Chapter Forty-Seven

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I put the simulator on a loop so it'll keep running, keep gathering and storing successful value-pairs. With grim faces, we all watch Paul's flat text file grow down the screen—about five lines per second, sometimes a little quicker, sometimes slower.

What else is there to do? Maybe our calculations are off. Maybe the variable populations are tightly clustered, such that even if the actual ranges are large, the number of discrete values will be small.

Maybe some optimization from that Godzilla server in the parking garage will kick in, cutting orders of magnitude off our run times.

I watch ten minutes—the boringest, yet most important television show imaginable—then check our results.

The file looks a lot bigger. Is it possible we're beating five per second?

Time for more math. Ten minutes divided into 2,981 new value-pairs...4.968.

So no—we aren't beating five. We're actually down a tick.

Prisha sighs. Paul raises his chin and starts drumming his Adam's apple in an annoyingly pensive way. I want to swat his finger away. Stress and fatigue are affecting me—every male in sight seems to bug me, even Graham, now sucking in a wistful breath.

Quit acting like you care. Your shirt's yellow, same as the rest.

"I'm fixing this," I declare, and launch myself at the problem.

I close unnecessary system processes; I inline local declarations in high-volume subroutines; I cache a hundred value-pairs before taking the computationally expensive step of writing to Paul's file—every dirty little trick in my coder's bag.

The text file grows at its same pace: quick to mortal eyes, but molasses against what's needed for Blackquest 40.

Oleg slithers in from the hall. "We have been waiting for checkpoint seventeen. Has there been a setback?"

His eyes, centered in his glasses' thick frames, aim nowhere but on me.

"I wouldn't call it a setback."

"No? What would you call it?"

The rest of us are seated; he's standing with his belt buckle jutting at me, asking in that superior tone of a parent pinning down a whiny child.

I ask, "What've you been doing the last five hours? Because we've been solving problems."

Oleg gives up talking to me and looks to Graham for a status report. With an apologetic frown, Graham explains our snag. He dumbs it down, sparing Oleg the gory details of file storage and value-pairs-per-second.

The Russian passes his stressball between hands. "Then we find a different way. Back to the drawing board."

I turn to Paul, who's still pleasuring his Adam's apple, working that sharp ridge. A whole discussion takes place in our eyes. We're too far down this path to ram the gearshift into reverse. Another approach is just going to yield another stopper. Our best bet is to accept the impossibility we have, rather than wasting another five hours uncovering a fresh one.

"We'll keep chugging," I say. "I'm hoping there's a breakthrough ahead. We'll get there."

"Hoping? You will 'get there?'" Oleg charges farther into the cube. "Thousands of lives are at ris—" He stops, glancing at Prisha and Jared. "Imagine if this project were some mission-critical app, upon which the fate of thousands of people—"

"Oh, save it. They might as well know." I gesture toward Jared, whose mouth is caught in a dim, diagonal twist. "Maybe the sword of Damocles can inspire somebody to great new heights."

Oleg seems vexed at my usurping his authority, but draws a half-step out of my space in what I'll take as assent.

I tell the gang everything—aside from the explosive charges in the HVAC ducts. Prisha's gaze hardens as I go, her wrists rotating readily at her sides.

Jared has the opposite reaction. His eyes keep cutting to Oleg like he's just learned we're filming an episode of To Catch a Predator.

"An actual nuclear power p—p—plant?" He grips the sides of his chair base. "When is it—erm, supposed to deploy?"

"Tomorrow," Oleg says. "At the conclusion of the project."

This is new information, I think, but not unexpected. They aren't wearing out their whips on us so they can sit on the software for three months.

"Tomorrow?" Jared's face is whiplashed. "That's insane."

The corners of Oleg's mouth turn up—probably he takes "insane" as a compliment.

"We paid an exorbitant premium to have this time requirement met."

"Right," I say, "and then you bullied, and lied, and threatened us with needles. Breech of contract much?"

His head ticks back and forth. "Excuses. Petty squabbles and complaints. I expected you to be different, Miss Bollinger. I expected excellence."

I hear a tiny pfft, and look down to see cotton fuzz poking out of Oleg's stressball.

Now Graham stands and places a palm in his chest—an intimate gesture that I'm surprised Oleg allows. With mutters about best among worst and allowing improvisational space, Graham pushes them both out of the cubicle toward a nearby conference room.

When the door closes behind them, a scream sounds from within—muted but still audible through walls and glass.

"Dude," I say. "He's cracking up."

Jared is staring at the conference room door. His hat sits cockeyed, matted hair sticking through the adjustable closure. "If he—er, I mean, if we don't finish? What happens?"

If I told Jared at this point about the charges, and about Omar Mohammed (who I'd bet anything has a trove of phony ISIS propaganda planted on his computer), it would finish Jared. He'd go blubbering off to a supply closet and melt into a puddle of dread, a big greasy puddle—and he would deserve it, after sending those wolves out to Crestwood to harass my mother.

Before I can say a rash thing, Paul—who's finally left his throat alone—speaks up.

"Nothing good," he says, moving his fingers back to the keyboard. "So we'd better make this work."

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