Chapter Two

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There are a few different points where jerks could stick a software block. All are accessible from the server room on Two.

I head for the elevator bank, fists balled.

My floor is a ghost town: everybody is upstairs at the Company-All. Here is Jared's La-Z-Boy swiveled from his keyboard, with its broad butt imprint. Minosh's sit-stand workstation looking like some giant mechanized praying mantis that ran out of juice mid-attack.

My coworkers aren't awful. Yeah they resent my age and salary, which got reported around when Susan did her press circuit heralding, "the Codewise commitment to acquiring bleeding-edge talent." Yeah they're homogeneous as Safeway milk. Neither is their fault.

Susan wants me to be a "disrupter" here, to "jog the culture". This sounded cool at the time as she was recruiting me over pastries at du Soleil—looking like Reese Witherspoon, fresh off a CNBC roundtable—but progress thus far has been slow. I have discovered that the word diversity, uttered in a 90 percent male office, produces mostly dyspeptic winces and hands stuffed in pockets.

Off the elevator at Two, I stalk up the east hall and round a corner, then freeze.

Standing at the entrance to the server room is a man. He wears the same polo shirt as Jim Davis, yellow with a blue "Elite" logo, the E's top horizontal curving into a skyward arrow. This denotes excellence, skyrocketing valuations, and generalized corporate Goodness. His wrists are crossed over a belt buckle.

I flash back to Carter's intro. That term, paramilitary.

The server room has a second door that spills out nearer the elevators—too bad IT keeps it locked from inside, or else I'd slip in that way.

When I approach angling for the door, the man does not make way.

"I need to get in there," I say.

"All employees should be at the meeting." He has Davis's bland accent, like some appliance instruction manual if they could speak.

"Right but I'm not, and I have an important job to do inside, so ..." I twirl my thumb ring in a hurry-this-along gesture.

"Access to the server room is restricted."

"Restricted?" I recoil. "Well, although I look like a bike messenger, I'm actually the principal software architect here. All good."

He plants one foot against the door. It's not a plain shoe poking out underneath his slacks, more of a boot. High-lacing. Black.

"I cannot allow access."

I feel my pulse accelerate in my wrists. "You're corporate trainers, yes? Your company? Meaning you work for us. Meaning you don't grant us access to squat. Other way around."

The man's boot does not budge.

I whip out my phone.

He says, "Calls are not allowed."

"What? Oh shut up, I'm calling my boss. Or Susan. This is over."

"They will not answer," he says. "Employee cellphones are being confiscated. Upstairs at the kick-off meeting, there is a box."

A box. What the hell.

I dial Paul. It rings six times, then goes to voicemail. Ditto Susan: no surprise since she's in Davos, possibly in the middle of delivering her keynote.

"This is moronic," I say, head ticking back and forth. I consider puffing up, asking for his name and explaining what trouble I could make. But I can see it wouldn't work, and anyhow it's not his fault. He isn't the one who dreamed up this bozo training.

I head for the elevators, pissed. I slept badly and skipped breakfast and my boobs're sweating a little. It's after ten a.m. and all my beta users have stale information about available hosts. When I took over planning duties from Mom, age ten or eleven after the schizophrenia hit hard, I tried to have our nighttime arrangements made by noon. That way I had a rough idea how we needed to move throughout the day. Some shelters have check-in times. Greenspaces fill up.

If I don't fix the database soon, day one of carebnb will be a disaster.

I turn back.

Carefully I retrace my steps to the server hallway, peer around the corner. The guard is still there. I summon Raven with a tap-swipe of my phone. She exits the big conference room by bumping the handicap-access door button, then purrs away. I watch this on her livestream, back flush to the wall. The feed fizzles once she boards an elevator. I wait. Just before I start to worry—Elite can't be blocking Wi-Fi transmission inside the building, can they?—my ear detects the slightest thrum.

Moments later, my girl appears.

"Nice work," I whisper.

Raven descends eighteen inches, responding to my reduced volume. I put her into RC mode and, dragging slowly along my phone's touchscreen, send her into view of the guard. Then spin her slowly until he becomes visible on the livestream.

Raven is extraordinarily quiet. I gave each of her four propellers its own motor, which allows the RPMs to vary and effectively makes them noise-cancel each other. (NASA calls this "frequency-spectrum spreading" and thinks they're the only ones doing it.) The guard does not notice until she is on top of him. His face, pixelated on my phone's rendering, pops, but he composes himself quickly and eyes her down the hall.

Raven skids to a tilting UFO-esque stop. Then turns her "face"—a line of cooling vents below the cyclops front camera—toward him. I then move her coquettishly around the corner, out of sight.

I lean forward, exposing only my left eye, and check the guard. His head is turned in the direction Raven disappeared, but he doesn't leave his post.

Really. A solar-powered quadcopter traipses by and you're unmoved? My coworkers are used to Raven by now, but the first time she met Jared, he dove behind a printer. This guy barely flinched. Possible he was prepped, or somehow knew about her in advance?

I send Raven up the hall, panning around her livestream. Not much here. This floor used to be half-Engineering, half-Backroom Ops, but after the last downsizing Engineering fits wholly on the third floor.

What can I work with? Bathroom. Locked conference room. Dozen empty cubicles. Water cooler.

Water cooler.

I focus Raven's camera. The cooler is of the upside-down-jug variety. I wonder ...

Usually these coolers are very heavy, and of course Raven being avian in nature is very light. But the jug is only a quarter full.

Worth a shot.

I back Raven up, elevate till her carbon-fiber propellers skim the ceiling. My tongue traveling high up my cheek, I give the MAX_ACCELERATE command. She zooms for the jug using gravity and every last kWh she's harvested from this cloudy San Francisco morning.

The water cooler grows quickly in the livestream, then disappears.

THOINK.

Then a loud crash, then strangled gurgling. I am blind for a moment, Raven presumably filming carpet from her derriere, until she restarts her propellers and gets aloft.

It worked: the cooler is toppled, water spurting from the jug's narrow neck.

I peek again around the corner. The guard is moving toward the noise, his back to me.

I sprint for the server room, arms pumping, sandals slamming. I don't know how long he will take investigating, but I seriously doubt he'll go hunting for paper towels. I need to hustle. I reach the server-room door. I push with my palm but it isn't propped. I yank the handle so hard I feel it in my chest, cannot open it.

The keycard-reader shows red. Of course—the server room requires badge-in! I slap both hands simultaneously about my waist, searching, clutching, sliding my fingertips down my badge's lanyard...and finding it bare.

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