Chapter Ten

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Hell. Paul's boring and repressed and sticklerish, and maybe McGriddles are slowly pickling his brain, but he gets this much right: I need to cool it. I can't manage carebnb under house arrest.

I blow past Jim Davis to the Latrine and tell the room at large, "Come on, show me what needs doing to get everybody off my jock."

The conference table is littered with notecards, coffee, highlighters. I take the middle seat and, with the knob of my wrist, clear a swath. The room feels jittery. The engineers are working again but none have forgotten my confrontation with the guard and subsequent screaming match—my face still bloody, a section of upper lip flayed raw. The digital timer reads 00:38:49. Standing at the whiteboard are Jared, frowning with a dry-erase marker in his armpit, and that Elite guy with windswept hair.

"Graham," he says, introducing himself as Elite's Technical Liaison. "In your absence, I worked with Paul and Jared here on the broad strokes of an architecture. We'd love your input."

My eyes narrow. Graham wears the yellow polo shirt but with the collar turned up (ironically?, accidentally?) and over thermal sleeves. Trim black jeans. That buoyant, dishwater-blond hair.

I am a firm believer in establishing ground rules. "I'm gay."

"Lovely. I'm Sagittarius." His dimples wink. "What do you think? We've encapsulated where possible but tried to keep our layers thin."

Warily I turn from him to the whiteboard and consider their design. One group of programmers is to craft the module responsible for penetrating the host system while a second takes the optimization/algorithm piece, with the two teams initially collaborating over the particulars of the link, then splitting off to work separately.

"Conventional," I say. "If you freeze that junction early"—the junction being the link—"you predetermine the approach. You sacrifice creativity."

Jared snorts. "Have to. Otherwise everybody's coding a moving target."

I should let this go. What do I care if the project fails? But that snort. "The target is always moving, if you're any good. 187 interfaces in 40 hours can't happen in a code stampery."

Graham watches with a bemused expression. I don't get how he fits with Elite. You have Commando Bureaucrat Jim Davis. You have the mute thug. You have Katie Masterson with her thousand-watt smile. It's a motley crew but each has some defect or slight weirdness to explain why they accepted a job with this bizarre outfit.

But Graham ... has hair like Matthew McConaughey. He looks me in the eye when he speaks—a rarity in tech—and his easy posture displays none of that overcaffeinated aggression the others show.

After the three of us arrive at a compromise on architecture (i.e. fix Jared's mistakes), I turn to Graham with a squint.

"What exactly is being simulated here? You guys did a phenomenal job making the variable names totally incoherent. What's the usecase?"

"None. This is merely an exercise to improve teamwork and recreate a high levera—"

"Save it, I heard the spiel. But this"—I stand and thump the whiteboard with its sprawling interfaces—"did not arise from thin air. It does something. It wriggles in somewhere, then blasts a bunch of complicated calcs, then hangs out. Why? What's it doing?"

Graham laces his fingers behind his head. "I'll provide more color, sure. The software must inject itself into a legacy operating system, overcoming sophisticated, non-deterministic security. Once established it monitors system output, formulates alternative output, and passes this revised output along in perpetuity. We have a test environment on-site that simulates the legacy system. For FPP1 certification, the final Blackquest 40 code must grade out perfect against all UAT tests."

"Yeah yeah, I think I saw it— the test environment." It occurs that I shouldn't divulge this, but his eyes are drawing me out. "Server room, big yuge box? At first I thought it was a bomb."

The eyes flicker. "Oh that? Yes, that is a bomb—the faint green glow is from plutonium. But we also brought a test environment."

My stomach bottoms out for one beat, two beats ... before I get it. "Jesus." I pat my chest. "Don't do that."

Graham smiles rakishly, crossing one black-jean leg over the other.

I remind him, "I'm gay."

"And I detest water chestnuts, always have. Ready to write some code?"

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