Chapter Six

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I return to my workstation. As I plunk down in my chair, Raven greets me with a friendly blip-de-bloop. The cube salves my mental health, which needs salving after the morning's drama. Here, surrounded by stuff I built with my own hands, I feel safe. I flip Polarity of the Universe from Amoral to Evil, easy call. I turn Raven this way and that, making sure her kamikaze run at the water cooler didn't damage any components. One rotor blade shows a scuff but still levels out perfect.

I had an office at Google and Susan wanted me to take one here too. I just couldn't—not when the eight engineers who officially report to me lack enough Codewise HR cred to get one themselves. Would Raven and I enjoy our own window? Would it be nice to have the luxury of tweaking the spikes of my hair privately, without risk of colleagues discovering my secret vanity? You bet. A cubicle beats heck out of an alley, though.

Next on my list of comfort tasks: scanning the mechanical dragonflies' surveillance images. Primarily what I'm looking for is confirmation Jared hasn't been harassing Prisha, the Cal grad Susan and I just hired. It is somewhat NSA-ish on my part, but necessary after The Incident three weeks ago.

Let's see ... Jared surfing MMORPG forums ... Jared squinting at the Blackquest meeting invite ...

He thinks the dragonflies' swerving forays around his area are debugging runs, a believable cover story given they really are lousy fliers. I have ten weeks to fix this or else Universal Studios' new Bailey's Buzzy World attraction is going to seriously disappoint.

Jared scratching ... Jared turning his trucker hat around, (off-camera) muttering "Git 'er done, kid" ... okay. More or less docile.

Restored, I get back to carebnb. The logs show data still flowing in and out of /t, which I like, but it's impossible to tell how my wristbands are doing. Are they interpreting those tweaked data packets correctly? Or sending my unhoused beta users toward nonsense coordinates halfway across the Pacific Ocean?

Again: I need Cecil.

During our call, he said he could meet. Sort of. If I show up at our usual spot outside the parking garage, will he be there? Did he hear me say "twenty minutes" before the network cut? Even if he did, will he still be there? We talked more than an hour ago.

I have to try.

I stand and go. Past the breakroom, the Latrine, the print-station. Leaving the office always invigorates me, the promise of urban noise and non-climate-controlled air. Today the pull is even greater, this Blackquest 40 a pall over the building, looming, so male and steroid-y. I feel my knees dip and break into a half-jog.

I whoosh by Carter Kotanchek, white teeth and a cloud of aftershave.

"Deb!" He double-takes at my direction. "Was planning to go find Paul, check out the game plan. Assumed you'd be in the thick of things?"

"I'm stepping out for air. Probably catch you there in a few."

He frowns. "You know about the campus quarantine, yes? Blackquest. Nobody in, nobody out."

"Yeah I'm not participating."

"Sure y'are. All hands on deck, aye? Fourth quarter. Everything we got."

His hands form triumphant fists, then rub devilishly, then snap-point in unison. Ugh. I feel oily just being this close. Happily I never have to deal with Carter, whose CFO duties keep him busy counting money and brown-nosing Wall Street.

"I told Paul, and that Elite guy, and now I'm telling you. I am not participating. Que no participan. Talk to Susan if you don't like it."

"I have. Susan is behind Blackquest all the way, thousand percent."

"That may be, but we have an agreement. The only person who gets to manage my queue," I say, lowering my eyes, "is me."

Carter fingers the lapel of his linen suit. "These guys built this whole shillelagh around you. Without you, we can't do it. Don't have the horsepower."

"Try hiring back those thirteen engineers. See if that helps."

"Deb I know financials aren't in your wheelhouse, but we're swimming upstream. Used to be Codewise Solutions could charge whatever we wanted. Now? Got lower-cost competitors squeezing us."

I scratch my chin. "How does bloating our own costs with some fat corporate training help? Excuse my ignorance—it's so out of my wheelhouse."

"It's a differentiator. If we complete Blackquest 40 to spec, on deadline, Elite certifies us FPP-1. Flash Project Prepared level 1."

"Another acronym for the website."

"No, clients—it gets us clients! Opens up a ton of new business. They're working their government ties to get these different cert-levels standardized. You're level 1, you're looking at DOJ work. Cybersecurity. Cyberwarface for U.S. Cyber Command. That's just public sector. Once the private market catches up ..."

Carter whistles, a lascivious noise that grates on me.

When his money-lust clears enough for him to notice I've turned my back and am walking away, he calls, "This is a big deal. No way we're making FPP-1 without our quarterback on the field."

I keep moving up the hall.

He says, "I know Susan brought you aboard with some ... well, with some unique privileges." Fussing more with his lapel. "But we hired you to do a job. We hired you with an expectat—"

"She hired me. Susan. You weren't involved."

A sweat bead appears on Carter's forehead. Strange—I haven't seen him like this. He never shows nerves or admits to setbacks. Has that salesman's reflex for glossing over. But he's worried now.

I have to say, I'm enjoying it.

"Listen. Deb." His eyes harden. "If you aren't fulfilling the baseline needs of the company, we'll have no choice but to revisit the terms of your contract. Some of these more extracurricular pursuits"—he flails, lolls his tongue—"might be curtailed."

I am aware of eyebrows halfway up my forehead. "Was that your hobo face? Just now, were you impersonating an unhoused person?"

"Honest to Christ, could we—"

"A mentally-disabled hobo perhaps? That's a whole new level of insensitivity."

"I'm serious. This is not—" He looks over his shoulder, continues in a hiss, "This is not a joke. There is a lot riding on this!"

"On corporate training. There is a lot riding on this fake, busywork assignment."

Before he can bloviate further, I turn my back on him.I need that air.

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