Chapter Thirty-Two

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His eyes positively twinkle. He's delighted about this moral conundrum he thinks he just put me in. Preventing a mushroom cloud, thousands of lives saved—how could I refuse?

Here's how: I don't buy it. I don't buy a squad of Russian paramilitaries flying over the Pacific, cooking up passports, collaborating with Carter on this bogus corporate training scene—with its blue polo shirts and motivational packets and elaborate private spaceflight business plan—all to cover up an essentially benevolent mission.

I step to the fore of the Codewise group. "Russia's full of black-hat hackers. Why do you need us?"

"We have tried others," Oleg says. "Unfortunately the security apparatus was designed and implemented by, well, by a quite brilliant engineer." His face pinches as if that was hard to say. "The best of Russia cannot crack it."

Now I think of Graham's comment, "Because I built it." So he used to work for the Ukrainians? Why did he switch sides? Is he a kind of hostage too? Also—if this Vlask was designed in 1988, he seems way too young. What is he, thirty?

It isn't adding up.

"This sandbox we're trying to circumvent," I say, "these nondeterministic security measures? Nobody was doing that in the eighties. Or nineties. Or even five years ago."

"True," Oleg concedes. "The security was added last winter. We attempted to regain control of the plant previously, without success. Too soon we played our hand."

I am reeling. The nuclear stuff is wild and epic, but for some reason the implied revelations about Graham pack the greatest wallop. Is he some cyber-mercenary? The hostility between him and the rest of Elite Development has been clear; what are the terms of his employment? Is he getting paid megabucks too? Seems likely.

I think I hate the world a little bit more.

"What was the point of Blackquest 40? You could've just hired us."

Oleg gives his stressball a clutch. "My country's involvement cannot be known. If word got out of our new effort, Ukraine would lock down Vlask completely."

I mull his answers. In isolation, they seem logical enough. But taken altogether, given all I've lived through today, they are impossible to take at face value.

Katya watches beside her brother. Puffy eyes remind me that she was just asleep with the E-Wingers, but she is alert now, feet staggered, attuned to our movements. Fedor has the self-satisfied look of the baddest bruiser in the room.

I can't see the three Codewise founders behind me. Where are their heads? Is anyone else going to question Oleg's fantastical tale, or is it all on me? Susan has explained to me before that in the corporate world "there can be value in playing your cards a bit close to the chest."

Maybe that's her strategy now. Hang back and counter-punch.

Not me.

"Here's my issue," I continue. "Let's assume we make this software work and manage to secretly limit Vlask's production. Can't they measure how much juice is coming out? Right? Aren't they just going to sniff it out?"

Oleg seethes at the challenge. He takes a looming step nearer, that very male move of emphasizing one's physical size. I was saw plenty of this on the streets with Mom, but the most blatant use was probably at Harvard, when the Robotics department chair didn't appreciate a new female professor's objection to his "breakthrough" in neural nets—which was no breakthrough at all because a German lab had published a precursory finding a year earlier.

When the woman pointed this out, the 63-year-old professor had chuckled and swaggered to her chair with bow-legged steps. His crotch and gut and disgusting gnarled hands all up in her personal space. They want to shrink you. They can't beat your ideas. He told her it was "dangerous to go surveying literature far afield of your focus."

Months later, his Journal of Robotics reviewer nixed his submission unceremoniously with a link to the German paper.

Oleg says, "The aftermath is none of your concern."

"Humor me."

"We aren't here for humor." He pivots to Fedor, who emphasizes the point by flexing the muscle cords of his neck. "To complete your module, you have no need of knowing our long-range plan for combating Ukrainian aggression."

I close the gap between us, two quick strides that rock Oleg back on his heels.

"The 'aggression' seems mostly Russian. And I'm not asking because I need help completing my module. I'm asking because I am deciding whether to complete my module. Whether this Vlask deal is real or another big fat lie."

Oleg glares down at me. We're so close that my chest brushes his polo shirt at the level of his stomach. That scar near his temple is shiny, boiled pink.

"Your job is building software. Not assessing my truthfulness."

I make a conscious effort not to control my spittle. "We've played this tune, bub. I don't work on projects I don't believe in. And I'm not hearing enough now to believe."

Reflected in Oleg's chunky glasses, I see Paul start forward to intervene. Susan catches him by the arm, though, and whispers something to settle him. She is watching close, seemingly transfixed on the answers I'm demanding.

Susan trusts me. She knows I don't need protecting—now or ever.

In a grudging manner, Oleg begins, "Belarus has similar energy problems. If a portion of Vlask output disappears ... and certain Ukrainian officials are discovered corresponding by email with certain embassy personnel of Belarus ... a different conclusion may be reached."

It slithers from his mouth, easy and—I have to admit—plausible.

"Oh joy, we start an international conflict. The hits keep on coming."

His teeth compress. "We are talking of heading off thermonuclear disaster, and you joke."

"I'm not joking. I'm calling BS. There is a difference."

Oleg lowers his voice so only I can hear. "Your talents are tantalizing,"—he inhales, a lascivious sucking of air like he's taking my body smells by force—"but you are immature. You would benefit from time under me."

He blinks. I hear the eyelashes join and separate. The man's last words ignite me. The condescension, the lewdness of "under me"—I can't pinpoint the trigger, but it fired. I lose control. Rage starts in the soles of my feet, flattens my kneecaps and turns to bile in my gut. My jaw coils back toward my neck like a viper preparing to strike.

I headbutt Oleg.

"Jesus, Deb!" Paul cries, rushing in with the others.

I'm lifted up by the armpits and spun parallel to the floor, and squeezed, and have fistfuls of blue polo shirt myself. As he grapples, Oleg emits an extended "Gggnnnnn" that reminds me of mute Mikhail. We claw at each a few moments before Fedor bounces us apart. Susan wraps her arms around me, her blazer ripped up the back seam.

Katya shoves her brother roughly to a corner. A nob appears over his brow, bright-red and swelling. She tells him something in Russian. Nyet, nyet! he answers, then faces us.

"You will do your jobs!" He stabs his index finger between us. "All of you will do your jobs! My country has paid a tremendous sum of money, and we do not take betrayal lightly."

The top of my head feels hot, and I wonder if my platinum spikes will be red in a mirror. Susan is rubbing my neck, smoothing downward from the backs of my ears.

Paul has lost a shoe.

Carter is hotfooting in place between the two groups, muttering.

"Everybody relax, relax." Susan says, continuing her buttery touches. "We'll get through this. We will find a way."  

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