Chapter Fifty-Five

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I sprint upstairs to Ten, to E-wing. My umpteenth time making the dash is perhaps the loneliest, the office cleared out, my sandals echoing out over the lobby like a lost percussionist's cymbal blasts through an empty concert hall.

Notions swirl and snap and unknot themselves in my head.

Through the glass balustrade, I can just make out the lobby televisions. The OurSpace craft is still at its launch tower, I think.

That is a building in the background, not clouds, right?

I can't spare time to confirm.

On Ten, once more, I zoom by the business side cubicles. Spaces are unkempt but not as messy as in Engineering. Susan is reclined in her office, heels kicked off, feet crossed on her desktop.

I waste no more than a glance on her lithe diagonal figure—she has nothing I need.

I keep running to Carter's office. The CFO—soon to be former CFO—is boxing up his belongings. He always kept personal effects to a minimum in accordance with modern style, and has already cleared half his wall hangings. He is just laying the framed portrait with Phil Mickelson flat in a bin, grinning crookedly—maybe remembering some tryst or fantasized tryst—when I accost him.

"Whose idea was the newspaper?" I yell, catching both lapels of his summer-weight suit in one fist.

Carter blinks repeatedly as I push him back against the nearest wall. Like mine, his cheeks are wet with tears.

"You picked the business plan subject off the front page of the Chronicle—Paul told me!" My knuckles bore into his chest; one fingernail pierces linen. "It wasn't your idea, was it?"

His confusion seems to relent, lips curling inward as he gropes back in memory.

"I—well, now that I think, he was the one who suggested it. Davis. Er, Oleg." Carter's eyes telescope forward as the pieces continue falling into place. "He said private spaceflight had a lot of interesting business questions, and even if—even if the biz side mission was a decoy, they might as well—"

I don't wait for the rest. I release his lapels, dropping him in a heap to the carpet, and run for the stairs. I plow through the stairwell door like a rugby player spearing through a scrum, jolting both wrists, slamming it back into the exterior wall.

I barrel ahead to the glass balustrade, nearly hurtling over into Semperinity like that guard I ninja-kicked yesterday. My forearms slam the rail, stopping me. I lean forward, squinting at the broadcast, tuning my ear.

Has the countdown started?

When would they deploy the hijack code? After launch—but how long after?

I can't believe I missed it. The clues were right there, dancing in front of my face. The seven-variable matrix, same as the dragonflies' flight logic. Graham moving his eyes up—either to the lobby monitors or sky, take your pick. Oleg's bizarre insistence that we complete the software by hour forty, a deadline that would've been completely arbitrary if his goal was to recapture a nuclear power plant Ukraine had controlled for decades.

Of course, his goal has nothing to do with power plants. If I found a computer and typed "Vlast" into a search bar right now, I'll bet the only results I'd get back were for some caffeinated gum or vodka.

The stairwell door opens behind me. I whirl. Carter and Susan stand on the same pine step, breathless, eyes full of alarm.

Carter says, "You think they're using Blackquest 40 to take over the launch? Or the spacecraft? But it was a decoy, Oleg said it—"

"Yeah, he said plenty," I interrupt. "Why do you think they needed the software right now? Where's the time pressure coming from?"

The faces of the two Codewise founders blanch. Their oversight—which was surely facilitated by the prospect of cold, hard cash—is worse than mine. The business piece of this equation was even more obvious, Russia sitting on all this aerospace technology, experts and cosmonauts and doodads from the International Space Station just gathering dust.

What can you do with these Space Race assets? How do you monetize them?

If you're Russia, you do the same thing you've done everywhere else: you privatize, leaving one foot safely planted in governmental ownership. You follow the playbook that's worked with Gasprom, with Rosneft, with Sberbank.

I think back to Katie Masterson grilling the marketing team about their hypothetical roll-out message. She was riding them so hard because there was nothing hypothetical about the exercise; the oligarghs really did want our expertise and advice on entering the market.

Still, our primary use to them was the software: landing a fatal blow on OurSpace, the industry leader. The Russians weren't about to let some pie-in-the-sky Silicon Valley upstart stand in their way. Oren Andreassen, with his grand talk of open-source and interoperability, must've made a gleeful target for the hardliners back in Moscow.

Susan says, "Tell us what we can do to help."

Ten floors down, faint on the lobby screens, I see gray smoke billowing up the sides of the OurSpace craft. The vessel disappears for a moment, then an orange flicker begins, growing quickly to a flame.

The smoke dissipates. The body of the craft, slender and shaped like one half of a tilted boomerang, becomes visible again. It trembles fiercely in place before the nose starts skyward.

I run not down to the lobby for a better view of the launch, but up the stairs, splitting Susan and Carter where they stand.

"You can stay out of my way," I say, ramming through their shoulders.

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