The Tech Startup Thriller, Part 1 of 10

Eliot Peper
Oct 28, 2014 · 28 min read

The first novel to be published serially on Medium in its entirety, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 is the opening book in the Uncommon Series, has 150+ five star reviews and has been described as “John Grisham for tech.” The trilogy is the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon and follows a pair of scrappy startup founders who get sucked into an international conspiracy on the way from garage to IPO. Read on for Part 1 of 10.

Chapter 1

Mara Winkel turned onto the muddy single track and lifted her body off the seat as her mountain bike plunged down the slope through the aspens. It jolted up and down beneath her, the suspension struggling to keep up with gravel and rocks. She yanked the handlebars to the right to avoid a nasty root. Mara quickly corrected her course to keep her front wheel on the two-foot-wide path.

She accelerated as the track cut down the slope at a sharp angle, sucking in a deep breath of Rocky Mountain air as the bright yellow leaves and white trunks flashed by. She lived for this, adrenaline pumping through her body, complete mental focus, and high-speed natural beauty. What more could a girl want?

Craig let out a “Whhoooooppp,” as he launched down the path behind her. He was fast but she had enough of a head start to keep her lead to the bottom.

The course dropped off into a steep switchback and Mara threw her body to the left and torqued the front wheel around hard to the right to make it through the turn. She raised her body farther off the bike and hit the next section of rolling bumps, catching some air in between each one. The suspension thumped rhythmically and she jerked the bike up onto the mossy side of the path to avoid a large mud puddle.

As Mara turned around the next switchback, a small clearing dropped away from the bottom side of the path and she had a clear view of the surrounding mountains awash in textured patches of green and yellow, battling for deciduous September supremacy. The white trunks of the aspens flashed up again as the track dropped into another thick grove.

It took half an hour to get to the bottom of the mountain. By the time Mara sped through the last section of the trail her quadriceps burned and her knuckles had a death grip on the handlebars. She came around a turn and jumped the bike up over an angled rock in the path. Her front wheel landed on a bare aspen root and skittered to the right along the slick wood. Shit.

She desperately tried to wrench the wheel to the left but the bike nosed into the ground and her momentum carried her up and over the handlebars. Goddamnit. She was in the air and her stomach instantly turned into a roiling pit of butterflies, instinctively clenching her jaw so she wouldn’t shatter her teeth on impact. The green-brown blur ended abruptly as she hit the ground so hard it knocked the wind out of her. As she cleared the cobwebs from her head, she realized she was lying in another muddy puddle that tasted like dirt. Oh well, what’s fun without a little danger? Ever since the situation with her and James’ family she’d always liked adrenaline.

She rolled over and spat, heard a metal screech, and then “Fuuuck.” She lost all of her air again as Craig’s shoulder slammed into her stomach and he landed in the same puddle. Shit, she had forgotten he was so close behind her. Stars glimmered and her vision narrowed as she gasped for breath again.

After a few seconds her sight returned to normal and she turned her head to look at Craig. He was spitting out mud and looked up at her looking at him and then they were both laughing and laughing as the cold rush of adrenaline surged through their systems. He leaned over and kissed her hard on the mouth and she could taste sweat, mud, and Clif Bar. She kissed him back and then punched him playfully in the stomach. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this whole mountain biking thing.”

“I wasn’t expecting you to be one of the obstacles.” He raised an eyebrow.
“‘Dynamic course design — the track changes while you’re on it. But you make a good point, I’m an obstacle you have no chance of overcoming.”
“We’ll see about that,” he laughed, dimples creasing the scar on his right cheekbone.

They walked the bikes the rest of the way to the base of the mountain. Luckily the worst of the damage seemed to be a few bent spokes and several bruises that would no doubt surface the next day. Mara was still feeling shaky when they reached the car. Her muscles were disobedient noodles.

She glanced at Craig as they loaded the bikes onto the rack. She still wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. They met in a Greek history course they were both taking to fulfill general education requirements and had been dating for the past two months. He wasn’t really her type, a little too jockish for her taste. On the other hand, he was smart, ambitious, liked the outdoors, and had fantastic shoulders.

