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Pelican Data

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The bedside phone woke Cadence up before dawn with a ring that sounded older than she was. She fumbled in the unfamiliar hotel dark before managing to pick up the receiver, solid and heavy like a nightstick.

“Hello, this is the front desk,” the voice told her in accented English. “Good morning, this is your wake up call, please.”

Cadence hadn’t requested a wake-up call. It must have been arranged by her employer, much like everything else on this trip so far. They were sending her a car, she remembered. She looked at the clock, realized she had gotten about four hours of sleep, and fumbled around more til she found the light, which came on harsh and metallic-yellow.

She had packed a fieldwork bag in a hurry. Palladium boots, a few identical pairs of 5.11 cargo pants, and a selection of baggy, long-sleeved t-shirts in primary colors. She hadn’t been able to find any of her own good jackets before leaving for the airport. The one she zipped up as she went down to the lobby of the tiny hotel had belonged to Louise, shiny maroon and silver with the logo of one of the mining companies she had worked for too-large on the pocket. The wind hit her like a wave as she went outside, and she realized the jacket wasn’t nearly as warm as it was bulky.

“Mrs. Miller!” A bearded young man in a plaid shirt waved at her. He was standing next to a taxi, a model she didn’t recognize, its roof light off.

“Doctor Miller,” she corrected him automatically, and immediately regretted it. He wasn’t one of her students, or even her not-quite-colleagues back at Chapel Hill. What would Louise have said about a privileged white American trying to pull rank on a local service worker. Was he even Greek, she wondered, or Turkish or Syrian, before she tamped down on that line of thinking as well.

If he was offended, he showed no sign. “I am from Rachel, Doctor Miller,” the man said. Meaning Rachel Nash, her contact at Blue Ant who had some vague title with ‘projects’ in it.

Cadence’s thrill at this particular project had been steadily fading over the last 48 hours. At first it had felt like a minor miracle, a consulting gig that paid as much as a semester of teaching. Real private-sector money, the kind that she was used to Louise bringing in. They sent her the plane ticket even before she signed the contract on her phone, and Louise agreed to let her wait to move out until she got back. The flight to Zurich was her first time traveling business class, and she now regretted not getting more champagne-assisted sleep in the roomy lounger. The flight to Athens, on a regional carrier, had nominally been business-class as well, which mostly seemed to mean that Cadence had been allowed to board first. Finally, from Athens to the island had been on a small turboprop that rattled and bounced around at cloud-altitude the whole way.

The driver passed a padded Manila envelope back to her. It didn’t seem to have any postage, just her name handwritten, round feminine letters bumpy above the bubble wrap. She tore it open, bits of envelope falling onto the seat, and pulled out a phone.

“Is this from Rachel?” Cadence asked. The driver answered, but she couldn’t quite make it out over the sound of the engine dragging the car over gravel, and she doubted she could hear better if he repeated it. Instead, she powered on the phone. It was brand new, some Chinese Android she didn’t recognize. It seemed to have some signal, but when she opened the browser nothing loaded; she watched the grey bar crawl across the screen, then gave up.

Presently, the phone rang, some default cheerful beep along with surprisingly strong vibrations. The caller ID showed a New York number.

“Cadence, Rachel,” she heard the chipper voice on the other end.

“Hi. I’m in the taxi,” Cadence added, not sure what else to say.

“Good trip?”

“It was fine,” she answered. “So, now are you going to tell me what I’m here to see?”

Static swallowed Rachel’s first reply.

“Pelicans,” Rachel repeated. “You’ll understand when you get there.”

———-

The Frenchman, whose name was Henri, walked a few steps ahead of Cadence through the estuarial swamp. Henri wore waders that came almost to his knees. Her Palladiums squelched in the mud, and she worried the unfamiliar sound would startle the birds. A few glanced in her direction, but they didn’t seem overly worried.

“They are used to people,” Henri said. “And anyway, they are almost bigger than you.”

It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. It was hard for Cadence to get a good sense of scale from this distance, but she knew Dalmatian pelicans could easily get four feet tall or more. And there were dozens of them ahead — a small colony, by pelican standards, but a mass of birds nevertheless.

Henri raised his hand in a fist, a casually military gesture that Cadence didn’t expect. Then he knelt and slipped off his backpack. Cadence closed the distance between them and knelt down as well.

“Now we are close enough,” he said, as he opened a laptop in a heavy ruggedized case, dark plastic with grey lines like building beams.

“Wi-fi,” he added. “We can get the data from the bands from here.”

As Henri tapped keys on the laptop, Cadence raised her binoculars. Sure enough, several of the pelicans had plastic bands around their legs, thicker than what she was used to seeing.

“Did they give you trouble, banding them?” She asked.

