PART TWO

477 44 20


There is an out-of-the-way bathroom on the second floor, away from the server room, near where the laid-off engineers used to sit. I head there. Lugging my battered bones up from the parking garage, both arms pulling the handrail. Off the stairs, I ease open the door and pad softly so as not to draw notice from whoever Elite has guarding the servers. I reach the bathroom—single toilet, unisex—and slip inside.

Lock the door.

Dare a look in the mirror.

Grim, but it could have been worse. A red disk circles my neck where Mikhail choked me. Blood spray dapples my forehead. It scrubs off with water and gritty pink soap, but this welt under my temple—I guess from the wheelwell?—looks like a weirdly-placed second chin.

I struggle to cook up a cover story. Could I say I tripped over coaxial cable? Ran into one of those posh geometrical statues in the lobby? Repeatedly, violently? Why was I even in the lobby?

I'll just have to play it off. Hope the general bizarreness of today provides some small measure of camouflage.

I clean up the last flecks of blood and re-spike my hair, taking clumps between my fingers and thrusting up at angles. I tease my shirt forward to obscure the choke marks. Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt—who lost her personal skirmish with Mikhail's boot—looks sad, her left quills caved in, but remains operational.

I say to my reflection, "Mouth shut, got it? Just like you told Cecil."

The eyes staring back show a pique I don't quite trust, but I refuse to argue. That's how it started with Mom. Muttering at the back of a spoon. Then yelling. Then tearing at her own hair.

Not me.

I return to the stairwell and walk up one more flight. I feel drained from the fight, and from worry. I'm also famished—it's nearly 1:00 and I haven't eaten a thing. Typically I would be coming back from SF Soup Company or that bánh mì truck on Folsom, or if I'd been feeling ambitious, eating at Crestwood Psychiatric with Mom. I am not delightful on an empty tank; my direct reports know not to ask my opinion after 4:30 lest my dragon breath singe their code. Oh well. Hunger'll just have to join the rest of my problems at the back of the line.

On 3, Jim Davis is addressing the assembled development team. I hear him before I see him, a gravelly tension in the voice.

"... checkpoint is missed, there is a consequence," he is saying. "The deeper you progress in Blackquest 40, the more dire the consequence. I can tell you from previous training engagements that once an organization begins to fail, the failure snowballs. Timelines compress. Belief in one another erodes. Unless a leader, or leader-group, steps forward to right the ship."

He is speaking in an open space that overlooks two cube farms. Approaching from behind, I don't see his face but I do see his audience. With the exception of Jared, who sits aggressively unimpressed with knees locked and fingers laced atop his trucker hat, they are anxious. Minosh scribbles notes like every last word is bound to be on the test. Prisha's posture is painful to watch, ramrod stiff.

I keep my head down en route to my workstation.

"Miss Bollinger," Davis says before I make it. "We have been trying to reach you."

I turn back. "Know what's good for reaching people? Phones. They're handy like that."

A snort sounds from one of the cubicles whose border hides its occupant from Davis.

Jim Davis cocks his head. "What has happened to your face?"

"Hm?"

"Your face," he says. "There is severe swelling on the right side."

I chuckle. "Yeah, I was assaulted. Remember? I tried leaving and your guy dragged me through the streets like roadkill?"

"The scrapes were primarily to your arms. Your face did not—"

"The hell it didn't."

And I stalk the rest of the way to my desk and sit. Davis eyes me a moment, then—apparently prioritizing the project over a precise accounting of my injuries—resumes lecturing.

"When failure does occur, we seek to understand it. A root analysis is necessary." On a wheeled projector screen, he activates a graphic showing the various Blackquest modules and their progress. "As one sees, this afternoon's missed checkpoint traces directly back to the algorithm team's performance."

The algorithm team is mine. No kidding we missed deliverables—I was totally AWOL, off discovering that Elite Development may or may not be an arm of the Soviet-era oligarchy.

But Davis's glower doesn't find me.

It finds Prisha.

"Miss Agarwal. You are second in command on the algorithm module, yes?"

Prisha's cubicle sits in the middle of her farm. This area, occupied by more junior programmers, has low borders such that all can see the alarm in her face. From conversations with her references during the interview process, I know that large-group communication is not her strength.

"Yes."

Jim Davis turns his stressball over in his palm. "In Miss Bollinger's absence, you took charge."

"I tried, yes."

"Tried?"

Prisha seems to note his rising tone, rephrasing, "Yes I did take charge."

Jim Davis paces nowhere for a few strides. His square jaw shifting, he ponders the projector screen—awash in percentages and sparkline analytics charts. Representing the algorithm module is an oblong rectangle, pulsing red.

"Leadership requires a certain magnetism. A self-assuredness that inspires others." He folds his arms across the yellow polo shirt. "Do you believe you have magnetism, Miss Agarwal?"

It takes every ounce of self-control to not pounce from my chair and tackle him. Remember: mouth shut. Low profile.

"Perhaps my style is quieter than others," Prisha says. "We did make significant progress on the matrix transforms."

Davis's nod drips sarcasm, a grocery-store cashier complimenting his customer's preschooler on her math skills. "The American educational system places a high value on creativity. On novel approaches to problem solving. We've often found these abilities lacking while working with employees educated overseas. Particularly in Southeast Asia, where curriculums remain focused on rote skills."

"I received my master's from Cal-Berkeley."

"Yes. Unfortunately the mind frame takes root early, in primary school."

Prisha holds his gaze with effort. She keeps touching her keyboard tray, then pulling back her hand, then touching again. A growl starts in my chest. I keep my chin down as though I can pin it down, forcibly restrain my rage. I swear Davis is watching me out the corner of one eye.

For about the twentieth time, I remind myself that Cecil and I just stuffed a body in a dumpster.

Graham spots me, seems to perceive my internal struggle. He stands off to one side, fingers tucked into his trim jeans, beside bright-smiling Katie Masterson. Elite's Ken and Barbie.

"Miss Agarwal drew a bit of a rotten hand," Graham says. "The early algorithm work is challenging and down one, truly, it—"

"Challenging by design," Davis interrupts. "All projects present adversity. One is either capable of overcoming it, or one is not."

"I'm sure with Miss Bollinger back and all slotted back into their expected—"

"Miss Agarwal may simply lack the innate abilities required of her post. It happens. Hiring mistakes. The overzealous pursuit of diversity. Let us not sugarcoat facts because we fear saying things which are politically incorrect."

And now he's looking at me straight-on. Not even trying to disguise the fact that he's goading me, that this ethnically-tinged cruelty—probably learned at the KGB or some Putin fanboy sleepaway camp—has zilch to do with Prisha. He wants me. He's drawing me out, punishing me for my absence.

I don't care. He wins.

Flipping a pencil end-over-end in the air, I open my big mouth.

Blackquest 40Read this story for FREE!