Curveball Issue 30: A Price Collected

Part Two: Haruspex Analytics Situation Room

Phyllis Tanner and Billy Davison have been partners longer than Jason Kline has known them. They were assigned to his team as a pair, and while they get along well with everyone in the group they are undeniably more effective working together than working apart. If Jason had to choose the most effective member of his team, he’d try to make a case for them being the same person split between two bodies.

Physically they couldn’t be more different. Billy is a surfer, and he embodies the stereotype. His blond hair (bleached even lighter from years out in the sun and surf), blue eyes, slightly tanned skin, and muscular physique make him look very out of place among his paler, chair-bound teammates.

Phyllis is his opposite: a heavyset black woman in her mid-fifties, gray swirls in black hair pulled back into a bun. The hairstyle, her choice of glasses (green horn rims), and her choice of dress (a silvery-green blouse and matching long skirt) make her look more like somebody’s mother, or a teacher from the fifties.

“Think I got it…” Phyllis doesn’t bother hiding the fatigue in her voice. “Need you to look it over, though.”

She pushes back, wheeling away from her laptop, as Billy scoots in, peering at the screen.

“What is it you think you have?” Jason assumes it has something to do with the location of Thorpe’s mysterious “island,” but everyone’s tired, and exposition helps them focus.

“Location of Thorpe,” Billy says.

Just to Jason’s right, Michelle Lawrence looks up over her laptop. “His island?” She pulls down on the drawstrings of her blue hoodie, causing the hood to pull over her face, with only her eyes peeking out.

“Not an island,” Phyllis says. “He’s on a boat.”

“Hold on a minute.” To Michelle’s right, Simon Yin runs his hand through his dark hair—his traditional spike matted and drooping due to days of neglect—and frowns in protest. “I thought we were looking for an island.”

“I thought we talked about this last night,” Phyllis says. “The parts of the ocean Billy and I are searching are too far out into the ocean for there to be any islands. Water’s too deep. So it has to be a boat.”

Simon sighs and leans back in his chair, closing his eyes as he tries to remember the conversation. “I thought everyone decided to skip those areas precisely because there wouldn’t be any islands there.”

“You’re right,” Billy says. He’s typing something into a terminal window on Phyllis’ machine. His voice is neutral—he hasn’t confirmed anything yet. “Phyllis is skipping over a bunch of stuff because let’s face it, we’re all tired.”

Jason can’t help but notice that Billy doesn’t sound tired.

“Yeah…” Phyllis nods slowly. “Sorry Simon. Billy’s right, and so are you—we did decide to skip those areas last night. Billy and I started looking at them again a few hours ago. I had a… hunch, and it led me back to the deep parts.”

“A hunch?” Jason feels a slight stirring of hope, and suddenly he doesn’t feel as tired as he did. Phyllis and Billy have a pretty good track record with hunches.

“Communication,” Phyllis says. “Thorpe Industries is a huge operation, and even though he stepped down as president he’s still involved. If Thorpe is somewhere in the middle of the ocean, how does he communicate with the rest of the outside world?”

“Satellites,” Michelle says.

“Satellites,” Phyllis agrees. “But not just any satellites. His satellites. He’ll want to keep all his communication in-house.”

Michelle’s eyes widen. “You have got to be kidding me. I am an idiot. I am such a fucking idiot.”

“I guess I’m still a fucking idiot,” Jason says. “I don’t get it.”

“You’re not idiots, you’re tired. Thorpe is holed up in the middle of nowhere, but he’s not the kind of guy to be cut off from the world. He’s going to have an impressive communications array wherever he is. And he’s going to link it to his own satellites up in the air.”

“Yeah, but Thorpe’s satellites are global,” Jason says. “That doesn’t narrow anything down at all.”

“That’s true for most people,” Billy says, “but Thorpe isn’t just browsing the web and watching YouTube videos. He’s a scientist—he’ll be consuming and transmitting tons of data. So he’s going to make sure that wherever he is he can maximize his bandwidth.”

“He’s got geostationary satellites that give his network global connectivity,” Phyllis says. “But geo is a weak signal, and it’s at the mercy of bad weather. You can boost it by investing in the right equipment—”

“—which we should assume he has,” Billy cuts in.

“Which we should assume he has,” Phyllis agrees. “But let’s not stop there. He has low- and mid-orbit satellites out there too.”

Finally, Jason gets it. “So if he’s mobile, he’ll want to pick a course that maximizes his access to all those satellites.”

“That’s the theory,” Billy says.

“Except that the range of a satellite’s signal is ‘the curvature of the earth,’” Simon points out. “That doesn’t really narrow things down much.”

“Except that he’s not using standard tech to communicate,” Phyllis says. “He uses an encrypted signal. We can’t break it, but we have a little information on what it looks like from the outside. It uses a lot of juice—probably not a problem for the man who invented cold fusion, sure, but he’s always going to look for ways to minimize that. Shorter ranges, rely on the low-orbit satellites as much as possible.”

Billy spins around in his seat, facing Phyllis. “Math looks good to me. I say we load it up and take a look.”

“Load what up?” Jason feels his pulse quicken.

“Haruspex has their own satellites,” Phyllis says. “Well, Haruspex has access to satellites. We want to use them to take pictures of the new, reduced search area.”

