Chapter Twenty-Seven

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I stop walking. Graham keeps going and, with a cool look back, disappears around a corner, presumably to Elite central command.

He built it?

I'm disoriented for a moment, hearing an echo of myself telling Jim Davis earlier today about my role with the Google phone. I all but concluded Blackquest 40 was a live hack, an operational system someplace we were designing a picklock for. Otherwise why pay us? Presumably if you can build it in-house, you can solve it in-house.

But maybe not. I think back to that incomplete answer key, or whatever it was, I found in the van. Maybe they can't solve it. Maybe Graham started some next-generation safe spinning that nobody can crack. If they manage the system, though, there must be a way to circumvent the security more straight-forwardly. Deploy a fresh sandbox. Flip some config toggle to Easy Mode.

Pull the lousy plug.

Underlying all this is a central question: where does this system live? The real McCoy—not the replica running on those Black Servers of Doom down in the server room and van. In Russia? In Langley, Virginia? Some Bitcoin server in Uzbekistan?

We do make our 7:00 checkpoint. Barely—Jared fights me about a trivial field-definition spec, which makes it tight. The workspace-tether policy is lifted. The threat of amphetamine injections seems to wane. We eat scrumptious plates of baked halibut, couscous, broccoli, and all the blueberries we want. "Brain food," someone whispers in the mess line.

Then it's back to work. Things are oddly normal for a few hours, a bit like the Boeing job where for a week straight we worked late chasing down last-second requirement tweaks. Prisha has her own Eureka moment on the optimization piece, putting us on track for the next checkpoint there. Minosh switches his sit-stand desk to stand, complaining of back pain.

It's still creepy seeing Paul ziptied to a table every time I pass the kitchenette. I ask Graham when he'll up for parole, and Graham says if the midnight checkpoints are all met, he'll likely be allowed to sleep with the rest of us on cots.

Cots.

Cots sound very good right about now. It's 11:15 PM and my head feels wrapped in gauzes of fear and exhaustion and memories I can't quite believe. Blackquest 40—at about its halfway point—has grown from annoying makework to an eclipse, blotting out all previous concerns. What was I thinking about as I rushed out of my apartment for the 34 bus? Mom. Carebnb. Whether or not the rumor Kim Nalley is playing Fillmore Jazz was true.

Everything runs together, Cecil and Wanda and the 7-variable matrix, Graham's thermal undersleeves, the purr of Raven in low-power mode. Unsteadily, I wander over to the window overlooking 2nd Avenue. South of Market is asleep, the metered lot across the street empty but for red lights in cages, grates down on the taqueria and Thai joint. A shape that might be a sleeping bag in front of the taqueria pulls carebnb forward in my consciousness. How many spare beds are being slept in tonight? Did people connect? When they did, did it work? Or did I miss some X factor that stymied the whole deal?

A dark sedan passes through my sightline, obscuring the sleeping bag. The car slows passing Howard, drawing my wilting eyes. It pulls over to the curb at the main Codewise entrance. The motor cuts.

A man in a driver's brimmed hat emerges and starts for the right-rear door. It springs open before he gets there. A high-heeled shoe plants on the sidewalk. The shoe's owner rises swiftly, her slender knee parting the skirt of a cashmere trench coat. The driver fumbles for her purse and laptop bag, which she accepts onto an outstretched arm. I can't see her expression this far off, but I feel resolve in the stiffness of her gaze—hard up the face of the building.

Susan.

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Author's note: This is the halfway point of Blackquest 40. I hope you've enjoyed it so far, and hang on -- there are plenty more twists to come. To those following along, thanks very sincerely for reading.

Jeff

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