Chapter Twenty

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We stare at each other ten endless seconds, underneath the table, lying stock-still on our sides. My left hip bone is made of pain. Paul and I lock eyes. Refreshingly, he is managing to ignore my feet. Our ears prick at slight noises—a hard disk spinning down, air through an overhead duct.

Finally, a footstep outside. Then another. I brace for Elite to burst in, for some thug's arm to jerk me to my feet ... but the door remains shut.

I roll painstakingly to my knees and peer over the tabletop to the monitor, which shows Raven's livestream.

"They went!"

The yellow shirts are boarding the elevator with the drone, wedging themselves into corners. "It worked. They're following her down to the garage."

Paul picks himself up off the carpet to confirm. "It's only four floors."

"I know, not much time. Okay—so assuming Carter Kotanchek is the mastermind, what're we looking at? What is he capable of?"

"Hard to say."

"Criminal stuff? You were at Carnegie with him; did he have a record?"

"None that I'm aware of."

"Hazing? Some date rape-ish thing?"

Paul shakes his head. "The key is to think big. In the grandest imaginable terms. When he pitched Susan and I on the Cray supercomputer, he predicted we'd solve global warming. He thought we could box the problem algorithmically and then use the thing to blast scenarios till we had it licked."

"And you bought that? He just wanted a shiny toy."

"No." Paul pushes his lip forward. "He had a vision. He believed in that vision. When it didn't pan out, he dreamed up another—he thought it would be great for reality TV. 'Geek Versus Machine.' He actually found some producer-type to shoot a pilot. It almost worked. The network backed out last second, but for a few weeks there it looked like they'd buy the thing out from under us."

"Instead it's collecting dust up on 12 now."

"Right. $16 million worth."

On the livestream, Raven leads the yellow shirts off the elevator. She floats along, hugging the parking-garage ceiling. By default she will fly to the geometric center of the room and wait. I decide that might seem suspicious, like she's stumped or otherwise malfunctioning, and so dash off a RANDOM_CRUISE 15 command. This will keep her wandering in a fifteen-foot radius of that point.

Paul adds, "I don't believe Susan would have sided with him about the Cray under different circumstances. She and Carter were ... well, closer then."

A tiny sulk nudges out of his words. It is insane that he's making the allusion now, of all times. Huge triangle dynamics exist between the Codewise founders; Jared dished some of it to me when I started, before my aversion to workplace skeeze made us enemies. Does it nauseate me that Carter and Susan briefly dated, in the lean days before she was a tech mogul/trailblazer? Yes. Still, imagining Paul as some jealous third wheel—brooding, huffing around the office kneading his doughy hands—is nearly as gag-inducing. I'll pass.

"Let's forget the Cray, that's ancient history," I say. "So if Blackquest 40 is Carter's baby, it goes back to money. Just how brutal are the numbers? He told me something about 'swimming upstream,' said we were getting squeezed on price?"

"My understanding was things had improved." Paul raises a shoulder, befuddled. "The April layoff was painful but suddenly in June, Carter had budget space to hire all that new sales staff."

"Yeah, I remember June—they started taking out the trash again." Janitorial had temporarily gone to an every-other-week pickup schedule, which did not mesh well with my Greek yogurt obsession. "Something changed in the middle. In May. What?"

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