Chapter Three

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My badge is sitting on a chair on Five, at the Company-All. Right where Raven left it.

I glance up the hall. I don't see the guard, but creaks in the floor tell me something is happening around the corner. He'll be here soon.

I have to move—either beat my retreat or power ahead into the server room. I grope around the keycard-reader. Backing out these tiny Phillips heads will take forever...blunt force, a kick or some kind of elbow-smash, would have zero effect on a magnetic lock...

Panic and despair stretch my face. I need to fix this dataflow now. If Blackquest 40 proceeds as described, carebnb will stay dark for two nights. Launch fail. My credibility shot—with venture capital, sure, but more importantly with Cecil and Wanda and my 135 other unhoused volunteers.

My gaze falls serendipitously to a wall outlet. I think, Electricity.

No electricity, no magnetism.

The first tool that leaps into my head is a fork, but I don't generally keep utensils on my person. I begin a frenzied inventory from the sandals up—buckles, toe ring, phone, keys...wait, keys. I whip out my house key, which I carry around on a carabiner clip.

The clip doesn't have tines like a fork, but maybe if I open its gate and align the angular teeth-grabs just so.

I grab the carabiner with the tail of my shirt, doubling- and tripling-up the fabric, before realizing I have no clue how far this circuit extends. Will I zap these hall lights? The servers themselves? The whole floor?

The risk is significant. Job-jeopardizingly so. Working at Codewise Technology is not my life's ambition, but that bi-weekly paycheck is nice and meaty—meatiness I need to pay for mom's care (assisted living is outrageous in San Francisco) and keep carebnb afloat.

I drop to one knee, regrip the carabiner. Its metal glints between my quivering knuckles.

I inhale hard. For resolve, I imagine the parallel outlet openings are the smug faces of Carter Kotanchek and that Elite stooge Jim Davis.

I ram the carabiner forward. Through my shirt fabric, I feel the bite. An angry, concentrated tickle. A toast smell worries the air.

I check the keycard-reader. Its indicator is dark; the server-room door hangs slack between its jambs. The nearest hall light has blown too but I can't fret over that. I scramble inside.

To make the door appear closed, I drag over a rolling cart and lock its wheels. This may take a few minutes and I need the guard to stay incurious. I head for /t. The servers are all blipping and whirring in their racks—they have emergency failover power, I now remember. The lights are off and the aisles are narrow and I wish I'd brought my hoodie because my arms are freezing. (Paul Gribbe believes a server room must be arctic despite modern thinking to the contrary.)

I am scampering half-blind toward the last row of machines when a giant tower, jutting into the aisle, trips me. I crash to the concrete. Cursing, raising up onto my throbbing shoulder, I squint at the tower, which bears the Elite "E"—blue, topped with the skyward arrow.

It's one impressive machine. I can hear the disk platters spinning, cranking—they could be compressing coal into diamonds inside. What does Elite need with their own server? Just transporting this beast up from the garage would be a chore. Why?

What are these guys about?

No time to ponder; I gotta move. I shrug off my aches and locate /t, whip out a USB cable, stretch on tiptoes plugging one end into the back and the other to my phone, which will have to serve as my input device.

Raven's livestream still plays on my cell. Before swiping it away, I note that her hallway looks empty. The guard must have returned to his post.

I am just praying he won't notice the blown keycard-reader when a series of progressively-louder thuds begin behind me, followed by a crash that can only be one thing. A toppled rolling cart.

The server racks are eight feet tall, leaving a short gap below the ceiling. I climb the boxes two at a time, sandal-treads digging off their chassis edges, which groan but don't break under my 90-odd pounds. Bless Paul for his priggish insistence on titanium.

I heave myself over the top. Ow! My shins and groin bang into the top server, whose surface burns my exposed wrists. I flatten out till my elbows and ankles find the cool edges of the rack, then lie in this excruciating position—spread like a squirrel pelt—to listen.

The guard's footsteps boom around like rifle-shot. He walks down one row, up the next. Ambient computer noise worms around my brain. He pauses several times—inspecting? receiving a message on his phone?—and I hold my breath. I hear him flip the light switch. The room stays dark. The guard says nothing.

When he nears /t, I shrink back from the aisle by small, crab-like movements. My USB cord remains plugged in but is hardly visible, just a sagged section between racks.

"Ehhhn."

I can't tell if this exhalation is pensive, or bored, or what. I keep perfectly still. My thigh muscles, flexed to keep me off the surface of this top burning-hot server, scream with exertion.

Finally the guard moves off. In another minute, he's left the room.

I half-climb, half-vault to the floor. There is no time to regroup. He might be reporting these irregularities, the blown reader and barricaded door, to his superiors. Swiping my cell keyboard, I access /t and navigate to the carebnb database.

Within seconds I see the problem. As suspected, Elite is blocking ports. I try all the biggies—including 3306 which carebnb uses—and cannot get data in or out. Pecking tiny touchscreen keys, I kick off a nifty scanning script I wrote at Google. (We needed to know in a hurry whether a particular server was transmitting out to mal- or ransomware.) I squint down the results, which spill out five rows per second.

The text is all green, except for a single red entry: 9009.

Interesting. Elite has kept one port open, way up in the high range. Probably for their own email/cell traffic. It's clever, hiding their little data-tunnel in this spot nobody would ever look. Again I wonder about this outfit. Corporate trainers' technical sophistication generally tops out at PowerPoint.

Again, I have no time to puzzle. It takes me nine minutes to reroute carebnb's traffic through 9009. I have to tweak the outgoing data packets' format, which makes me cringe. My wristbands should handle it, but without testing you never know. I punch up the master map.

The dots are moving. Wanda is all the way into Haight-Ashbury now.

Quickly I cover my tracks. Logout, take my cord. I tiptoe past the giant Elite tower that tripped me. Assuming the guard is back at his post, I leave by the secondary door nearer the elevators.

In the hall, feeling returns to my shivering arms. I check the time. Ten past. The Company-All should be over, everyone returning to their desks. It's great /t is fixed, but I do need to confirm my wristbands are understanding those tweaked packets. I still need Cecil.

Increasing my pace, I issue a command for Raven to meet up at my cubicle. I reach the elevators. I jab the button and peer at my notifications bar, hoping for some Verizon love. Whatever Elite is doing to block mobile, it must be wireless—meaning there could be random holes. That explains why they're still collecting phones.

All four bars are faint, gray. Randomness is not favoring me today.

The elevator chimes. The door splits and I stride forward, head down, slamming into Jim Davis.

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