Chapter Thirteen

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The chugging is coming from a generator in back, which powers a ceiling-mounted block of pure silicon might: enough computing power to make Watson pee his Big Blue pants. Where did they even find a chassis this big? It spans the entire canopy of a 15-passenger commercial van. I realize that the box I tripped over in the server room was nothing. A faucet tap.

This here? This is the cyclone.

I am walking forward slackjawed, staring up, and so miss the crate of guns.

"Oww!" I clutch my shin and, looking down, feel all breath sucked from my chest. It's a small arsenal. Short guns, long guns, fat guns.

There is more. My thoughts are tumbling starbursts but in adjacent crates I dimly perceive vials and ammunition and coiled wire and hypodermic needles in shrinkwrap, and I just ... struggle ... am really struggling ... to stay in the moment. That sadistic kid is jerking my ears again, wrecking my equilibrium. The air is close and mineral, and it feels like metal filings are cropping up in between my wrist-hairs.

I turn away from the weapons. I have to—the aversion is sudden, physical. I stagger sideways and brace myself by a file cabinet.

A file cabinet. Documents. Information, on paper.


Yes, please: paper I can deal with.

I pull the top drawer. Locked. My sense gradually returning, I see that it is a simple mechanism, no different from what Mom and I used to pick sneaking into abandoned Presidio buildings on rainy nights. Several of Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt's treads are loose and ready to slough off; I pry one free and fit its long, thin body into the keyhole. I twist clockwise while jiggling up and down, which should work.

Only it doesn't.

I ram the hard-plastic piece deeper. Screaaack. I cringe at the noise. I twist again, jiggle. No luck. I ram harder, tearing my thumb on the piece's back corner. Blood drips onto the lower drawers.

Perfect. Here, have my DNA.

On my fifth try I keep enough tension in the plastic to unlock the drawer. Inside are manila folders. I begin rifling through. Sample workplans, promotional materials, printouts about motivational techniques. A file labeled Containment full of stapled briefs on Wi-Fi blocking.

Here, in a folder with a red tab, are the Blackquest 40 interfaces. They aren't labeled as such but I recognize them, that seven-variable matrix. I lift the pages out, smearing blood in the margins.

Wait. These aren't empty interfaces. They have code: implementations for all the interfaces, not just my algorithm piece but Jared's infiltration too. Have I just discovered the answer key?

I consider stuffing the pages into my jacket or snapping a photo. Except Hedgehog Eleanor has no camera. Then I notice a note scribbled at the bottom of one. Too slow, host disallows.

Now I look more closely. Several interfaces have comments like this, or incomplete code—a FOR/WHILE loop with no WHILE—or just preliminary declarations. As if somebody began the project, then gave up.

Is this some other company's attempt? Wasn't Blackquest 40 supposed to be tailored specifically to Codewise? "The most demanding, the most grueling we have yet conceived," Jim Davis told me. The lying sack of puss. It's all recycled from another training.

I try the middle drawer of the file cabinet, then the bottom—destroying two more of Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt's treads. I make more noise and leave more blood, and I don't care. I am flipping, comparing. Paper-edges keep scraping my cut and making me angrier.

Finally, near the back of the bottom drawer, I find what I'm looking for: personnel records. Time to pull back the curtain on these scammers.

The first stack of paper-clipped documents pertain to Graham Davidson. A United States passport featuring a younger photo—carefree eyes, crooked smile—and a single visa stamp. (Portugal.) A Personality Assessment tersely praising the employee's "pliability" and "ingenuity" while noting "a frequent disregard for authority." Knew there was a reason I half-liked this guy. Credit report. San Francisco driver's license. Index-sized scrap headed, VERBAL with a check-mark indicating, PERFECT, UNACCENTED.

The label on the next stack means nothing to me. Mikhail Stepanoff. When I flop open the passport, though, I flinch. The guard! Michael. His overexposed photo is ghoulish, like some electrocution snuff shot, bright-white skin screaming through the laminate. Something else is off. The passport itself. Ns and Ps all backward, magenta instead of blue like Graham's.

I flop back to the cover.


I lose track of my hands. The stack of documents scatters to the floor of the van. Former USSR! Oligarchs! I bend to pick up the mess, dizzy, unsure whether I'm covering my tracks or collecting evidence or what. The top item is another index-sized scrap, VERBAL, checked RUSSIAN ONLY with a handwritten note, "No time for retraining/accent mitigation. Recommend alternate cover."

Alternative cover. Like pretending you're mute.

I am just returning to the files—imagining what house of horrors lurks behind the automaton calling itself Jim Davis—when the rear doors burst open.

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