a long time to break the encryption.”

“How long?” The Chairman asks, impatience seeping into his voice again.

“Years, sir. Years.” Jason takes a deep breath. “I don’t like admitting it, but we don’t have the hardware we need to brute force it.”

The room falls silent again. A soft sigh escapes The Chairman as he shifts in his seat.

“This is not the news I wanted to hear,” The Chairman admits. “But your failure isn’t a result of laziness, or incompetence… and I don’t punish my employees for honest failure. Are there any other options?”

“There are, generally speaking, three ways to get into an account,” Jason says. “The first is the way I described—trying to get in from the outside. The equivalent of trying to force a door open to break into a house. The second is to try to access it from the intended recipient’s computer.”

“Is that easier?” The Chairman asked.

“Sometimes,” Jason says. “It all depends on how paranoid the intended recipient is. All the security protocols in the world won’t do any good if Curveball is sloppy. But I don’t think he’s sloppy. He’s been off the grid for ten years. Nobody’s seen him. The Department of Homeland Security sends him an Abstention of Service check every month and they still can’t figure out where he lives.”

“Abstention of Service?” The old man again.

“The government essentially pays him a pension as long as he agrees not to… get involved,” Jason says. “I don’t know the specifics of it, but it appears to have something to do with the Prodigy scandal.”

That actually provokes a reaction from the board. Looks of genuine surprise appear on the board members’ faces as they begin murmuring to each other in low voices. The Chairman clears his voice, and the board falls silent. Their masks return.

“You said there was a third option,” The Chairman says.

“Social engineering,” Jason says. “Essentially you find someone who can access the email account and you con them out of the information. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to approach it.”

“What do we know about Curveball?” It’s the woman who questioned him earlier.

“I can speak to that.” The board member to his immediate right, a distinguished-looking middle aged man with salt and pepper hair, opens a dossier sitting in front of him. “With your permission, Chairman.”

The Chairman nods.

Jason looks over the board member’s shoulder at the dossier. The name CURVEBALL is hand-written in faded blue ink on a white label, and the words PROPRIETARY and SECRET are stamped on the front—literally stamped, from an ink stamp. Nobody uses those any more, and he realizes this information is at least twenty years old.

“We have very little information on Curveball,” the board member says. “The most we have was acquired from the Federal Bureau of Metahuman Affairs when the Guardians first sought Government Sanction in 1989. All of the founding members were required to go through a complete battery of tests, including the metahuman classification tests.”

“How accurate were the tests in 1989?” The Chairman asks.

“They were very crude, compared to what we have now,” the board member says. “It was at the beginning of that program, and they were looking for baseline data. But they were able to determine some very general things. They could detect whether someone genuinely was psychic, for example, as opposed to someone simply using misdirection to convince people they were. They could detect specific DNA markers that accompanied metahuman mutation. All of Curveball’s tests were negative. He was the only founding member that tested within standard human norms, across the board. His IQ was high, but still within human norms.”

“That’s hard to believe,” Jason says, then mentally kicks himself to speaking out of turn.

If the board member was angry, he doesn’t show it. “I agree,” he says. “We have film footage of Curveball doing things that… normal people shouldn’t be able to do. But there was nothing in his physiology that explained it. No genetic abnormalities. No trace of psychic ability. Even Gladiator tested as a mutant, and his only innate ‘power’ is his intellect…”

“So,” The Chairman muses, “the recipient of Liberty’s email—assuming Mr. Kline’s theory is correct, which I believe to be the case—is, for all intents and purposes, an unknown quantity.”

Jason feels the topic of the conversation is going to move away from his area of expertise, and, potentially, to drift into areas he might not be authorized to overhear. He clears his throat, then says “if you have no further need of me, Mr. Chairman, I’ll return to my work.”

“Ah,” The Chairman says, “yes… Mr. Kline.”

The board members return their attention to Jason. He tenses slightly.

“Your record with this company is excellent,” The Chairman says.

“Thank you, sir,” Jason says.

“You had a rather extensive career in the Intelligence community before joining our group, didn’t you?”

Jason nods. “Yes sir.”

The Chairman turns in his chair to look at someone to Jason’s left. “Mara, has he been vetted?”

“Fully.” It’s the woman from before. “He’s quite suitable. As is the rest of his team.”

The Chairman nods. “Excellent. Mr. Kline, don’t leave just yet. We’re going to bring your team more fully into this affair. In the next few days your team will be read in, but if the Board agrees I think we should bring you up to speed now.”

A murmur of assent echoes through the room.

“Very good,” The Chairman says. “Mr. Kline, the email Liberty sent to Curveball is of great concern to me, but an even greater concern is that he was able to gather enough information to prompt him to send that email to begin with. We have a security problem at Haruspex Analytics, and I believe we’ll need the services of you and your team to locate the source of that problem.”

“I see,” Jason says. “I’ll do everything I can, sir.”

“I know you will,” The Chairman says, “but first you need to understand exactly why this is so important.” He gestures with his free hand, and the holographic image on the table shifts, replacing Jason’s personnel file with a presentation slide.

“Project Recall?” Jason stares at the words and frowns. “What’s that?”

“It’s the single most important event in human history,” The Chairman says. “Now pay attention. I’m only going to say this once…”

Comments

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Small Typo

"Know that he knows the trick,"

I think you meant "now." :-)

Whoops.

Yes, I did mean that. :) Thanks! Fixed.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.