Wednesday, October 1, Late-Afternoon
Francesca couldn’t find Tim’s thesis.
She’d tried the UCBF Wizardry department website. She’d poked and prodded at Jstor and the US Wizardry Journal. She’d even emailed the professor she was pretty sure had been Tim’s advisor, only to get an automatic response that he was on sabbatical in Italy and wouldn’t lift a finger for anything less than an emergency.
Finally, in a fit of desperation, Francesca tapped on the aether conduits in her glasses. She clicked on the link on the department website again, expecting the same old four-o-four error to pop up. And it did; her screen lit up with the glaring white background and Times New Roman error text. But in the corner of her eye, she noticed a thin trail of aether particles go dark around her internet modem.
She knew what that sort of trail came from. Somewhere, on a server in a datacenter faraway, there was an aether circle that redirected every query to this particular URL to another, nonexistent URL. It was the same principle that operated her phone tree redirection.
Francesca didn’t like this. She didn’t want to think about it. There was a logical conclusion to be drawn from the fact that Tim’s thesis was hidden behind the exact tactic it described, and Francesca wasn’t going to make it. Instead, she stood up and stalked to her kitchen. She ignored the pile of dirty mugs growing in her sink and yanked open the fridge door, only to find it empty of anything worth eating.
She prodded some takeout from Monday and wrinkled her nose. It wasn’t even a good time for food. She just needed something to think about.
Eventually, she gave up on the fridge. She stood in front of it, staring blankly at the aborted grocery list hanging off the freezer door with a health insurance magnet. Francesca couldn’t even remember when she’d written the darn thing, so with a long, heaving sigh, she took it down and crumpled it. Then, after she tossed it in her box-filled trash can, she found herself staring at the trash.
Okay, clearly she was going to have the thought. She might as well get it over with.
If Tim’s thesis outlined the process by which someone might create a remotely triggered aether conduit, and it had been hidden by precisely that method, then someone was trying to keep the information on the down-low. In fact, whoever had done it must have hidden the thesis early; Francesca was surprised that in the two-and-a-half years since Tim graduated, that remotely triggered aether conduits weren’t rapidly proliferating through the Wizardry profession.
The only people Francesca knew of who had ever used remote-trigger aether conduits were herself, Tim, and Melvin Grace. Obviously Francesca hadn’t hidden the thing. Melvin’s insistence that she read it implied he hadn’t hidden it either. Which left…
Francesca gulped, blinking herself out of her stupor. She gripped the back of a dining chair and peered up at her ceiling, beyond which Tim was probably at his computer, doing his usual work..
Anyone who read and understood Tim’s thesis could have done this. But, Francesca thought, they would have needed to somehow get into the university’s servers. And Francesca figured that if Tim was brave enough to go poking around XYZ’s data web infrastructure, then he could probably have made it to the UCBF servers.
She laughed, the sound desperate and breathy. This was stupid. Tim was smart, but there were plenty of people out there just as smart. It could absolutely be someone else. If only she could get in touch with his advisor.
Francesca was the only person she knew of, other than Tim himself, who understood the work in that thesis. And while she hadn’t felt community in wizardry in a long time, this stark realization that she knew no one who could assuage her fears about Tim’s work left her shaking. Goosebumps rose along her arms, and she trembled as she guided herself into the chair. The moment she sat, she slumped all the way over, thumping her head against the dining table and its barely-there tablecloth.
She stayed there for too long. Somehow, the sunlight filtering in from the window turned from yellow to orange, from the indirect bounce of light from overhead into a direct beam from the setting sun that cast long shadows into the apartment. She felt every blink and every breath as though they were a herculean labor.
She hadn’t even seen anyone aside from Tim or Melvin in the last week. Not since the last Wednesday Night Wine and Twine.
As if the thought alone had summoned them, her phone buzzed in her pocket, and Francesca saw distantly that she had a text from Persy.
Oh god. What time was it now? She rushed to the bathroom, stumbling out of the chair and stubbing her toe on a doorframe before she made it to the vanity. Her post-work nap had left her hair tangled, and a dusty, white trail of evaporated drool still streaked down her chin.
She texted Persy back. Yes, she was absolutely going to Wine and Twine today. And yes, she needed a ride again. Then she fumbled for her hairbrush and tried to make herself at least somewhat presentable.
When Persy texted again ten minutes later, Francesca had given up on the hair and just plaited it into a long, wispy braid that hung limply over one shoulder. She scrounged up various things to shove in her sewing case on her way out the door, and then remembered she was still in sweatpants halfway down the stairs.
It was probably fine.
She met Persy at the older woman’s car, right in front of Francesca’s building, a smirk pulling deep smile lines into her face. Francesca was never going to live this down.
“Finally relaxing, are we?”
“My shift started at midnight,” Francesca groused. “Sue me if I wanted to take a nap before this.”
“Haha! Don’t test me!” Persy leaned over the console and patted the passenger seat, her grin widening in mischief. “Now get in. I want to hear all about your exciting magic plans for today.”