They got in the car and Craig pulled out on the highway. Mara’s phone beeped from her purse on the floor and she reached down to grab it. Craig glanced over, annoyed. “Let me guess, little Mr. Precious as always?”
“Shut the hell up! Just because I actually have friends of the opposite gender and don’t resort to fucking them doesn’t mean you have the right to judge me.”

“Come on… whatever.” He looked back to road, pouting.

“Get a life.” It was going to be a long ride back to Boulder.

Mara pulled up the text message on her phone. It was from James after all. All it said was, “3 p.m. tomorrow, The Laughing Goat.”

Chapter 2

“Double cap extra dry?” James’ hair was long, straight, and black. It came down almost to his shoulders, but outside of that he looked more or less like he had since high school. He had on a long-sleeve T-shirt with “e=mc2” emblazoned on the front, jeans, and brown leather flip-flops. Mara was always amazed at his tenacity for wearing sandals through Colorado winters. He pushed the cup and saucer across the table to her. Like all Laughing Goat espressos, the foam was drizzled on in abstract swirls reminiscent of Japanese stone gardens.

“You know me too well. Thanks for the drink.” She took a sip, savoring the airy richness of the steamed milk and the sharp earthy bite of the espresso.

“Oolong for me.” James’ mother had fled from western Taiwan in the 80s and he had inherited her love for tea. He had an entire cupboard filled with exotic varieties and drank it like water. “How’s the quarter going?”

“Meh, lots of work ahead. I’m in Swarson’s governance class, which would need its own library to house the reading list. The rest of my courses are fine but the real pain in the ass is doing LSAT prep at the same time. It’s incredible how illogical logic can be.” She wasn’t a fan of the how the LSAT classes were starting to eat into her free evenings. “How’s life on the other side of campus? Is your massive brain tearing apart whatever syllabi the computer science professors have tried to throw at it?”

James smiled thinly. “Hardly.” He glanced down at his coffee and pursed his lips. Mara could see he was thinking hard about something. He looked up again. “Do you really want to be a lawyer?”

“Yeah, I mean, obviously my parents are lawyers. There are a number of family friends who are partners at law firms who would give me an internship. I’ve done well in all the recommended prerequisites. Plus, it seems pretty cool to argue with people for a living.”

“But do you want to be a lawyer, like, day-to-day?”

“Yes, well, yeah I think so. It just seems natural, you know?”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure you’d excel at law school and everything. It just seems like it’s so, well, detail-oriented. You’re so outgoing and active. Mike is a lawyer now, and don’t get me wrong, he loves it.” His older brother was halfway through Hastings Law School in San Francisco. “But I just have sort of a hard time picturing you enjoying pulling all-nighters reading through thousands of pages of contracts and stuff.”

“Well, you’re nerdy and introverted so programming seems perfect for you.” Mara was put off by his attitude. He was acting sort of strange. “Sorry, I guess I haven’t really devoted that much thought to it. James, what’s up? Why the mystery text? You know Craig got all pissy again because you’re my best friend.”

James grimaced with obvious distaste. “I really don’t like that guy. He thinks that just because you two are dating, you can’t hang out with any other guys. He’s such a frat boy, seriously, what do you see in him?”

“Dude, get off my back already! I don’t need two men jealous of each other over nothing. You don’t get to decide who I get to date any more than he gets to decide who I’m friends with. I’ll have you know he’s extremely well endowed.”

He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Alright, alright, T.M.I.! I just don’t like the guy…”

“James, I know you like beating around the bush, but why are you interrogating me about my legal ambitions and romantic prerogatives? What’s the deal, man? Are we just here to sip coffee or do you actually have something that you want to talk about?”

James took a sip of tea, put the cup down and looked directly into Mara’s eyes.

“I’m dropping out,” he said.

Chapter 3

This made no sense at all. Mara had known James since he had fallen out of a canoe and she had pulled him back out of the water at a camp near the Russian River in Northern California. He had proceeded to explain that he was trying to figure how the water skeeters did their skeeting and was so focused that he didn’t even notice the branch that knocked him out of the boat. They talked for the rest of the way down the river and it was the first time in Mara’s eleven years that she had met someone she thought might actually be smarter than her. Ever since then they had been inseparable. She remembered the shocking brightness of blood on tablecloth. But that was another story.

