She talks for some time longer, gushing apologies and assurances and Never agains. The only thing stopping me from closing off—from dismissing these rationalizations, tossing her in a bin with Carter and Oleg—is the touch. Our hands stay joined. She isn't caressing, exactly, but there is intimacy in how her fingers permit mine. I can feel the bind she's in, sense that surrender kills her—is leaching the life-force from her bones.
I think of my graduate adviser at Harvard, who'd wanted me to keep chugging in academic robotics. He never told me not to accept Google's offer, but he did say, "Corporate research is fundamentally different. It may feel the same. Perhaps you're in this grand, progressive environment that obscures the primordial gear that necessarily drives the beast. There will come a moment, though, when you see it. And you won't be able to unsee it, and you won't be able to delude yourself again."
At the time, I wrote him off as stuffy and jealous.
I leave Susan in a green haze. My feet drift of their own accord, taking me left instead of right, the direction of Carter's office and the stairwell. This is the sleepy side of Ten, housing only a few office professionals—Ashley among them—and a specialized wing of Accounting that exists solely to produce reports for outside investors. All will be relocated to the cots for the night.
I walk distractedly through this unfamiliar turf. My legs drag. It's dark. My conscious brain is just beginning to register the navigational mistake when a rustle sounds ahead.
I snap to. In an instant, I process where I've wondered—and the fact that nobody here should be awake and rustling.
Here's a vacant office. I slip inside and crouch behind the door, listening.
The noise has different components. Scraping, thudding, rattling. Snipping? I cup a hand to my ear. The noise isn't much—certainly not enough to wake people sleeping on cots—but it is steady, unmistakable. Purposeful.
I lower myself to all fours and crawl to the doorway. Exposing the smallest possible sliver of my face, I peek out.
A ladder. Ten yards away, toward the end of the hall. Halfway up the rungs, a pair of those military lace-up boots. Head and torso are obscured by the ceiling, but a small penlight illuminates a yellow shirttail. Laying against the wall below is an air duct cover, a panel of concentric-square vents.
They're in the HVAC.
Are they installing surveillance? Monitoring Susan's cooperation with Blackquest 40? Or Carter's? Maybe longer-term surveillance, keeping tabs on us after the fact so they know if we're about to squeal on them?
But ... would a surveillance device work this far from the executive offices? Doubtful. They'd need to crawl way back through the ductwork and plant the mic in the right ceiling panel, possibly even gouge out a hole.
I hold my position. The pain in my left hip is radiating to my ribs, and I'm thinking it must be sleep deprivation causing this fuzzy, seashell-over-the-ear thrum in my brain.
After a few minutes working in the ducts, the Elite guy descends. It is a guy—trim brown beard, slighter than Fedor but still with serious-looking biceps. He replaces the duct cover, then collapses the ladder noiselessly and puts away a softball-sized box in his canvas satchel. Tucks the ladder under an arm, starts toward me.
I scramble back behind the door, pulling my kneecap out of sight. The man's boots drill the office carpet. As they pound closer, I hold my breath. He comes level with the doorway. I note grease on his hands and forearms, and get a decent look at his satchel, which bulges in a way suggestive of many softball-sized boxes inside.
Signal boosters? Frequency blockers? Are they beefing up the data blockade? Maybe they detected packets slipping through.
I don't think so. None of my theories feel right. I need to get into that duct.
Unfortunately that duct is twelve feet up. And the ladder just left.
Once the man is safely away, I cruise the nearby workspaces. In one accountant's cubicle is a rolling cart of overstuffed binders, reams of paperwork loading down its upper and lower decks. I move all the binders to the bottom and drag the cart—laboring, shoulders suffering—underneath the duct vent. After grabbing a letter opener from a different cube, I hike up by the lower deck. The cart wobbles but stays upright.
I pause to let my heart restart, then boost myself to the top.
On tiptoes, I can reach the vent. I use the letter opener on each of four flathead screws, then nudge the vent up into its duct, offset to create a gap. The metallic thunk is agonizingly loud, but I keep going. I feel around.
My fingertips brush something thin and plastic. A cord? Wires?
I don't know what it could be, and whether or not Elite placed it. All manner of electric or coaxial line might run overhead, but would they run through the ducts?
I could wave Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt's screen up and around for light. I don't think that'd do much for me.
I gotta see from inside.
With a quaky breath, I dip my knees and jump. My elbows clear the adjacent panel and I slam my forearms down, palms smacking cold metal, the impact echoing up and down the duct. Some sharp material-lip pierces my skin. I ignore the prick and snagged-on-a-fishhook sensation, gripping, fighting, channeling Pull-Up Day in elementary school gym. I manage to hoist my head and chest into the dark duct, then tumble the rest of me inside.
The noise is tin cans off the back of the wedding car.
I cough at the foul air. There's dust in my eyes and arm hair. It feels muggy, like some sauna gone to seed.
I hasten my feet up into the duct so as not to hang down—though with the cart below, I'm not fooling anyone. For light, I pull Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt from my pocket.
That thin, plastic thing was wire. White and slack—not pinned along a seam or corner like you'd expect of a permanent line. I follow the wire one way until it terminates to a compact, hinged antenna. The design isn't familiar, but its function is clear enough: a transmitter. For communicating with some central data service. Surveillance, signal interference, field amplification—any number of purposes fit with a transmitter.
I squint the other way along the wire, angling Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt, casting her screen's glow up the duct. It's a seven-foot wire and I have to crawl deeper. I move gently but each knee strike still makes a minor thunderclap.
My periphery constricts. Claustrophobia begins hissing in the hollows behind my ears. I follow the wire on.
Finally, in the near blackness, a light. Blinking. Red.
When my hand—tensed and shivering—gets there with Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt, I see that the wire connects to the source of the light: a small black cube.
Just the right dimensions for those softball-sized boxes.
My nose twitches. That smell. What is that smell? It's chalky. Dry on the roof of my mouth. My face takes on that reflexively humorous expression you get trying to place an everyday scent. Come on, it's right here. Right on the tip of your tongue.
When it comes to me, my expression plummets and I can't breathe.
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...