Chapter Eleven

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We create a new repository directory for the Blackquest 40 code and divvy up engineers. The haggling over assignments takes ten minutes. Jared wants Prisha on his module because "she knows regex, and mine needs regex." I say, "We all know regex. First day CompSci 101." Jared claims his is rusty. I say, "Can't you watch porn at lunch and leave The Female alone during work hours?"

Graham is chuckling when a voice behind calls, "What seems to be the problem?"

Something like conspiracy flashes in his face before he turns to face Jim Davis. "Miss Bollinger was just providing invaluable cross-peer feedback."

Davis ignores this attempt at levity. "A full workplan must be filed by checkpoint #1, top of the hour. Where do we stand?"

Everybody looks to me. "I was proactively heading off a harassment situation."

Jared slams his trucker hat to the ground. "You can't say this stuff!"

I inch my feet away from the hat, which brushed my sandals. Ew. I may need Raven to do a lavender-rain sanitizer run.

I tell Davis, "You have access to our files, check it out. I guarantee HR has formal documentation of the history."

"Bogus," Jared counters. "You cooked up that complaint at that diversity meeting of yours. Prisha would've never filed it on her own."

He is referencing the monthly gathering I host in the big conference room on 6. The room is obscenely over-sized for us—the only regular attendees behind myself, Prisha, Susan, and a militant ferrets-rights activist from Accounts Payable—but that's sort of my point: to highlight how badly not diverse we are. I think of it as half-meeting, half-political performance art.

"Maybe not," I say. "Sadly for you, institutionalized female acquiescence is on the run."

Jim Davis's eyes pulse between us. "This is precisely the waste I spoke about in the kickoff. The muda. It paralyzes an organization."

"Muda?" I repeat.

Jared says, "She has no clue— she didn't go. Sent her drone instead."

I scoff at his juvenile tattle. Jim Davis is not laughing, though. His eyes and mouth shut in unison while his stressball grip tightens. Controlled breaths swell his chest. I feel like he could strike us, or tear down the projector screen with his teeth.

Paul Grippe moves into the room, ready. Other engineers huddle at the door.

Davis asks me if this is true.

I shrug. He knows the answer—he saw me right afterward near the server room. Is this for show? Menace for the sake of menace?

His lips vanish into his mouth, leaving a bowstring of purple. The Elite gang too seems to fear a meltdown; Katie Masterson strides toward us with tall eyebrows. As she approaches, I notice they have the same chin and beaked nose.

Siblings.

In an instinctive flash, I'm certain of it. This is not good. A family businesses can be insular, warped—there are no checks, no empowered outsiders to sound the alarm when Brother Jim starts basing hiring decisions on whose moon sign happens to be in phase. This guy might be anything. Polygamist, meth head.

"Muda is the Japanese term for waste. Toyota has made a mission of identifying, and systematically destroying, its muda." With deliberate fury, Davis shifts to Jared. "Indeed I have reviewed your file, Mr. Ackerman. The phrase, 'lack of personal responsibility' occurs often. Your last review concluded that an 'obsession with process' hampered the speed of your deliverables."

"What?" Jared tugs his hat back on. "Who said that?"

"You spent a week perfecting the color scheme of your bug-ticketing profile."

"I was getting like fifty emails an hour. If every single one's red, how can I—"

"Enough," Jim Davis interrupts. "Perhaps you've learned that instigating petty squabbles can advantage you. But I assure you during Blackquest 40, it will not. Do what Miss Bollinger says. To the letter. Make muda of yourself, and we will treat you like muda."

He enunciates the final word with gusto, almost turning "-da" into "-die", then leaves.

The pressure in the room eases. My fist, tight around a pen, relaxes. Did he really just smackdown my arch enemy? I figured Jared's brand of bureaucratic glug would play well with these guys, but maybe I have underestimated them. Or overestimated him.

We finish the workplan inside ten minutes, Graham and I defining the stepwise deliverables with Jared's mumbled assent. The moment our document hits the repository, a jarring pling booms over the office PA. I whirl to find the timer reset, ticking down from 1:29:58, the digits changed from red to green.

"Okay then," I say, standing. "Now that we've staved off the beheading, I'll get cracking on my piece."

I round up my module-mates and give a brief peptalk. I tell them Blackquest 40 is a high priority for "the bosses" (a blanket term that excludes me even though I'm theirs) and that I intend for us to seriously kick its butt. Generally I try to shield the people I manage from my own snark—if they want to become jaded, that's fine, but I won't be that loser making others into malcontents for personal affirmation.

After splitting up the work, I head back to my cube and dive in—thinking to gain some breathing room, then pivot to carebnb. I took the hardest interfaces myself, and now open the gnarliest of the gnarly.

At its core is a seven-variable matrix, which gets passed around and calculated upon. I squint and splay my fingers and meld my soul with the problem—the only way I know to work, the method that got me through Lowell High and MIT and Harvard. I slip into functions and carousel through FOR-NEXT loops, am divided by, and taken the cube-root of, and all this I feel. I have to or else it doesn't work. Without living in the algorithm, coursing through its guts, drowning in its veins, I cannot express it in code.

My fingers find keys and I am vaguely aware of tapping, quaternions and helper classes and inner functions materializing onscreen, flowing from my brain like juice through jumper cables. I know narrow things; my left sandal is mis-Velcroed. I hear chatter from adjacent cubicles interspersed with recent memories, Graham dodging my question about use cases, Carter Kotanchek's plea to participate. My upper arm hurts. I smell blood again. I see cots and guards and disappearing stock options, and my overpowering sense is ... specificity.

Purpose.

This algorithm has a mission. Mentally, psychically, I enter a different place. I jackknife into Jim Davis's skull and that giant server, then lower to B1, to that hulked-up commercial van.

I hear that soft chugging.   

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