Chapter Twenty-One

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Much as I want to, I can't sprint the stairs. They leave their dim fire-exit confines at the second floor and become focal to a towering, tiered balcony overlooking the Codewise lobby. Cinder steps yield to warm pine; the switchback slopes gentle; and parallels of sleek metal twine demark the shaft. I approach the first wooden step with a panther's stealth.

I see the lobby—and the lobby sees me—through a minimalist glass balustrade that's always struck me as disturbingly low. Regular security guy Kyle mans the badge reader, sitting at a bank of closed-caption monitors. Forward of Kyle, an Elite yellow shirt paces behind revolving doors. Over this entrance hangs a three-foot-high canvas banner, which faces the street so I have to read it backwards:

THE CODEWISE SOLUTIONS CAMPUS IS CLOSED FOR A TRAINING EXERCISE.

Neither Kyle nor Elite's bouncer notice me creeping up the stairs. I'm grateful for Sempiternity, a commissioned water statue whose gurgle masks any clacks or squeaks from my sandals. The statue, together with a pearly water wall that opposes it from the far-west end of the lobby, lend the air a greenhouse tinge—that humid lick against my cheek.

Winding my way up to 10, I wonder if any outsiders have been turned away. Few clients come for on-site pitches. The most likely visitors would be FedEx or DHL—these, I'm guessing, would have been allowed in to drop their packages. What would it take to arouse suspicion? Smoke alarm? Busted-out window?

I think of Bruce Willis in Die Hard, chucking that terrorist's body from about the fiftieth floor onto a cop's windshield.

By the time I've climbed the eight flights, my quads burn from maintaining soft footfalls. I lay Paul's badge against the reader. Its indicator blips green. I slip inside to the Executive Wing.

There's nothing wet or remotely organic about the air on E-wing. You're awash in moneyed comfort. Car coats, silk scarves. No stacks of programming reference tomes spiraling out of cubicles here. Workspaces are orderly, ski portraits from Tahoe and bric-a-brac arranged for impromptu client or manager visits—indispensable face time—rather than ... well, work.

Besides execs, E-wing houses Sales, Marketing, Business Development (you say "BizDev" with jazz hands), Corporate Strategy, and whatever management consultants are currently feeding off the host organism. I cut between a man laughing, thumbs tucked easily in chinos, and a woman bobbing her tea infuser in a porcelain mug.

My blood boils reflexively. Where are their doomsday countdown clocks?

Elite must've decided this part of the organization is above cattle-prodding, or at least not worth troubling over. What did Paul say they were tasked with, some random business plan? On sheer outrage, I am about to whirl on the pair, who're surely sharing raised eyebrows over my war-zone appearance, when I catch the cheery voice of Katie Masterson up ahead.

I stoop-walk nearer. Probably I should skedaddle by to Carter's office. I can't remember whether Katie was still on 2 when Brother Jim began his witch-hunt for me. Even if not, he could have broadcast a message to all Elite personnel. If she spots me, I'm toast.

I cruise behind a file cabinet, which provides as decent cover as I'll find in this open-plan workspace. Pull out a drawer absently, begin fingering through paperwork as my ears tune in.

In fact, Katie's voice is not cheery.

"... mood is all wrong," she is saying. "The imagery is so wispy. Why this soft-blue sky? Where's our dark, mysterious outer space? And doves? Doves? This could be feminine hygiene ad copy."

I risk telescoping my neck beyond the file cabinet. Katie Masterson is gesturing at a posterboard print that shows an aircraft, sized between a 747 and NASA shuttle, soaring over a lushly-rendered earth. The title reads in unassuming sans-serif, "Join Our Stewardship of the Final Frontier."

"The doves symbolize openness," explains a Codewise employee I don't know, thirty-some, shaggy hipster beard. "We wanted to create a warm, inclusive feel. Welcoming. Safe."

"Safe, yes. Safe makes sense. But why stewardship? The business plan you've been assigned is private space flight. This sounds like some NGO consortium."

"We—er, were hoping to capitalize on the preexisting goodwill capital."

Katie Masterson looks between Shaggy and his team's concept art, vexed. "You have two variables to maximize: revenue, market share. Blackquest 40 says nothing about goodwill capital."

"But OurSpace has such overwhelmingly positive brand identification. The commitment to sustainability, the great transparency with test flights. If we play off this image, revenues—"

"Why are you talking about OurSpace?"

"Because they—see, to model their business, you'd have to account for—"

"You aren't modeling their business. You're modeling the business of a generic private space flight company."

Shaggy stops in the middle of a twirling-forward gesture. His index finger freezes in a crooked, horizontal C.

"Oh."

Exasperated, Katie accepts his apology. She grinds a knuckle into her clavicle as Shaggy explains his team has spent the last six hours devising a plan specifically tailored to OurSpace, the Bay Area firm featured in that article Carter chose off the front page of SF Chronicle at the kick-off meeting.

OurSpace is actually a very cool company. I interviewed with their founder, Oren Andreassen, before settling on Codewise. He's a major open-source booster, runs all their launch and nav systems through the cloud. He took me for a spin around San Mateo in his flying car, resplendent in silk bodysuit, gushing his philosophy of code ecosystems and interoperability.

Katie Masterson is annoyed at the wasted time, but it's her own fault. Apparently this is Elite's first trip upstairs—they've been busy tormenting us engineers—and these sorts of definitional confusions plague every project. If they wanted their phony business plan nailed, they should've paid attention.

Sighing, Katie pivots from the posterboard. My chest seizes. Did she spot me? I slink back behind the file cabinet.

A moment later, I hear her reengage Shaggy on next steps.

I hustle away to the next hall, around a corner to the C-level offices. I've dallied too much. Elite could be questioning Paul right now. Grilling him for my whereabouts. They could be telling him the truth (their version) about Mikhail—that he's marinating in a dumpster, that I was involved.

Hearing this, would Paul keep protecting me? I hope. It's no slam dunk.

The first office I encounter is Susan's. Dark—but the door is cracked. I catch a whiff of her space, crispness of the damask couch, dramatic after-scents of the cashmere trench coat. My strides slow unconsciously. A burn passes through my body—a good burn, restorative. I yearn to dive into her office like a defector hurtling an embassy fence, to shelter there.

Soon.

I pull myself away and keep on. The next gleam-brass nameplate I encounter reads CARTER KOTANCHEK, CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER. Lights blazing, door open. No sign of CK Slick.

His office professional, though, stands just outside the door. Frowning at the clasp of a manila envelope. She doesn't see me.

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