Chapter Twenty-Four

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The game's up. If Elite knows the "Carter K." account is accessing raw Journal Entry files, they'll know which machine the access is occurring from too. It's a blessing they revoked privileges first instead of coming here and nabbing me in the act. Probably they were hoping to close the spigot before somebody figured out their big red secret.

Too late.

I leave Carter's office and walk swiftly through E-wing. Hands in pockets, head low. Is Katie Masterson still up here? I don't know and I'm not about to cast around to find out.

I don't run into Ashley Thimms either. Possibly she's still at the printer. I have no clue how big that PDF was—she could be waiting out 150 pages of some transistor-parts catalog.

I make the stairs. Ten stories down, through the low glass balustrade, I see Security Kyle and the Elite guard doing what they were before, idle patrolling. I tiptoe down one flight of stairs and am swinging around to the next, metal twine skimming through my palm, when I hear a clink below.

A door handle. By the sound of it, several floors below.

I let go the stair-guide and backpedal to the entrance of 9. I lay Paul's badge—which I've hung onto—against the reader. I baby the latch and gently pull the door, hustling through.

I walk to the first lockable room, buzzing, not knowing or caring whose offices I pass, and shut myself inside. Another bathroom. I sink to the tile with back flat to the wall, legs straight. The belligerently-white overhead LEDs unnerve me.

Okay. Think.

They know about the van. Mostly likely, they know about Mikhail. They know I have been digging around the money trail, and if they know that ... if they think I know about Voronezh ...

Then I'm a threat. They can't hand me over to SFPD for Mikhail's death—I might blab about the Russia connection. I should run. Where? How? I'd have to bust out a window, a lower one, or else overpower one of their entry/exit sentries. Could Raven alert the authorities somehow? Doubtful—she's about as conspicuous as I am now, after the parking garage ruse.

Can I just wrap both arms over my skull and cry until Blackquest 40 ends?

The sheer hopelessness of the situation makes me think of carebnb. Cecil, Wanda, people I've squatted beside over sewer grates and tried talking into wearing my wristband. I think about their dangers. Hunger. Addiction. Ruthless predators—not the polo shirt-wearing kind, but the kind who'll settle for children and tear an ear off for a metal stud.

The dangers Mom and I used to face.

Actually? I don't think I will cry. Or stay here one minute longer.

I rise onto one knee, then stand. I leave the bathroom and walk to the elevator bank—no more slogging it on the stairs. With a stiff middle finger, I press Down. Board an empty car. Ride it down to 2.

I disembark and walk straight to my cube. Brows raise in my periphery. Conversations pause. I push my chest out and jut my hips, walking loose-wristed, inviting anyone to try me.

I'm done cowering. I just am. Knowledge is power, and I know plenty. If Elite wants to lock me in a conference room, fine. I'll scream through the glass. I'll scream till they wrestle me into a straightjacket and cinch the straps so tight my windpipe closes.

Nobody stops me.

I must be emitting some attitudinal forcefield. The whole floor feels neutered, hushed. Nobody else is up and about. The prattle of keys is furious but doesn't embody that happy, progress-making industry of a bank of typists. It's brittle. Not enough sighs or lip-burbles, or thumbs tapping denim.

Once I've reached my cubicle, Jared kick-wheels his chair over.

He looks to either side and whispers, "Where were you?"

"Away."

"We can't test our module output until yours hits the test server."

"I'll get right on that," I say. "I exist to serve you."

Jared rips off his trucker hat but finds nowhere to throw it. "We can't miss another checkpoint. These dudes are insane."

"You're only now realizing?"

"Well I didn't—er, these restrictions just ... and someone said there was a crate of needles? Like, to inject us."

"With what?"

He shudders, gripping the cuffs of his sweatshirt. "Dunno."

I tell him we'll do our best. As he grumbles back to his own workspace, again glancing to either side, I consider the Blackquest code fresh. The boldface variables. The cursor blinking off its even, sinister beat.

In light of Voronezh, I try to imagine what we're being whipped into implementing. Russia loves meddling in U.S. and other countries' politics, but so far its preferred method has been low-tech social media manipulations. You don't need Codewise engineers if all you're doing is blanketing Facebook with phony xenophobic news stories.

Are they upping the ante? Looking for more direct control over the results, some means of infiltrating the vote tabulations? That injection module of Jared's might conceivably wriggle itself into a city or state's software, then my piece would—I guess, extrapolating this scheme all the way out—replace the correct vote totals with fake ones. But then what's the purpose of the seven-variable matrix?

Also, the next presidential election is depressingly three years away—you wouldn't think they'd bother rigging midterms. Voting software could be completely different by then.

The bigger rub, in this and any other scenario, is why Russia needs to go 5,000 miles fishing for black-hat engineers. Hacking is right up there with borscht and vodka in the Eastern Euro/Russo-wheelhouse. My Google bud Arkady regularly perused the sealed minutes of Mountain View zoning board meetings—and swore he was the dimmest of seven siblings.

So why outsource?

I am still pondering the question five minutes later when Prisha calls. She plays it cool, says she just wants to confirm some subroutine logic, but her voice is hollow in the gaps—she's feeling the same generalized heat Jared is.

"Let's look together," I tell her. "I'm walking your way."

"But—can you?"

"Oh sure, I can spare the time."

She falters more, but I assure her it's no trouble and hang up.

I scoop up a notebook and, issuing a FIND_SUN command to Raven—all my shenanigans have run her down to 14% power—start for Prisha. My strides have softened since my initial fire-stomp into 2. Amazingly, it seems I have escaped Elite's wrath again. Yellow-shirted facilitators have been around. I think I even heard Jim Davis' flyover drawl in passing.

Like the kid who steals a swipe of frosting, then two fingers off the edge, then finally decides it's safe to plunge mouth-first into the cake's broadside, I'm gaining nerve.

How am I getting away with all this?

I busted into the CFO's computer and found his stash of dirty money-porn. I slipped these guys' dragnet with a choice Raven fakeout. I stuffed one in a San Francisco municipal dumpster. (Even though it wasn't my fault and I felt awful.)

Yet here I am.

"Back to your workstation!"

The voice shatters my mental strut. I whirl to find an Elite yellow-shirt, one of the beefy facilitators who joined Jim Davis's search posse. I never got a good look at him on Raven's livestream, but now I see that he's a bruiser alright. Snarling. Shoulders like an avalanche. Flattop ears you can't see without wondering what the hell happened. He's got a scar like Davis's, but instead of at the temple, his zags from a snub nose clear across one cheek.

But that's not the scariest.

The scariest, which I notice now in the distance behind this man, is that Paul Bloor is sitting alone in the kitchenette. A length of duct tape spans a closed door. He has neither papers nor laptop. He watches his thumbs twist.

Jail.

They put Paul in jail.

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