Henri laughed. “Oh yes. We had a few boys from the village help. Strong,” he added, and she wasn’t sure if he meant the boys or the birds.

“I used your tutorial, you know” he said. “Python for ornithologists.”

“That’s cool,” she said, lowering the binoculars. “I wish my students would,” she added automatically.

She looked over his shoulder. He had a ubiquitous notebook interface up, and she recognized the familiar jaggedness of code written and debugged in a hurry. Louise would be appalled.

He pointed at the screen, where a square plot had appeared. A hairball of black lines traced angry scribbles over a rough map, teal for sea and brown for land. Pelican flight paths, she realized.

“They have to go farther than they used to,” Henri explained. Cadence looked around at the dull swamp. Don’t we all, she thought but didn’t say.

——

Henri’s camp site had obviously once been larger. There were a few other tents there, bright blue disaster surplus, but none of them were inhabited at the moment. The taxi driver was at the other end of the camp site, smoking a cigarette and lost in a pair of Walkman-looking headphones.

Under the open flap of his tent, Henri had his laptop open on his knees and he inserted a USB stick into one port, bigger and boxier than Cadence thought they usually were.

“You’ll bring this back to Mr. Bijan?” He asked.

“I will?” Cadence asked. It took her a moment to connect the name to the founder of Blue Ant she had seen on its Wikipedia page. Not Bijan, but Bigend.

“He is funding our work here,” Henri explained. On his laptop, a blue progress bar slowly transferred a file to the boxy USB stick. “He is a great lover of wildlife,” he added, and Cadence wasn’t sure whether he was being ironic.

“You don’t just email it?”

He shook his head. “This is Greece,” Henri said. “Developers — is that the word? — do not want to have to care about the pelicans, you understand?”

“They don’t in America either,” Cadence said.

“And in France,” Henri nodded. The bar finished filling, and Henri ejected the USB stick, handed it to her. “This is good data. It is better to bring data like this by hand.”

Is that why she had been sent all this way, Cadence wondered on the way back in the taxi. Not even to do research, just hand-carry some data on Dalmatian pelicans back to some private philanthropist? She thought of Bullshit Jobs, the book Louise had been reading that had prompted one of their last big fights. This is the most bullshit job I have ever had, she thought, and imagining Louise’s irritation at her willful misunderstanding gave her a moment of grim satisfaction.

There was a return itinerary already waiting for her back at the hotel desk. It traced her path back almost exactly: local carrier to regional airline, then business-class to New York City. Nothing from New York back to RDU, she noted with irritation.

She barely had time to shower and change, throwing her dirty clothes at the bottom of her battered rolling bag. She was about to put the USB stick in it too when she reconsidered. If she was going to be an overpaid courier for some cloak-and-dagger private conservationist, she decided, she was going to have some fun with it. The 5.11s had plenty of pocket space, but it felt too easy. Instead she tucked the drive into one of the fresh heavy socks she had put on. Cadence walked across the room a couple of times. The plastic pressed against her ankle at first, but it quickly shifted around and didn’t feel too uncomfortable. She stepped out of her room with a mild spring added to her step.

———

She was in the bathroom of the Athens airport when Rachel called her again. She wasn’t going to answer at first, but she fumbled one-handed with the screen and and accepted the call without meaning to.

“Rachel, hi!” She said with feigned enthusiasm.

“We just wanted to check in,” Rachel said.

“So far so good,” Cadence replied. “Just got to Athens.” She flushed the toilet, hoping Rachel would take the hint, but it washed out whatever her reply was. Cadence tilted her head, used it to hold the phone to her shoulder while she fumbled with the stall door and the handle of her suitcase. “Sorry, didn’t quite catch that.”

“I was asking if-“

At first Cadence thought she must have slipped as her head slammed against the long faux-marble counter. Then, as if through a fog — though later she realized the entire thing had happened in mere seconds — she saw in the mirror that there was someone behind her, a narrow face under black hair pulled tight into a ponytail. He (she was certain it was a he, even if the police wouldn’t be) had slammed her head down, snatched her phone away, and was rifling through the pockets of her pants with speed she would later have nightmares about, those hands darting so close to her skin. Then he was gone, vanishing out of the bathroom as quickly as he appeared before Cadence heard the flush of another stall and found herself slumping to the sticky floor, realizing slowly that her suitcase was gone too.

——

“I just- I didn’t think things like that happened at airports,” Cadence said, later. She had forgotten the consular officer’s name, but she had straw-blonde hair and a Georgia accent, and looked so young, like one of her students, that Cadence felt old and helpless. She didn’t like the feeling.

“It doesn’t, usually,” the consular officer replied. “You certainly had yourself an experience.”

