I start for Paul's kitchenette, but this new enforcer blots out the hall. He stands bowlegged, boot insteps open as though in challenge. Those ears, little shelves of hard, pink flesh.
"The project has reached Code Orange. Employees on this floor cannot leave workstations until progress is repaired."
Now that I know these guys' paychecks cash against the Bank of Lenin, their word choices and accents are glaring—the missed r's, long vowels clipped at the roof of the mouth.
"No moving around?" I say. "For tea? To stretch our legs?"
He grunts in the affirmative, thrusts a finger back where I came from.
"Well that's absurd. But I do need to get past your, uh, your flash blockade here to talk to one of my people." Securing a hall pass to see Prisha seems more likely than prisoner Paul.
The enforcer explains all Code Orange collaborations must occur by phone. Now I understand the communal anxiety before—furtive Jared, Prisha stressed about me coming to see her.
Jim Davis, ever-present as the common cockroach, overhears us and approaches. To this point, in his cheerful yellow polo shirt, Davis has looked tough but tough within corporate bounds. Perhaps naturally built. Perhaps a lunchtime lifter-type. Beside the enforcer, though, his guise is slipping. Those his-and-his scars. The musclebound stances. They are starting to resemble a unit.
"Miss Bollinger," Davis says. "Back in the fold again, good."
His lips are dead-level straight, but I feel them aching to curl at the corners—whether up or down I can't tell.
"Not good. I'm trying to get work done and this bizarre cubicle-arrest policy is stopping me."
"Productivity measures," Jim Davis says. "We are ten hours into Blackquest 40, and quarter-mark objectives remain unmet. To continue on the same track is to invite failure."
"I heard you brought needles? Didn't figure you for a drug pusher."
Davis sends the enforcer off with a head-flick, then comes nearer, halving the distance between us with a silent step.
"Supplements," he says just above a whisper, "may be introduced at Code Orange. Not every worker is blessed with your natural gifts."
"So you ... what, shoot them up with some IQ serum?"
His eyes turn hard as he says, "Amphetamines."
Something like teaming furry-footed centipedes are crawling up my spine.
It must show in my expression. Davis explains, "Progress has slipped to a point where we do not believe the required timeline is feasible without external focus enhancement."
After the day I've had, I didn't think shock was still possible. Forced amphetamine injections? It makes me think of Crestwood Psychiatric, where I'll be coaxing Mom into eating some boiled potatoes in one of her down periods and see an orderly jamming 200 ccs of happyjuice into some uncooperative resident's IV. They aren't authorized to medicate Mom beyond her regular lithium except in cases of "agitation so extreme that harm to self or others appears likely." I often wonder how liberally they apply that criterion.
"You have no way of predicting how that'll affect some random person, running a live wire into their brain chemistry."
"We have obtained medical histories. Any employee with a confirmed diagnosis that conflicts with the proscribed—"
"I can't," I cut in. "The doublespeak, man, the lies upon lies—it's toxic. Where's Carter? Carter!" My voice cracks through the office, lightning through a bleak sky. "This is beyond rogue. Carter!"
Things are bad when I, Deb Bollinger, am screaming for an audience with Carter Kotancheck. But Susan is still en route from Davos—I'm starting to imagine an unplanned stopover in Moscow—and clearly Paul Bloor is not an option either.
I'm loud and angry for long enough that, despite Davis's jaw-gnashing demands for calm, Carter does turn up. He breezes into we engineers' domain with sandy brow raised, like he's been called in to settle his kid nephews' squabble.
"Deb Deb Deb, ho now," he says. "Where's the fire?"
"Did you authorize this, injections? Forced amphetamine injections?"
I glower between them. Davis's stressball is pooching out from between two knuckles. He really expected me to keep his secret? Carter's mouth hangs open, those pearly gleamers flashing. "Well, as you're all aware, I am no micromanager. I said before—these guys are pros, I leave motivation to them."
"You know where else had pros? Abu Ghraib. I bet the officers in charge—"
"The doses are conservative," Jim Davis says. "At the levels we are talking about, there are no long-term health impacts."
"The World Health Organization."
I make a few hyperventilating starts. To Carter, I say, "Are you hearing this? The WHO? Do you realize that the guy you brought in is on intimate terms with international torture protocols? I bet they know him by sight at the Hague."
"Granted," Carter says, "Blackquest 40 is extending all of our comfort zones. Maybe these injections can, uh—I don't know, maybe we find some wiggle room there on timing."
He peeks at Jim Davis. Davis inhales at length, then exhales—a respiration that smacks of some rage-controlling technique.
"Carter, snap out of it." I pass my fingers to and fro before his face. "My god, shut this trainwreck down, cut your losses. I have no clue who or what forced you into bed with these devils, but consider the bald facts. They are sizing up our veins to shoot us up with illegal drugs!"
It's no use. Although Carter winces a little and his complexion seems a bit piqued, he's not budging from his support of Elite. FPP-1 is the way forward, he insists. The status quo isn't getting the job done. Blackquest is a bear, sure, but think how strong we'll come out the other end.
I consider pelting him in the kisser with Voronezh, those whopper cash deposits. Why not? It's right there underneath the surface already. Elite detected my access; they likely know that I know. Carter knows. Jim Davis knows. (Given that we're into him and/or his paymasters to the tune of $4 million, I'm beginning to understand his lava-hot rage.)
Still, some danger sensor in my brain holds me back. The entire floor is listening to us. If I pull back the curtain with a flourish, if I expose this fiction of Blackquest 40 as training exercise, everyone here becomes party to it. Prisha. Minosh. Minosh's neighbor Patton. Or James.
For all of them, I think the charade must continue.
"OK. You wanna ride this out, all the way down? Fine." I slice between Carter and Jim Davis, brushing the latter's stiff shoulder. "I'm going to see Paul. Just try stopping me."
YOU ARE READING
Blackquest 40Mystery / Thriller
** WATTYS 2018 WINNER ** Deb Bollinger has no time for corporate training. Her company's top engineer at just twenty-seven, Deb has blocked off her day for the one project she truly cares about: the launch of Carebnb, an app that finds spare beds fo...