Chapter Forty-Four

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The sound of the two devices mating, gun and silencer, is like the slither of a metal snake. With each round of thread, my breath catches. I look left, right, behind me. There are no escapes.

"Are you deranged?" I say. "You need me! You can't finish the project without me, I'm the one who—"

"This has been the assumption, yes." Oleg finishes attaching the silencer and squints down the barrel, aimed casually to one side. "Perhaps it is a bad assumption. Perhaps the rest of the team will rise to the occasion. You are proving so difficult that I'm forced to find another way."

"Execution, that's your other way?"

Oleg backs a boot into the hall, checks both ways. "The man you killed on the twelfth floor was my cousin. The man in the dumpster was my squadmate of eight years. I trained this man. We fought in Chechnya together, and passed through the Gate of Wolves."

I give a cold gaze right back to him. "I didn't have much of a choice—they were both trying to kill me. But my sincerest apologies for tarnishing the memory of those glorious, minority-suppressing days."

He doesn't smirk. With the hand not holding the gun, he twists the conference room blinds closed. The stressball, lodged in a front pocket, bulges his khakis' fabric in a vaguely obscene manner.

Oleg reaches for the door and tugs it by the knob, starting it swinging closed, before training his elongated gun on me.

Before he can pull the trigger, four flabby fingers appear on the door jamb. The door rams them and I hear a soft "Owww" before the door drifts back open.

Standing there is Paul Bloor.

"If you kill her, you kill Blackquest 40 too," he says. "There's no way we get the software built without Deb."

Oleg lowers the gun but keeps it pointed in my general direction. "Miss Bollinger and I just finished this conversation. We will lose capability but gain focus. Codewise remains the leading optimization company in the world. Other assets are at our disposal. We will just need to squeeze more from them."

Paul grips one side of his hair donut—which has gone wide and wiry. "We were the leading optimization company in the world. We're a husk of that now."

Oleg cuts his eyes off me.

Paul continues, "We've been losing engineers for two and a half years. We've become a marketing and PR shop—that's where all the headcount is. Even Deb. When they hired her, Carter and Susan did their big roadshow to tell everyone how hiring a genius like Deb recommitted us to the bleeding edge. It was pure optics. Susan created this public illusion of upgrading our technical prowess, then Carter went out and hustled it."

Oleg glances past Paul to the cube farm. With his attention diverted, I consider making a break. How far could I get? To the elevator bank? Maybe not even. I doubt Oleg would shoot me out in front of everyone—surely the "other assets" would freak and be useless to him.

Paul twists to look with Oleg. "See Jared just ambling around? He does that. He should be a mid-level coder, and we have him leading modules."

Oleg digs his stressball from his pants and begins punishing it. I can't see it, but Jared must be doing one of his trademark "slug strolls" (my term), where he wanders past the workstations of module-mates, spying over their shoulders, too gutless to challenge them point-blank about what they're doing, procrastinating from his own work by nosing into other people's.

"Carter sold you a bill of goods," Paul says. "The complexity you need, the far exceeds what's achievable without Deb. You might as well cut your losses."

Oleg watches the cube farm, his face dimming. "Perhaps we will. Perhaps we'll abort and take back your fee."

I remember what Susan told me a few hours ago. We don't have millions of dollars sitting in the bank to pay Elite back. Probably the Russians must know this. It might be why they targeted us, even—because our backs were financially up against a wall.

If they don't get back their power plant or their money, what will they do? They've waded awfully deep in the muck themselves, with bodies and dumpsters and wrecked vans to explain. They've showed themselves to the hundred-odd employees of Codewise Industries, potential witnesses all. This is not a thing easily stuffed back in a bottle and stoppered.

I want to switch off my brain, to forget the charges wired to Omar Mohammed's workstation.

"Your only chance is Deb," Paul says. "Deb is—well, you've had twenty-four hours with her. You know. Deb is Deb. Maybe she can do it. Maybe she can't. I wouldn't bet against her."

In most circumstances, I hate being talking about in the third person when I'm standing right here. Particularly when the talker is a man. My graduate adviser at Harvard used to do this, telling his department head all about Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt and my natural language research with me standing literally five feet away.

Amazing, this one...her logical leaps stop you in your tracks...she may need more of a challenge, I'm kicking around ideas...

Like I was some S.T.E.M. courtesan on campus for their amusement.

Now, though, I suppose I'll let it slide. Too many lives hang in the balance to be sweating gender politics.

Oleg still has a taut grip on the gun. "I've lost two men trying to secure her participation in the project. What assurances can you give that this time will be any different?"

Paul glances at me with flat, pleading eyes. Just play along.

"I'm her manager," he says. "Between the two of us, we'll come to an arrangement—Deb and I. We'll work this out. I know we will. We have a rapport."

Oleg gives no outward response, but squats to replace his gun in its ankle holster. He takes a fresh look down the hall at the cube farm and scowls—as if angry at the incompetents who're costing him his chance to finish me.

I turn to Paul, whose chest heaves and face is blotch-pink from the confrontation. He looks at me with an expression almost sweet—but also protective, proprietary.

Funny. He thinks we have a rapport.

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