James went on to blitz every mathematics competition he could find and his parents sent him to nerd camps at MIT and UC Berkeley during high school summers. He loved chess but his real passion was go, the ancient Chinese strategy board game. Mara had never understood. She didn’t like either game. Why play with toys when the real world was so much more interesting?

Though James still had to master the social side of life, he was a genius, or at least the closest to a genius that Mara had ever met. There was simply no way he was flunking out of college.

Mara drained the last of her cappuccino and tried to regain her composure. “What are you talking about, James? I thought you were blowing all of your C.S. coursework out of the water. Last February one of your professors invited you to be a research assistant in his lab. You can’t be dropping out of school.”

James took a deep breath. “What do you know about pattern recognition?”

After an hour of discussion, the espresso had worked its way through Mara’s system and she had to take a bathroom break. Thoughts were spinning through her head. She took a deep breath and tried to clear her mind as she entered the restroom.

James had been working on a new project for over a year now. Apparently it had started when he was hired as a course reader for one of the upper division math courses. The professor asked him to grade the final assignments for all seventy students in the class. The projects had been submitted online. James started to read them but soon discovered that each one took at least an hour to thoroughly review. Mara couldn’t see James spending two weeks going through assignments and apparently James hadn’t been able to see himself doing it either. Instead, he combined a series of algorithms into a computer program that could automatically flag problems in the student assignments, resulting in much less to review.

The approach ended up working so well that he started adding new functionality. He called the program “Mosaic” after the first popular web browser developed by Marc Andreessen in the early 90s. By the end of the grading process, Mosaic could not only identify incorrect final answers, but also where the logic in students’ proofs had gone awry. At this point, James’ description started going over Mara’s head.

He had shared the program with a few other course readers to test it out and the results were strong. Mosaic was able to ferret out mistakes extremely accurately. Then James had added some “machine learning” layers to Mosaic. Apparently that meant that the program could adapt and evolve on its own based on the problems it faced. Mara had thought that that was the realm of Hollywood robots, but James assured her it was standard practice in computer programming. Mosaic then started to identify not only incorrect answers in the student assignments but also to flag other irregularities. James thought there was a bug in the code and it had stymied him for two weeks before he double checked a few assignments and realized they were plagiarized. Mara grinned. How like James to train a computer to catch cheaters.

As Mara was washing her hands her phone chirped. It was a text from Craig asking if she wanted to go trail running. It was enticing. She hadn’t worked out today and her mind was racing. But she needed to find out what was really going on with James so she texted back that tomorrow might be better. As she slid her phone into her pocket her elbow throbbed, a painful reminder of yesterday’s bike crash.

She walked back out into the flurry of sounds and smells of the coffee shop and sat back down at the table. “Okay, so what gives? Your program can catch math geeks copying each other’s homework?”

James smiled. “I call it ‘quantitative pattern recognition.’ Mosaic can take a dataset and deduce how logic sort of flows through it. It can tell when there’s something that doesn’t fit. I set it up to play chess against the freeware game on my computer and after it had played about ten games it started to win every time. Then I set it up to play go against me. I won ninety-five times in a row but then it started to beat me.” James flushed.

“Okay… who cares? I mean, can’t you play any game against a computer?” Mara was more impressed that he had won almost a hundred times in a row.

“No, no, you don’t understand. Go is infamous because, unlike chess, computers can’t beat even moderately good human players. There are just too many different strategic approaches to the game. The analytical artificial intelligence of the computer can’t match the flexibility and pattern recognition of the human brain. It’s crazy that Mosaic is beating me, I haven’t lost to a computer in years.”

“Fine, so Mosaic can beat you in go. But where is this conversation going? Why are you dropping out of school?” she asked.

James squared his jaw. “I’m going to start a company. And I need your help to do it.”

Chapter 4

Mara sucked in a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. Her feet were pounding along the trail in a steady rhythm and she could feel a slow pleasant burn in her quadriceps and calves. The sun was burning bright in a cloudless autumn sky. The path ran through a rolling meadow of yellow-brown dried grass surrounded by pine and aspen. Her feet, heart, and breath wove together into a kind of internal athletic percussion. When she was in the shade of the trees, she slowed a bit since the direct sun was uncomfortably intense.

