The Haruspex Analytics boardroom is emptier than it was the day before. The men and women sitting in it don’t know why—not precisely—but they are painfully aware of the rumors.
Each man and woman waiting patiently for the Chairman to arrive has received an unending stream of worried calls from their own underlings about an unusual level of absenteeism all over the building. No part of the employee population has been untouched: every department was reporting that at least one employee, often more than one, had not arrived that morning. What’s more, attempts to contact those employees had failed.
A company specializing in handling sensitive information can’t afford to overlook such things—as such, this emergency meeting had been called, at which point it was discovered that the absenteeism extended even to members of the board. It didn’t take long to determine that roughly 20% of the Haruspex population is missing.
Jason Kline shifts uncomfortably in his chair. He is not a board member, but he’s been sitting in on board meetings fairly regularly for the last month. His team has also been affected by a disappearance—Billy Davison didn’t come in this morning.
Unfortunately, he’s pretty sure he knows why.
He’s pretty sure the other board members do as well—they’re not willing to admit it just yet, but it’s lurking there in the backs of their minds. He can tell by the way the board members, usually men and women who exhibit extraordinary self control, can’t stop glancing furtively at Mara Ioannou. She alone among them has adopted their traditional demeanor—a neutral, emotionless expression that reveals nothing. She meets Jason’s gaze for a moment, and he quickly lowers his eyes.
The wall behind the Chairman’s spot at the table opens soundlessly, and the Chairman steps out of darkness, into shadow. He sits, his features obscured by the shadows in that part of the room. The furtive whispers in the room die off. All eyes turn to him.
The Chairman sits motionless, chin resting on his right hand. All Jason can hear are the people around him breathing.
“We are not all here,” the Chairman says, a hint of sadness in his voice, “and I am well aware that the sudden gaps in our organization go far beyond this room. Indeed, you will find that a full one fifth of us are gone. They will not return.”
Jason’s temples pound, his senses reeling from the tension in the room. The Chairman sighs heavily, the outline of his head turning as he takes in everyone in the room.
“I have invoked Article Thirteen for each of their contracts.”
Jason gapes, open-mouthed, as he stares at the Chairman’s shadowed form in astonishment.
“I know many of you consider Article Thirteen something we use to clear ‘dead wood,’” the Chairman says. “There is some truth to that. Article Thirteen is best used to remove employees who have lost their dedication to our purpose. That is not what happened yesterday. Yesterday we lost some among us that we might consider our very best and brightest.”
Jason thinks about Billy and tightens his jaw.
“Article Thirteen states that employees agree that they are fungible. That they may be called to make sacrifices for the company that include genuine sacrifice. Last night we were in a position where it was necessary—tactically necessary—to subject a much wider range of employees to it.”
It is a testament to the discipline of everyone in the room, no matter how ragged they may be feeling at the moment, that they don’t ask questions. Jason wishes someone would—he wishes he were brave enough to do so—but he, and everyone else in the room, wait in silence for the Chairman to continue.
“I do not need to remind you of the forces that are in play. To pursue our goal, we have had to use what resources presented themselves, even when they were not ours to use. Last night we were obliged to render payment. This morning we find ourselves debt free. Further, we find ourselves in a position where we no longer have to be as concerned about interference from other powers and principalities.”
Still no speech, but now the board members exchange glances with raised eyebrows. Jason is only dimly aware of exactly what the Chairman is referring to—that side of the project is something that he can’t seem to make much sense of—but the board members obviously find this important.
“I will brief you more fully—as much as I can—at a later date,” the Chairman says. “For now, we have to spend some time… readjusting. I want to make sure our organization is stable before we move forward.”
The board members settle back into their chairs. One by one they slip into the same expression Mara Ioannou has worn through the whole meeting—cool, detached, attentive, emotionless.
“First,” the Chairman says, “we must take steps to see that the investigations into our employees’ disappearances—there will be investigations, I’m afraid—do not link them with our organization in any way. We can’t afford public scrutiny at this juncture.”
Some of the board members nod in agreement.
“Mara, I want you to lead this effort. Use Mr. Kline’s team, I believe they have some experience with this kind of thing.” Jason starts as the Chairman calls him by name. He glances at Mara, who continues to stare at the Chairman, no reaction visible on her face.
“Second, we must bring our remaining employees in as far as we are able. Make it known that Article Thirteen was invoked, but also make it clear that the employees no longer with us were neither traitors nor incompetent. See to it that the families of those employees receive full bereavement benefits, though of course those benefits should be through obscure channels—unexpected inheritance, life insurance policies the employee had but didn’t tell the family about, that sort of thing.”
More board members nod in agreement.
“Finally,” the Chairman says, “there is the matter of our missing board members. We will need to replenish our ranks from within. I need nominations from all of you by tomorrow afternoon. All nominations must be from within the company. Understood?”
A murmur of assent fills the room.
“Good,” the Chairman says. “It seems appropriate, at this point, that I make a nomination of my own.”
The room falls silent again, all board members waiting expectantly.
The Chairman’s silhouette shifts. Jason shudders slightly as he feels the man’s gaze fall on him.
“Mr. Kline,” the Chairman says.
Jason swallows nervously. “Sir?” He manages to keep most of the tremor out of his voice.
“I have been very pleased with your work.”
“Thank you sir,” Jason says.
“Normally I would prefer to wait until more of the deficiencies in your knowledge have been addressed—don’t take that as a slight, knowledge of the existence of magic is a very closely guarded secret the world over, and it takes time to effectively integrate that knowledge into your worldview—but we are short on personnel, and the board members who have worked with you have all been impressed with your contributions thus far.”
Jason stares at the Chairman, unable to keep the expression of shock from his face.
“Are you ready to take a step further in? To go deeper? Can we count on you, Mr. Kline, to commit?”
Every eye in the room is on him now. All of the board members stare at him, expressionless, waiting for his reply.
Jason takes a deep, steadying breath. “Yes sir.”
The Chairman nods. “Good. Then with the board’s consent, I would like to nominate Jason Kline as a full member of the board.”
“Aye.” They speak in a single voice; their assent rings in Jason’s ears as he struggles not to flush.
“Then it is settled,” the Chairman says approvingly. “Mr. Kline, there are a few formalities that must be settled—and your new employment contract will be considerably more complicated than your current one—but it is with great pleasure that I welcome you, our newest member, to the Haruspex Analytics Board of Directors.”
The room erupts into applause. The reserve is gone from their faces as they greet their newest member. Mara is beaming at him.
Jason blinks a few times, trying to make sure it isn’t a dream. Somewhere in the back of his mind he wonders how Billy would feel about this.
It’s an errant thought, quickly suppressed.