Finding a needle in a haystack is a relatively simply endeavor. Choose the right needle, setup a sifting machine with some powerful magnets, and the work can be all but guaranteed. Finding a teenage boy lost in the South Pacific though? That presented a few more significant challenges.
“I’ve plotted out the points where we have tracking data for Marcus,” Jen said, bringing a map up on their central display monitor. Her prosthesis were back in her room, charging up, so she typed with her toes, though given the speed she typed at she would have used them regardless. In response to her clicks, a line in red traced in from points off the map, dotting a path across the featureless blue of the area of the ocean she had focused in on. The line ran to the center of the map and then simply stopped in the middle of the open ocean.
“Here’s the course he’d plotted out originally,” Jen said, calling up another overlay which put a black line onto the map. It matched the early part of Marcus’s actual trip but began to deviate at a time marker which matched Marcus’s first reported sighting of the other boat which seemed to be following him. At first the deviation was slight, a few turns to ascertain if the boat was actually following him but over time it curved more sharply away, each point showing an increasing degree of concern.
“What are the current’s like in that area?” Sarah asked. “Is some of this that he wasn’t expecting the extra drift from being off course, or are we seeing panic take hold over the course of several hours?”
“I don’t know,” Jen said. “He didn’t report anything like a strong drift in the printed logs we got.”
The family had included all of the electronic data they’d been able to collect. It didn’t point to a definite destination, but it painted a vivid picture nonetheless. Jen could only imagine how her parents would have reacted to seeing similar charts if she’d been lost at sea.
“Even if the currents dragged him farther off course than he expected, it shouldn’t have mattered,” Connie said. “His boat had a fairly good navigation system onboard. GPS would have given him an accurate position for the whole trip. He might have had to fight with the winds a bit to get back on course, but that should of been trivial for someone with enough skill to attempt an around the world sailing trip.”
They looked at the map as though it would offer some new clue in response to Connie’s observation. Even something small that might help them resolve the mystery. The ocean guarded its secrets well though.
“His trail just ends,” Sarah said. “What would explain that?”
“A lot of things, potentially,” Jen said. She didn’t like any of the options but they needed to consider each of them, no matter how unpleasant they were. “The most obvious one is that the other boat caught him there and someone smashed the radio gear. It would explain the sudden signal loss and why he never made it to Australia like he’d intended.”
“That’s unlikely though isn’t it?” Connie asked. Her brow was furrowed and she was reading the secondary data from the transmitted logs.
Jen had looked that over as well but hadn’t wanted to clutter the diagram with the data on the reported weather patterns, ocean temperatures, and seasonal fish migration patterns. If Connie could extract some meaning from them that would be wonderful, but Jen guessed they wouldn’t get that lucky.
“Why’s that?” Sarah said. “Was Marcus a particularly good sailor? Or was his boat extra fast?”
“No to both of those,” Jen said. Connie was right about the first scenario being unlikely but walking through them point by point was a part of brainstorming, and she knew better than to ever discourage someone from asking questions. “I mean according to his parents he was a very talented sailor, which checks out with them allowing him to do a solo circumnavigation of the globe, but they didn’t provide any info on him winning awards, and there’s plenty of people out there with more experience than a dedicated hobbyist would have, so it wasn’t amazing skill that would have helped him get away. Also, he was in a sailboat. It was a good sailboat, but those are limited by the wind, where a motor boat is not.”
“That makes it sound like whoever was chasing him could have easily caught him? But it also sounds like you agree with Connie. Where’s the unlikely bit coming in?” Sarah asked.
“Because we don’t have any log messages saying that they were gaining on him,” Connie said, when Jen nodded to her. “It’s on thing to be able to catch someone on the ocean, it’s another thing entirely to sneak up on someone who’s already spotted you.”
“Yeah, you’d think once it became clear that they were getting too close for comfort, Marcus would have started sending out Maydays,” Jen added. “Especially when he was so diligent about sending log information at all other times.”
“That makes an unfortunate amount of sense,” Sarah said, sighing and sitting back in her chair. “Unfortunate because it strikes out the simplest and most mundane answer, though maybe it gives us a better chance of finding him still alive?”
“Let’s hope so,” Jen said. There were several other scenarios that lead to grim endings but none of them had definite supporting evidence in their favor. “The next most obvious reason would be that whoever was pursuing him knocked out his radio before coming into range.”
“I suppose we can’t rule that out, can we?” Sarah asked. “It would explain why he went radio silent without needing something like a giant whale to come up and swallow him and his boat.”
“Hold onto the whale theory,” Connie said, glancing to Jen who again nodded in agreement. “There are issues with this option too. Take a look at the timing of Marcus’ personal logs compared to the automated positioning logs the boat transmitted.”
She flicked a document up onto the central monitor to show the communication logs with their time stamps.
