“Listen, Ramirez, I’m just not sure if you-”

“No. Come on, Sanders, just hear me out.” Carter sighed and settled her weight against the edge of her desk, taking a slow breath to buy herself some time and organize her thoughts. “I’m just saying that we ought to look into social connections between the patients so that we can see if there’s some factor that’s tying these occurrences together. With that under our belt, we may be able to formulate a better theory of what’s going on here, even neurologically.”

Sanders hung his head and then shrugged, “It’s just that you’re talking about a social vector here, Carter. Not only do we have very little data to go on, but there’s no indication that this is something passed from one person to another. All of the data suggests random-”

“Sanders,” Carter said sternly. “I know how the project works. I know the data. There’s a lot of questions still left in the air. I’m not suggesting that getting Lost is something that is transferred from one person to another like some sort of virus. I’m merely suggesting that we might find shared factors within a social realm as well as the physiological.”

Sanders glared at Carter, who stood her ground. As the lead of the research team, she could tell Sanders to do whatever she wanted him to. There was no reason for her not to, as well, since she was plugged into all of the teams that he was distanced from. He may be lead of the neurochem side, but Carter was lead of basically everyone except the grantors.

Eventually, Sanders caved with a shrug, turning his back on Carter and bowing his head towards his own team.

“Look, Sanders,” Carter said, following after him. “You’re a fantastic doctor, and I really respect that, I really do. I’m not pulling labor away from the neurochem team, I’m merely suggesting that we add a social angle to our attack here.”

Sanders held up his hand, gave another noncommittal shrug, and walked over to his workstation.

Carter rolled her eyes and turned back to the remaining team. “We’ve got a hunch on the social front: there’s a few patients who are involved in the furry subculture, and there’s distinct ties between them. They’re loose ties, sure, not everyone knows everyone else, but they are there. Let’s timebox half a day to chase down these ties and see just where they lead. If they lead nowhere, fine. If we can find a way to tie them together, then we find out all of the ways that the web ramifies. Worst case, half a day is spent tracing along the web, but best case, we find a way to tie these cases together that lets us predict — and then interrupt — future cases. Got it? Catch you at lunch.”

Carter sighed after her speech and wandered over to her desk. Rather than sequester herself in an office, she had taken a desk among the team, four foot cube walls separating each, even if they were made of glass. There wasn’t much room for an office in the repurposed classroom, all the same, but the deliberate attitude with which she had chosen to join everyone in equal conditions had endeared her to some of the more stubborn of the crew. On the other hand, the lawyers were badly out of their element. Ah well, nothing to be done.

All the same she wished for an office at times if only for the door. A nice, thick, hardwood door with a solid core so that she could voice her ideas aloud to herself without bothering her coworkers. Sometimes she just needed the ability to put things into words, and no matter how often she tried to set things down in the notes on her phone, she always felt hampered by the relatively small screen and her clumsy thumbs. She hadn’t gone full immersive on the go yet, either — something about that glassy-eyed stare, the silly headband, and the controllers gripped like walking weights in the hand, packed full of electronics, set her teeth on edge.

Shaking her head, she set in to work, deciding to delve in rather than work on a tablet or screen, just so that she could organize the data her team was collating in a visual fashion.

Carter’s chosen workspace, her desk, was totally black. It wasn’t the complete blackness of unseeing, but a sort of vaguely luminescent darkness, as though wherever she looked, she saw a faint light shining on a black matte surface, such as a sheet of fine paper. It was black enough to be easy on the eyes, such as they were in the sim, without being unnerving.

Scattered throughout the space were decks. Decks upon decks.

Each deck was a point of light, a white rectangle with enough depth to give the impression of there being several cards stacked on top of each other, surrounded by a slight halo that dispelled the darkness. If she were to engage with a deck, it would fill her vision nearly to the periphery, and she would be able to explore and expand that portion of the project.

The decks themselves were organized into groups, surrounded by bright lines of white string (literally string; Carter had chosen cotton string as her group delineator in this sim), and these groups of decks were related to one another with further intangible threads.

A gesture from her hand would show the whole setup from the top. The mind was attracted to a two dimensional representation for displaying data like this, no matter how fantastic the sim. Even with perspective in play, the scientists and lawyers working on this project had tended to alternate between the aerial view and the interactive view, with the cards positioned at chest level throughout the sim.

