Chapter Forty-Three

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It takes me forever to get the vent off. It's held in place by flathead screws whose heads aren't accessible from where I am—inside the duct. With a wrench, I could loosen their nuts until they dropped out. I don't have a wrench. I try using my fingers, gripping the nuts' sides by the scant light of Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt's screen, but my nails keep slipping.

At last, I manage to pry a nut loose and spin it off. Its screw falls to the carpet with a satisfying thunk.

But the other three aren't budging. I bang them hard with the heel of my sandal, but only succeed in making a bunch of noise.

I am able to lean into the vent and bend it away from the ceiling, down into the hallway a couple inches. First I push with only my knee, hearing the metal whine. Then, after convincing myself the vent's narrow opening won't let me plummet eight feet to a broken neck, I put my full weight into the effort. The three remaining screws creak and stretch, threads grating against their attached nuts.

I gather myself and bounce several times. The vent keeps budging lower, a fraction of an inch per bounce, until one screw shears, sending its nut and half its shank plinging around the the ducts.

Now the vent, attached by two screws, bends all the way into the hall like a flap.

It's a squeeze, but I lower myself down, elbows cramming past my ribs, and drop to the carpet. My eyes change with all this light, and the air hits me like gaseous gold after those stale ducts.

A crowd of eight or nine has gathered. I can't remember who works on Eleven, but the stiff collars and lack of denim suggest business-y divisions. Purchasing? Accounts receivable?

Whoever they are, they're looking at me like I have razorblades sticking out of my face. Which makes sense—they just heard Oleg blackmailing me with the safety of my own mother, and I'm coated with grime, my forearm between black and brown.

I cough. "Alright. Back to the grind."

A woman in a blazer takes a step backward. The dude beside her mutters, Hardcore.

I pass right through them to the elevators. I see no facilitators on this floor, but then I'm not really looking. I feel dizzy and drunk. I'm walking right into Elite's arms, and I don't care.

I am ready to deal: me for Mom. Oleg wins. Again. I know about the charges and about Omar Mohammed—and maybe this knowledge will pay dividends down the line—but for now, he has the power.

Back on Two, I head between the two main cube farms, pulling every eye with me. Keyboards go silent. Breaths are cut short. Dimly, in a red corner of my periphery I don't have time to address, I see Jared cowering under his trucker hat.

Oleg awaits with crossed arms. When I'm in hearing range, he says a single word.

"Good."

I answer, "No. Not even remotely." The oversized LCD behind him is still on loop, Mom and the facilitator bickering over the egg bite; I point to it and snap. "Get your orc away from my mother."

"A discussion would need to precede that."

"Fine. Discuss away." I flop a hand aside—something crackles in my wrist. "I could've sworn someone said we were on a tight schedule."

Two rows of cubicles back, Graham is sitting at Prisha's shoulder. He meets my eye and gives a slight shake of the head.

I don't know if he's telling me to ignore him, or not poke Oleg right now, or what.

Oleg says, "When a team is moving in opposition to itself, haste does no good. We will be sure this time. Sure that you are truly ready to participate in the project."

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