Running was meditative for Mara and the workout cleared her head. She would let thoughts pass and dissipate like clouds breaking apart in high altitude winds. While running wasn’t as exciting as mountain biking or rock climbing, it allowed you to release your thoughts from the bump and grind of life. Plus, afterward it always left a pleasant physical soreness behind.
But today Mara’s mind was spinning and she couldn’t seem to rein in her rebellious neurons. For the past two weeks James had been quietly but insistently hounding her.

It was ridiculous! How could they start a company? Neither she nor James had any business experience beyond a few scattered internships. She didn’t know anything about management. Maybe it would be different if she had an MBA or something but they were just two college kids. James might be a genius, but she wasn’t. What did it even mean to start a company?

James seemed to want her involved because he was great at computers but not so great with people. He said he thought that they would need to work with both computers and people in order to start a successful company. At least that made some sense. James wasn’t a people person but she enjoyed the social side of life.

Her elbow throbbed every time her right foot hit the ground. She had iced it the night before. She glanced down. It was still swollen and the tan Band-Aid popped out against her milk chocolate skin.

It was just crazy. The quarter had just begun and the work from her classes was starting to pile on. If she was going to spend this run thinking, she might as well be thinking about her paper on political incentive systems that was due on Monday or her LSAT review tonight.

She took a tiny sip from her CamelBak as the path turned up into the mountain foothills. She started on an ascent up a series of switchbacks that climbed the face of a rocky ridge. She glanced down at her watch, 2:40 p.m. She was almost there.

What would her parents say? They were so thrilled that she was interested in following them into law. This would crush them. Her dad might understand, but her mom wouldn’t. Besides, what about school? Could she start a company and stay in school at the same time? Her parents were paying for her education. She couldn’t just throw it all away. She had bills to pay, rent, utilities, Internet, cell phone, food, coffee. If she didn’t have their help she’d have to get a job. But then she would probably have even less time to help James.

No. It was just nuts. It would be one thing if they had years of experience in business or even better if they had years of experience in a specific industry like bicycles or something. Then they could make a better bike. She could probably think of a few improvements right now. But Mosaic? It was just too… amorphous. What would they even be selling?

She reached the last switchback and came up onto the top of the ridgeline breathing hard. The view opened up before her. She was in the foothills of the Rockies overlooking Boulder. The town nestled up to the base of the mountains like it was held there by some kind of municipal surface tension. Beyond it, the plains stretched out ad infinitum to a hazy horizon to the east. Mara loved it up here. She always liked to imagine that the plains were a calm ocean of grass lapping against the base of the Rockies. Boulder could be a little harbor town or something.

She ran up to the edge of the ridge and dropped down onto a rock beside Craig. He had beaten her by coming up the other side of the hill. He looked up and tossed something at her. She caught it gingerly.

“Peach?” He grinned.

Juice exploded out of the almost-too-ripe fruit and onto her hands as Mara bit into it. The last of the season were always as sweet as candy. No peaches on Earth could compare to Colorado’s end of summer harvest. Mara slurped up the juice that was threatening to run down her chin and smiled at Craig. “Thanks. Great surprise snack attack.”

“They’re from the farmer’s market. The guy at the stand said these were the final batch from Palisade this year. How’d your run go?” He was wearing a neon GoLite shirt with a gaping rip in the back.

“Good, if you like running in an oven,” Mara laughed, “Definitely makes me sweat.”

“For sure. I wish I were solar powered.”

“You know, that’s one of the things I like so much about Boulder. It’s always sunny here. I always thought it was going to be cold and miserable in the mountains.”

“Yeah, not a bad place to be.”

There was a moment of silence as they both soaked in the view over Boulder.

Mara gave Craig a sidelong glance. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course. What’s up?” He looked over at her, the scar on his right cheekbone catching the light.

“Okay, but you have to promise not to get defensive.” She remembered how he had reacted to her text message from James on the way back from the mountain. Her elbow throbbed again.

“Hah, I’m not sure I can promise not to react to something, but okay, I won’t take it personally. Out with it.”

Mara hadn’t told anyone about James’ proposition but as soon as she started describing it to Craig the words exploded out of her. She told him all about Mosaic, James dropping out of school, his request that she join as a comrade-in-arms, and his dogged follow up over the past two weeks. Craig looked like he wanted to interrupt a few times, but he restrained himself and listened. She walked him through all the ways in which she had tried to show James that he was being irrational and she shared all of his rejoinders.

