Chapter Forty-One

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I drive my droid-Hot Wheel around, hoping she'll stumble into audio range of Oleg and Jared's summit of the despicable. I catch snippets of other conversations, Minosh telling a database engineer "the query must go much, much faster!", Graham's silky voice asking Prisha to bring him up to speed on my optimization logic. I steer past all this, banging walls, zooming blind, quite possibly going in circles.

I hear no Oleg. No phlegm-ball. They must've gone behind a closed door.

I can't waste any more time. Whatever Jared is telling Elite, I need to get out ahead of it. Dire as my situation is, claustrophobic as these digs are, I do have an advantage: they don't know where I am or what I'm doing.

They also don't know that I know about the explosives, assuming Graham hasn't blabbed about our rushed tête-à-tête. I wish now I hadn't blurted out to him about the charges, but it was the right move at the time. He knows more—and it was worth the risk to see whether I could get it out of him.

The explosives are in the HVAC system, and I, myself, am in the HVAC system. Let's start there. I crawl around Twelve, up one duct and back down its partner, and find none.

Is it possible they just wired the one floor? Maybe they aren't bothering with vacant floors, or figure the top will cave after the bottom eleven crumble. I crawl back to the vent Graham left loose for me, thinking to sneak down and check Eleven, but it isn't loose. Then I remember the facilitator who poked his head up into the duct. He must've tightened them.

I slam the vent three times with the flat of my fist before realizing I'm being dumb. Yes, it happens—especially when exhaustion has my brain feeling like an abacus stuck in tar.

Why leave the ducts?

The HVAC network extends all through the building; why make a racket getting out here and back in on Eleven when I can just use the intra-floor ducts?

The main trunk is on the north side of the building. I worm through a crinkly section of duct to reach it, then lower myself in. The air from below toasts my feet and billows my pant legs. The fit is so tight that I don't fear falling—my shins, hips, and forearms fix me in place against the stiff metal sides. I rattle my way down until my toes find the next gap. Feet first, I work myself into this gap and shimmy into another crinkly elbow section. I turn myself around awkwardly—I feel metal compressing my spikes at the midpoint—and crawl forward into the eleventh-floor ducts.

I haven't gone five yards when a voice sounds below.

"Hey, you hear that?"

I freeze.

A second voice says, "Hear what?"

"That noise," the first voice says. "In the ceiling. Here—listen for a sec."

I quiver from the effort of keeping perfectly still, one arm chicken-winged to the side, a strained smile fixed on my lips for no apparent reason.

After a time, the second voice says, "Ghosts. Gotta be ghosts, or else a rat."

The first speaker growls this off, and their footsteps dissipate up the hall.

Phew.

I must make less noise. Eleven isn't fully occupied, but it's not vacant like Twelve either. The problem isn't my knees and feet, which slide along in constant contact with the duct, making only a low shuffle. It's my upper body, these elbows and wrists I have to pick up and plunk down repeatedly, that causes the echoing knocks and clonks.

I pull my shirt up and grip its tail in both fists, using it as a kind of impact-deadening cloth underneath me. Now my tummy is exposed and my breasts're only a bra clasp away from calling out "Bingo!", but I am traveling more quietly.

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