“But we have to be careful about it.” Billy turns back around in his seat and looks at Jason, a huge, boyish grin on his face. “We don’t want to do anything that will tip off a very intelligent, very paranoid metahuman scientist. Phyllis came up with a list of satellites that have the orbits and tech we need to take pictures without forcing them to do anything too noticeable.”

He turns the laptop around so the screen faces Jason, and pushes it across the table. Jason reaches out, pulling it closer, and stares at a spreadsheet full of satellite names, the time of day each satellite would be in the right position to take a picture, and what adjustments would need to be made to point their cameras in the right direction.

“Looks like it’ll take a few days to piece together a complete map.”

“Four days,” Billy says. “But we might get lucky.”

“If you don’t,” Jason says, “and he’s mobile… he’ll be four days away from wherever he was spotted.”

“We’ll still have more than we did,” Phyllis points out.

Jason nods, then pushes the laptop back to Billy. “Send it out. I’ll make sure it happens.”

Billy and Phyllis exchange grins.

“And now,” Jason says, forcing himself to stifle a yawn as he feels his fatigue return, “I think we could all use a little—”

The double doors to the situation room swing open. A tall, slender woman, dressed all in white, steps into the room.

Jason’s throat tightens. “Director Ioannou.”

“Please, Jason, call me Mara.” Her coppery skin contrasts with the gleaming white business suit and skirt. Her long, thick curls are pulled back from her face with silver hairpins. Dark eyes peer out from under thick, long eyelashes. Other than the hairpins, the only jewelry she wears is a pair of large silver earrings, each shaped in the form of a double epsilon.

Jason stands, and the rest of his team hastily follows suit. For all the director’s insistence on informality, there’s something about her that discourages it. It’s nothing overt—just a general feeling that she is far more than she appears to be.

“I’m sorry to interrupt.” Her voice is richly musical, her smile dazzling. “I know you’re all working very hard. Has there been any progress?”

“There has, actually.” Jason quickly summarizes Phyllis and Billy’s latest theory—making sure to give credit where due—and when he’s finished, Mara nods thoughtfully.

“Notify me when you send in the request,” she says. “I’ll make sure it’s given priority. Now, I need you all to form a line, shoulder to shoulder.”

Something cold settles in the pit of Jason’s stomach. He tries not to flinch.

“What?” Simon looks at Mara, then at Jason, confusion written all over his face. “A line?”

“Shoulder to shoulder,” Mara repeats. “I know it’s unusual, but this is important.”

“Yeah, it’s OK Simon.” Jason tries to keep the tightness in his stomach out of his voice. “Everybody line up.”

It takes a bit more time than he expects, but eventually everyone has formed a ragged line in front of the main conference table spanning the room. Phyllis, Billy, Jason, Michelle, and Simon stare out at Mara, who stands just inside the room, waiting patiently.

“We’re… I guess we’re set,” Jason says. The cold in his stomach turns into a more substantive feeling of dread.

Mara nods once. “Please remain still until I finish.”

She walks over to Phyllis, stopping a few feet away from her. She extends her right hand, so that her palm hovers just in front of Phyllis’ forehead. Phyllis gasps softly, her eyes widening, as if she feels a slight current running through her.

Mara, for her part, stares at Phyllis intently, saying nothing. Minutes pass.

“Thank you,” Mara says, then sidesteps to place herself in front of Billy. Hand extended once again, she concentrates on Billy, staring at him in silence. Then she thanks him and moves on.

She repeats the process with Jason, Michelle, and Simon, thanking each in turn and moving on without explanation. When she finishes with Simon she flashes everyone a delighted smile.

“Thank you so much for your help,” she says. Then, without another word, she leaves.

Everyone stares at the open doors in astonishment.

“What the hell was that?” Simon asks.

“Did everyone else feel that?” Billy asks. “When she stretched out her hand. It was…” He trails off as he fumbles for the right words.

“It was tingly.” Michelle speaks softly, half-wondering, half afraid. “Like when you walk into a dark room and you know someone’s in it, but they don’t answer when you call their name.”

“So is that magic?” Phyllis asks, turning to Jason. “I’m still skeptical about that part of our briefing.” She turns back to look at the empty door.

“A little less skeptical, maybe,” she mutters.

“Seriously, does anyone know what that was about?” Simon asks again.

“No,” Jason lies. “Look, we’re all pretty worn out. Let’s send in the satellite surveillance request and call it a day. We need the sleep.”

“But what about… that?” Michelle points to the open door. “What just happened? Don’t you want to know?”

Jason shakes his head. “If we need to know, they’ll tell us.”

“If it is magic,” Billy says, “we’re probably better off not knowing.”

“Look,” Simon says, “I know I’m the one who asked, but it turns out I don’t actually care. Going home and going to sleep sounds really good to me. And since the surveillance request is going to take four days, I think I might take tomorrow off, too.”

“That’s a great idea,” Jason says. “Look, it’ll take about a day to get everything set up, then another day before the first images come in. So everyone take the next two days off. We all come back Thursday morning and start reviewing the first batch of satellite imagery. I’ll let the board know we’ll be out.”

“Downtime would be good,” Michelle says.

A general chorus of agreement fills the room.

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