Chapter 19

NEW YORK CITY

“We can’t pitch this, El. No matter which way you turn it, it’s too dangerous. And it might not even work!” Josh was now sitting on one end of Elaine’s couch with a system map in his lap. It was almost eight o-clock in the evening; they had been hitting dead-ends for twelve hours straight. He could probably call Makini and see whether the guy could pop out for a moment.

Elaine rose from the corner table and sat at the other end of the couch, turning to face him. “Listen, Josh. I saw you fight your way through this team — Gorzowski and Kappa are ready to stab you in the back at any moment. You overtook Pilar, who’s been on the team for seven years, and she’s pissed off. You even overtook me, Josh,” Elaine lowered her eyes for a moment, then looked back up at him. “But I’m okay with that, because you’re damn good at what you do. You listen to the other side and try to find win-wins — Nathaniel Blake couldn’t even dream of the concept. But you can play hardball when you need to. I, for one, would follow you anywhere. And so would many others on the team — and the two clerks adore you.”

Josh squirmed in discomfort. “Thanks,” he said simply. He wasn’t used to getting compliments like this.

“One day, you’re going to take Blake over, and you’re going to be in that SafeZone. A full-fledged SafeZone, Josh! We can’t find a solution, so we have to spin this. We’ll find the right angles. Sell it, Josh. Believe in it. And if you don’t, well… We might as well flush the last few years of blood, sweat and tears down the toilet and kiss our future credits goodbye.”

Orsini’s mind raced. “But El — we would have hundreds of thousands of potentially unstable isotopes in peoples’ hands all over the country — even the world. We might not need the creatures to finish us off.” He paused to stare into the system map for a few seconds, then shook his head. “I can’t do this. I couldn’t live with myself being a part of this.”

“It’s better than the Titan Tips that are fast becoming useless now!” Elaine said with rising frustration. “And it means a better life for you! Do you think we’re living well? Running back to Great Central almost every day, not knowing whether the brains we used at work will be nourishing those hell-begotten things out there? And if we get to enjoy an overnight Downtown, we’re safe but we’re machines! We’re working! We’re even working here! Maybe one day, I’ll get there too — but you’re so close!”

“Who cares about me?” Josh said, rising to her tone. “It’s people’s lives at stake, El! We’re SS, we are massive! We have a responsibility to the world! And anyway, you’re going to be stuck here for a long time — why do you even care if I get to go?”

Elaine sat back. She started to say something, but hesitated. Then she finally spoke. “Because you’re hope. You’re hope for the rest of us poor rats — you give us hope that it is possible to work your way from wiping down systems cubes to being Director of Contracts — with the appropriate place at the Downtown SafeZone. No one’s ever done this before — crossed the divide. But you’re so close… If you can’t do it, none of us even have the faintest dream of being able to.”

They sat staring hard at each other from opposite ends of the couch for a long minute. Then Josh deflated. “Look. We’ve been overworking ourselves this weekend.” He stood up and started to pack his things. “Thanks for having me. I’m going to go find Makini.” Elaine just sat on the couch, watching him silently.

“I’m sorry for the outburst,” Josh said to Elaine as he opened the front door. “I’m tired and stressed out and I didn’t mean to take it out on you. I really appreciate your support and vote of confidence.” He managed a small smile. “I’ll sort myself out, and tomorrow we’ll have a real go at this, okay? It’ll help to get updates from the mainframe. We’ll crack it.”

Sighing and matching his smile, Elaine nodded. “Anytime, Orsini. I’m sorry too. See you tomorrow.” As soon as the door shut behind Josh’s lean, muscled back, Elaine rolled her eyes towards the ceiling and banged her head on the back of the couch repeatedly.

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