Everyone’s view of the sim was different, in its own way, to be sure. Sanders, she knew, preferred an oak-paneled room with a dark green carpet, a facsimile of luxury, each of the grouping lines drawn out in finest silver, whereas others preferred pencil sketches, harsh angles, or subdued colors on a dim background. Additionally, there were a few different types of cards. Some were visible only to the individual; some were visible to everyone, but only on the surface, with their details invisible to others; and the vast majority were visible to everyone, completely open.

Carter began by creating a publicly visible grouping, knowing that others were delving into the sim along with her, visible as diffuse shapes in her dark desk. She titled the group in her stolid, blocky handwriting: “The Social Connection”.

From there, she started to create sub-groupings, for cases, for leads, and so on. Within the cases, she tapped a few decks to make symbolic links, which she dropped in the cases grouping. Two were positioned at the top of the list:

Patient aca973d7
M --- 2086-01-28

Lost: 2108-11-08

Patient 0224ebe8
X --- 2084-05-09

Lost: 2108-12-04

Carter connected these two cards with a fine thread of cotton. Hanging pendant from that, she created a metadata card, smaller than the cards in the decks:

Possible acquaintances

The others, those shadowy figures, caught on to what she was doing, and got down to work, dragging symlinks of decks and expanding this new group of social connections.

Carter pulled back out of the sim when her personal timer went off, fifteen minutes before the timebox was up.

Yawning and stretching, she made her way from her workstation to the small counter at the front of the old classroom. She filled the electric kettle from the tap and set it on its base, letting it heat up as she scooped a few heaping spoonfuls of coffee and chicory into the coffee maker. While she was in the sim, she had ensured that everyone else’s workstation would have an alarm for the timebox, and it was only fair that she make everyone a cup of coffee before they pulled back.

The coffee had finished brewing and the mugs were all set out in a row in front of the pot, each waiting with handles out toward the room for ready hands. Carter had poured herself some of the brew, thick and bitter, and topped it off with a dash of sweetened creamer to dull the taste.

One by one, the lab techs pulled back from their workstations and ambled up, still glassy-eyed, to the counter where the coffee lay. Carter suppressed a smile at the sight of what looked like a horde of zombies in various states of disarray moving toward the pot and mugs. The caffeine would be nice, but over the months they had spent on the project, they had grown into a comfortable ritual of holding meetings over coffee. The habit remained unbroken.

“So,” she stated, once everyone was gathered around and coffeed.

There was silence. Sanders wouldn’t meet her gaze.

Finally, she caved and broke down her thoughts, putting on her manager’s hat, “Timebox is over. I think we got a bunch of good stuff done in a few hours. There’s definitely connections there, we’ve found a good number of them among the cases we have at our disposal, but there’s precious little data on why those connections are there. We’ve got a few furries, we’ve got a few ‘net addicts — well, more than a few — and we’ve got a whole lot of DDR junkies. None of those point to anything that would lead people to getting lost.”

“Man, have you seen DDR zombies, though?” Everyone laughed.

Another voice piped up, “And the correlation on the neurochem side is extremely loose, almost non-existent.”

Sanders smirked down into his coffee mug before hiding the expression with a sip of the steaming liquid.

“No, there’s no doubt about that, is there?” Carter sighed and shrugged, “So, again, timebox is over. What do you think? Is this line of thought worth pursuing? Plus-one, minus-one, zero. Sanders?”

“Minus-one.” The response was immediate.

Carter slipped her phone from her pocket and started a tally on the vote app she used for that purpose. “Alright,” she continued. “Jacob?”


Tallying as she went, Carter went around the room, The running tally took a few dings (neither of the lawyers were for the idea, she noticed), but remained net positive until the end of the line.

“We’re left at two, then.”

Sanders set his mug down with exaggerated care, but otherwise stayed silent in the room.

“Hardly universal, so let’s triage. Can I get one from neuro, one from stats and history, and would one of the law team be willing to devote a tenth of a day to helping us out? Just to run stuff by as we come up with stuff.”

Prakash Das from the neurochem team raised his hand, and Avery from statistics and history volunteered as well. One of the lawyers, Sandra, gave a little shrug and promised some of her time.

“Alright, then. Let’s sync up, you three.” Carter smiled toward the rest of the group, “Not leaving you guys behind. One-on-ones and daily standups will continue at the usual times. We’ll set a timebox of…three days, after which we’ll reconvene and vote again.”

Sanders rolled his eyes and strolled back toward his workstation, Ramirez’s eyes on his back.