Chapter Forty-Six

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Paul asks, "Why a longshot, Deb? What do you see?"

I allow the last floral vapors of Susan to clear, to fade into our stale stress, then hold up the number on my fingers.

"Three."

Only Paul nods his understanding, so I explain. We had seventy-three botlets make it through end-to-end testing, but the very best one only passed acceptable output to the simulator three times. She crapped out on four. (One could argue that since Jared's team created the botlets, they're male, but Prisha and I are giving them brains so I'm going with female.)

To fulfill the Blackquest requirements—and perhaps to avert nuclear disaster—we need a botlet that succeeds in perpetuity. Not three times or three thousand times, or three million times.

Infinity times.

After dragging the team down with this truth, I try picking them up. "Remember, it's only software. Anything is possible."

This is a saying in our industry. It refers to the fact that software's raw materials all originate in the programmer's head—you don't need steel or plastic, or approval from some zoning board. You just need to imagine it, and have the skill to represent that imagination in language a computer can interpret.

The truism doesn't produce an immediate spark in my team so I dive into the debug stream myself, starting our quest to infinity.

I comb through variable readouts for that rockstar botlet who fooled the simulator three times in a row. Turns out there were two rockstars; I click into the first and am about to have Prisha dig into the second when a heavy ploof sounds from a previously-unoccupied chair.

Paul is folding open his laptop.

"Oh," I say. "Were you thinking you'd take a crack at it?"

I didn't mean to make it sound dubious—it's just I've never seen Paul write or debug code. He's a pure manager.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," he says, but newly-light wrists give it away: he is stoked.

Working in tandem, Paul and I dissect the rockstars and trace back which optimization strategies each used. Mine weighted the third variable higher by half. Paul's performed exponential smoothing based on the previous six minutes of output data.

Jared picks the frayed bill of his trucker hat. "Weird. What's the connection?"

Paul shakes his head. His wrists aren't looking so light.

"There is none," I say. "Random."

It's troubling that two botlets with divergent strategies rose to the top. It suggests luck rather than some ingenious strategy we can surface and tweak until it works in all cases.

Suddenly, we're all tired. God knows we should be, nearing thirty hours into this death march. Jared smears his palm into his cheek, showing his gums like some slobbery dog, and Prisha's eyelids want to close.

They are slaving away on a project they have zero context for or connection to. A project that relegated Paul to a conference-room jail, and keeps trying to kill me.

"This is rotten, coming and going," I say. "I wish we could turn the clock back to yesterday morning and all oversleep, but we can't. So no moping. The way we give ourselves options is to beat the ogre."

The others look to me. Their faces show desire, a will to succeed—I don't peptalk often and they want to come with—but also profound desperation. Someone releases a huff of breath that's like a sigh, but stripped of all pretense and judgment.

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