She had offered to help her call someone. Cadence was about to say Louise, but then changed her mind. Her mother would only worry. Mika and Janine - it would be nice to hear their voice, but what could they do. “This might be weird,” she asked with a forced laugh. “But can you Google the number for a company? Blue Ant, in New York?”

They put her on a direct flight back this time — business class again, and this time she did fall into a deep sleep as soon as the plane was above the clouds, only waking up when the pressure in her ears told her they were descending. She felt refreshed only until she got to the Blue Ant offices, delivered by an extroverted driver who bragged about the famous people he had driven before while refusing to name them outright. She felt self-conscious in her sweat-damp clothes, Louise’s jacket balled up in her lap. The young employees who buzzed by all seemed to be either in streamlined suits or conspicuously dressed down like aspiring Marks Zuckerberg. I got mugged for you people, she told herself.

“Cadence, I am so sorry!” She recognized the voice from the phone, but Rachel too looked younger than she expected, and was apparently of the streamlined suit variety. “Can we get you anything?”

“Just water would be great, thanks.”

“Of course, come right this way,” she said. “Of course we’ll compensate you for everything, I can give you a number right now but if that doesn’t cover everything just let us know, I’m so glad you had the embassy call us right away, please, have a seat,” she finished, indicating a pair of chairs that seemed to each be a single organic-looking extrusion of shockingly white plastic. She closed the door to the small glass-walled office, and as soon as it clicked shut the blinds swiveled up in a quiet whir of motors.

Cadence sat down, and Rachel sat across from her. “I know you’ve been through a lot and you must be exhausted, but very quickly can you give me a first thought about the birds?”

Cadence blinked at her. “It looked promising,” she said, trying to collect her thoughts. This is why they had hired her, after all. “The colony is probably a good size, I’m not sure if Henri and his team have tagged enough birds for a really good sample but it’s a start. Just tracking the feeding and migration patterns is good, but what you can do with it depends on what kind of long-term baseline is available to compare it to. I’m happy to look at the data and see, if that’s something you’re interested in. But without any kind of follow-on advocacy or coordination with government, conservation groups and other stakeholders, just collecting the data isn’t going to do much good, I’m afraid.”

Rachel had nodded along as she spoke, and then stopped. “The data — that Henri gave you, that was taken, yes?”

Cadence realized that she hadn’t asked that on the phone, earlier — or was it yesterday already? “No,” she shook her head. “It was in my boot, actually, he didn’t get it,” and she reached into her pocket to produce the USB stick.

Rachel stood up slowly. “I’m so sorry, would you mind waiting here just a second?” And she got up and left the room without waiting for Cadence to answer. The blinds whirred open and then shut again with the door.

Cadence turned in the molded-plastic chair, trying to see where Rachel had gone or if she was coming back. The blinds kept her from seeing out, but then she heard a booming voice just before the door was flung open.

“Ah, there’s the woman of the hour! Hubertus Bigend, it is a pleasure to meet you!” The man who opened the door and grabbed her hand to shake in both of his was older than in his Wikipedia picture, and wore a boxy suit in rose-gold that almost made him look like a human iPhone. Rachel followed behind, and then one of the young Zuckerbergs carrying a heavy black laptop that he put on the table.

“Remarkable instincts,” he said. “Rachel, I knew you found a good one for us. Come, look,” he gestured at her enthusiastically. The Zuckerberg had put the laptop down on the table, and Rachel smoothly inserted the USB stick.

A map appeared on the screen. She recognized it as the island and the water around it, in far more detail than Henri’s map had been. A click, and Henri’s hairball of black lines came on, covering the top-right corner of land and ocean. Another click, and the lines disappeared — revealing, underneath them, hollow icons like boxy wedges, some black and some red. Boats, she realized.

“The pelicans are carrying small radars, you see,” Bigend explained enthusiastically. “With them we can see not just migrations, feedings, but watercraft: fishermen, of course, tourists, and also those who do not turn on their AIS. Maybe illegal fishermen, maybe other ones.”

“That’s why you wanted it hand-delivered,” Cadence said.

“Of course,” Bigend replied with a shrug.

“I heard about this when it was in the Indian Ocean, with albatrosses,” Cadence added.

“That was a pilot program,” Bigend said. “Now we are expanding.

“So, Doctor Miller,” he continued, looking at her with a twinkle in his eye. “Now that you know about our little project, would you like to help us? We have another site starting up in Sicily.”

Cadence pictured her bed. Her bed, in the house she had shared with Louise. She thought about getting mugged — and about how unexpectedly liberating it had been to go through an airport without her carry-on, with nothing but a temporary passport and a USB stick.

They go farther than they used to, Henri had said.

“I’m in.”