Chapter 17 – It’s All About the Quasars, Baby (Part I)

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The next day landed on a Friday, the results of the winners from the previous day’s DarkNet exploits would be revealed after the majority of classes for the day at ended 5pm. According to Elaine’s intelligence on the subject—from Zane via Frog mostly—it looked like his ARG team had tied with Brad’s team due to their collaboration. Only one of the other teams managed to make it to The Day the Earth Stood Still on time. Although, with the design of the game nobody really got left out (the video segment was posted on the DarkNet Metropolis website after the movie ended and tallies had been taken.)

According to Frog, the ARG administrators bought an advertisement before the movie in the ASU cinema and displayed another cipher in the form of an Escher painting with a voiceover congratulating everyone for moving onto the next level. Everyone on Zane’s team had cryptophones with movie-taking capability on them so they recovered the entire commercial and spent most of the movie huddled together attempting to decipher it.

After classes for the day, Frog and Elaine convened in her lab in the Computing Commons. Hadaly projected her ion-hologram so that she could interact with them and explain her findings involving the ASU student academic records. The information proved to be extreme sparse and didn’t tell Elaine much anything new about them except that they had a surprising jump in performance when it came to the GMATs. The AI explained that she’d also spent some time interrogating the adaptive-computer code that ran their specific tests and it looked like each of the students simply did well on the tests.

As Zane’s ARG team had been bugging them all day; Elaine decided to take a break and listen to their current issues. Once she contacted them via cryptophone, the group forwarded their video and pictures to her and she recognized the trick the ARG game administrators had used to encode their most recent message.

“It’s a geometric folding cipher,” Elaine explained to Benjamin Miller—as another programmer he’d be the best to understand her anyway—as he set his cryptophone on speaker. The Escher painting happened to be designed to obfuscate a series of extra lines that would curve together on the proper surface. Along with the lines there were numbers and letters that suggested attachments (although how wasn’t immediately obvious) and they were connected with further letters that probably provided a message. “Just put it into a puzzle-solving heuristic and program it in a genetic progression that matches the lines by folding them into and against one another.”

“So, you’re thinking it’s something like the movie Contact?” Benjamin asked. “I can handle that. Just give me a few hours, everyone; I think I have some code that I can salvage from another project that I’m working on that will do the trick.”

“You’d better solve it fast,” Elaine said. “You’re already in second place.”

A stifled choke emitted from the speaker as Adam Roach tried to speak, but apparently swallowed his coffee wrong. “Wh-what makes you say that?” he asked. “This wasn’t obvious to us at all. I mean, Zane printed it out and we turned it around on the table, and Ben here scanned it into the computer… Who else could beat us to this?”

“Brad’s team probably already solved it,” Elaine said. “Half the members on his team are spatial thinkers and they’re exceedingly mathematically competent.”

Frog’s chair creaked behind her when she leaned back and she took her sleepy gaze from her fingernails. “Yeah, they solved it already,” she said. “I can’t say more than that.”

“How do you even know?” Roach spat back.

Frog sighed softly in her seat and smiled.

Her lack of reply left a pregnant pause in the conversation, Elaine filled it. “Frog spent the night with Brad,” she said. “I’d put very high confidence in her intel.”

Now it was time for Russell Murphy to groan. “She’s literally sleeping with the enemy,” he said. “Don’t tell me, it’s a spy-vs-spy espionage thing. No wait—really don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Thanks for the help, Elaine,” Benjamin said.

“Elaine out,” she said and disconnected the call.

A moment later a message icon appeared on the screen. An urgent e-mail had come through with no attached sender. After reading it, frowned, pulled down her goggles and used the internal UI to sift through the e-mail headers to no avail. Whoever sent it managed to hide their tracks reasonably well—as she continued to attempt an investigation Frog’s chair creaked again.

“What’re you looking at?”

“I think I know why my midterm grades got decapitated,” she said. “I just got note from the perps stating that they can ruin my life anytime they want.”

“Really?” Frog said. “You should be bringing this to Professor Fedora’s attention right now.”

“I think it can wait,” Elaine said. “I want to focus on the case for the dean. He hasn’t returned my calls, you know. I think that I should check in with him soon. Since it’s the weekend tomorrow, today sounds good.”

Frog rolled onto her side, kicked one of her legs out, and wheeled off the table with an acrobatic lunge. She stopped herself using both hands against the back of Elaine’s chair with an audible thud.

“Alright,” she said. “Last time you ran into academic trouble, it was with the dean, and I let that slide because I figured it’s not like they can actually suspend you. However, this is about your grades and the sooner we get this resolved the better.”

Elaine lifted her goggles and began to object but Frog cut her off.

“Nope!” her friend said as she grabbed Elaine by her shirt and lifted the smaller girl out of her seat. “I know you’re jittery on caffeine and adrenaline from your adventure yesterday but we need to go talk to your academic adviser.” Frog made a dramatic gesture towards the digital wall clock and tilted her head with a huge grin. “I had Professor Fedora last year and she doesn’t change her office hours. She’s a night owl anyway.”

“But—”

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