“The last thing that was received was an automated log message,” Sarah said.
“Yeah, it wasn’t too long after one of Marcus’ personal messages though,” Connie said. “In his last message he says the other ship is about three miles away. It would be possible to knock out a boat’s communication system from that far away, but it would take some fairly sophisticated and expensive gear to do it.”
“And we know the time window they would have had to act in because the automated log messages were coming in at regular intervals,” Jen said. “Even if Marcus’ ‘three mile’ estimate was off, they still would have been over a mile away, at the absolute closest, when the radio signal was lost.”
“And gear which some random ocean goons would have access to would not be able to shoot at radio that was a mile away,” Sarah said, following the thought to its logical conclusion. “But where does that leave us? Are we into my territory now?”
“We don’t have to assume magic was involved yet,” Jen said, and zoomed the map out to show a slightly larger swath of the South Pacific.
“That’s good, because for the last few weeks the seasonal patterns of the ley lines in that area have left it almost entirely mundane,” Sarah said. “I checked with some of the my contacts and that’s typical for where we are in the cycles that hold sway down there, but with the lack of ambient mana in the area, I’m not even sure if Tam would be able to pull a rabbit out of hat that had a rabbit pre-loaded into it.”
“Wasn’t that also supposed to be true of that Chinese military base that had a portal to hell open in the middle of it?” Jen asked. As reintroductions to the team went that had been more thrilling that Jen had expected. It had turned out fine, but she hoped they’d do a bit better on a mission she’d suggested they take.
“Sort of,” Sarah said. “The base was supposed to be in the equivalent of a magic dead zone. No ley lines there ever. Places like that are more common than not on our world. The ocean’s a different sort of beast though.”
“Ocean magic is really strange isn’t it?” Connie said. “James was describing how it worked but we didn’t have time to get into it fully.”
“It’s not strange, or not any more than any magic is, it’s just its own thing,” Sarah said. “Where the land is solid and changes slowly, the ocean is constantly changing, so the magic that runs it through acts the same.”
“How can we be sure this spot of ocean was free from active ley lines then?” Jen asked. She leaned forward, and tipped her head in curiosity. This was new information, tactically useful information in particular, so it had her full attention.
“The ocean appears featureless to us land dwellers, but it has its own locations and territories,” Sarah said. “With the amount of interaction between the land and the seas today, there’s a pretty fair number of people who keep track of how things sit with each major body of water in the world. They know where the magically active zones are and where the calm waters run. Oh, and the Bermuda Triangle is not one of the active areas, almost ever. I was disappointed to find that out too.”
“Nice,” Jen said. “But does that means we have confirmation there wasn’t supposed to be any magical activity in that area around the time Marcus went missing?”
Sarah shrugged and rolled her hands in a limiting gesture.
“We know what the known ley lines were doing,” she said. “I can’t rule out whether people brought their own source in, or found something esoteric materials in the area to tap into.”
“Ok, so general magic of the kind you’re familiar with is still on the table, but less likely than even it’s usual ‘rarely seen’ status?” Jen asked.
“Pretty much,” Sarah said.
“The good news is, there’s lot of mostly non-magical things that could have happened to Marcus, though I’m not quite sure how to characterize our leading contender,” Jen said, zooming the map out a bit further and calling up a new line on it.
From the spot where the line of Marcus’ reported positions ended the new line began, graphing a path in yellow that led to a tiny dot of green on the map.
“This is one possible projection of Marcus’ course following the loss of radio signal from him,” Jen said. “It presumes he didn’t sink, and didn’t have any working electronics on board anymore, maybe due to a lightning strike or something like that.”
“Plausible,” Connie said. “We don’t have any proof that the boat he was worried about actually was hostile.”
“Or that it was really there,” Sarah said. “We’ve only got Marcus’ logs for any of this after all.”
“That’s true,” Jen said. “He could have been hallucinating, or just mistaking a normal boat for something sinister. If so, if there weren’t actual bad guys out to get him, then it’s not critical for us to know that. The important thing is that he drove intentionally off course, and then lost radio signal.”
“I see some other islands in the area too,” Connie said. “Any reason you picked this one as the most likely landing spot? I think it’s a little farther from his original position than a couple of the ones to the east.”
“It is but not by all that much,” Jen said. “It has one other important quality though. Here’s a satellite photo of that region from ten years ago.”
An image which looked identical to the one which had been displayed appear on a side monitor.
“And here’s a photo of the region from last year.” The image appeared on another side monitor.
“They look pretty similar to me,” Sarah said.
“They are…except, wait, where’s the island?” Connie asked, pointing to the area on one year old image which showed barren sea where an island had been ten years previous.
“And here’s a photo from yesterday,” Jen said.
It showed the island exactly where it had appeared ten years ago, which was also in the exact place where it had not been the previous year.