Chapter Seven

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B1 is the lower of the two parking garages. I ride the elevator to the bottom, disembark, and stride across sharp-smelling concrete. There are fewer than a dozen cars. Most of the Codewise workforce, diminished as it is after the layoff, cycles or takes public transit. Cool outside air pulls me along, toward sky and freedom and—I'm hoping desperately—Cecil.

My mouth still tastes sour from the Carter exchange. The hobo face is one thing; latent bigotry emerging in a moment of stress from a person like him is no shocker. The threat is another. Curtailed. Please. When Susan gets back from Davos this afternoon or evening, she'll shut this down. She'll blow into the lobby and immediately feel the BS, the testosterone-film on her skin.

I wonder what Carter told her about Blackquest 40 to get that "thousand percent" support. Not the truth. He certainly would have needed her sign-off on that stealth HR addendum authorizing all this ... maybe he got an admin to stamp it when she was off jet-setting?

My steps slow at the sight of an unfamiliar vehicle parked near the fire extinguishers. A hulked-up commercial van. Fifteen-passenger. Tall roof. Windowless black sides. I hear a soft chugging coming not from the engine, but from the rear wheel-well.

The sliding door reads, ELITE DEVELOPMENT.

I take only a moment wondering what lives here—this van perfectly complements their big honking server—before rushing on. I see streetlight and am already formulating my first Cecil question.

"No!"

A tall, angular man bursts off a stool. Wearing the yellow polo shirt.

The command startles me. I knew about Elite's "campus quarantine" but didn't figure they would post actual guards for a training exercise. It's like igniting staircases for a fire drill.

I keep walking, saluting with two fingers off the top of my head.

He repeats, "No!" and shakes his head vigorously side-to-side.

I pass him, onto the ramp now, hearing the thrum of traffic. I lean out over my thighs, hiking the grade. Usually Cecil waits for me here at the halfway point. I don't see him. Why aren't I seeing him?

"No! No, no, no. No!"

The Elite guy, still. I peek back. His face is contorted—he's trying to amplify his warning with his expression—and his limbs seem too long, as if they have extra joints. That his vocabulary is capped at one word—No!—says something about his likely job qualifications. I feel bad for him. Being low on the totem pole at some corporate training firm is nobody's idea of a sweet gig. I bet he's working on his night-school MBA, thought this would look decent on a resume. "Elite Development." Bay Area address, nice generic name. $20 an hour. Figured he would be collating reports or conducting employee interviews.

Now they have him playing rent-a-cop.

I turn back to the alley. Scan left, scan right. Still not seeing Cecil. Could he be at the dumpster? Getting in a quick forage? The other day he bumped into Jared by accident, and my wannabe-hipster coworker chatted him up about favorite Coltrane albums. So maybe he's hanging back making sure it's me.

I start for the dumpster. A hand seizes my arm.

"Hey," I say. "That's not cool."

The Elite guard furrows his brow and keeps saying, "No," only I'm not even sure it's "no" anymore. It begins sounding guttural, animal.

"I'm serious, bud—let go."

I whip my arm but cannot get free. He tightens his grip—pinching bone in my upper arm—and forces me back into the garage. It is quick, cruel: he jerks my shoulder without regard for the rest of my body.

"Are you insane?!" I choke. "What're you doing?"

He doesn't care, or understand—it is impossible to know. As he keeps dragging me, and I keep chopping my steps to get away, all is scrambled in my brain. This is an office building. People do not touch each other. People do not grab, or gouge, or use shivs—that's been my reality since I headed off to MIT.

I look at my attacker. His eyes cold, oaken. I don't feel bad for him now. What I feel is diminished. The way I used to feel as a child, with Mom, whenever a man (or men) approached our rat-gnawed bedroll in Golden Gate Park. It never matter what I screamed—that I knew where they slept!, I could ID them!, they were going to be held accountable! They would take what they wanted. I was small, weak. Female. I made no difference.

"Okay fine." I huff heavily and stop struggling. "I give up."

He makes no move to relent, his thumb stiff in my armpit. I raise my hands, palms out, and smile. Both are extremely difficult to muster. Finally his teeth unclench and he lets go.

We both exhale. A purple-red welt has already formed on my arm.

"Thanks. You guys aren't messing around with this quarantine, huh?" I force a light tone.

Though he does not answer, I can see he is relieved. He fixes the tuck of his polo shirt. The sleeves make his long arms look like noodles.

My heart hammers in my chest.

"So I'll head back up," I say. "Is the stairwell open, did you notice?"

He stares back quizzically. I gesture around a concrete pillar, inviting him to check.

He takes one step to see past the pillar. It's all I need.

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