When she was done, Craig sat silently with a thoughtful look on his face for a few minutes. Then he gave a sheepish smile. “Well, I can’t say I was expecting that.” His expression turned serious. “This is all quite interesting and pretty crazy. I can come up with half a dozen problems with the idea right off the bat, and another half dozen reasons why it sounds pretty amazing. But when I think about it, everything comes back to one core question, what do you want?”

He started massaging a cramp out of his calf. “Ultimately that’s what it all comes down to, right? It seems like all of your reasons why this is a bad idea are legitimate. They are also probably typical obstacles for any new idea or business. That means that resolving those individual problems probably won’t help you make this decision. Maybe it’s more intuitive than that. You are the most capable and stubborn person I’ve ever met. I think that’s one reason I like you. It seems like whenever there’s some sort of barrier, you see it as a challenge and want to overcome it. I can see why James would want you involved. For better or for worse your personality is a force of nature that runs poor boys like me into the ground.” He shrugged. “Take it or leave it, but that’s my two cents.”

She glanced over at him. There must be quite a bit more behind the jock aura he liked to give off.

She turned the peach pit over and over in her hand and she knew what she was going to do. She wound up and threw the pit as hard as she could over the edge of the ridge. It arced slowly down and fell out of sight among the rocks below. The throw didn’t help her elbow, but the run back down the trail was a personal record.

Chapter 5

“Fuck it, I’m in.”

“Good.” James didn’t even look up from his computer. Today his T-shirt depicted a giant pixilated gorilla dismantling downtown San Francisco.

“I’m sorry, did you hear me correctly? I’m agreeing to start a company with you after weeks of harassment and your reaction is ‘good?’”

James glanced up and frowned. “I knew you’d come around. When was the last time you flipped a tails in Fight or Flight?”

Mara laughed. “Okay, Señor Know-It-All. You’ve somehow managed to rope me into this ridiculous campaign despite all my better instincts. What do we do now?”

“Now that,” James smiled, “is a very good question.”

The next month flashed by in a whirlwind of activity. She never realized there was so much to learn about starting a business. Her initial Google searches had turned up unbelievable volumes of material and heaps of conflicting advice. At least the swelling around her elbow had gone down.

Mara scanned all the startups trying to raise money through AngelList, watched all of Stanford’s web videos on entrepreneurship, and read every new TechCrunch article. Credible experts giving honest advice vied with professional service providers who seemed to be using their “resources for entrepreneurs” as marketing material for their own businesses. She was disappointed to discover a large number of law firms participating in the latter category. The difficult part was that she had no idea which was which.

James had been slavishly working away at algorithms to build and improve Mosaic. He had walked her through some of the fundamentals but it was clearly his area of expertise. This left Mara… everything else. There was a surprising amount to get done. She tried to absorb all the information she could cram into her head. Professor Swarson would probably call it a literature review. It was like trying to suck on a fire hose with your brain. She couldn’t believe the number of things you had to consider, marketing, IT, accounting, HR, engineering, and financing. How did people keep all the balls in the air?

James had originally wanted to call the company “Mosaic” but Mara pointed out that users could easily confuse it with its famous browser eponym. They changed the spelling and settled on “Mozaik Industries.” James liked the way “Industries” sounded sort of nineteenth century. What did he call it again? Oh yeah, steampunk-esque. Mara smiled at the thought that a company whose major activity so far had been typing computer code could be called “Industries.”

Mara went down to the County Building to register Mozaik. Although the County Building had a smell that Mara couldn’t identify despite the two hours she spent in line, she enjoyed the research she had to do to figure out how to set up the company. Many of the differences between company structures were related to liability and taxation. For example, what happens to the CEO of a company if it goes bankrupt or gets sued? Can the plaintiffs sue the CEO personally or only the company itself? Money flowed through different kinds of companies in different ways with taxation happening at various points. Different structures seemed suited to different types of businesses. Law firms were different from restaurants that were in turn different from car manufacturers.

Once the red tape seemed to be in order, Mara got to work on the next step the experts talked about, writing a business plan.

She sat down, opened Microsoft Word, and stared at a blank page for half an hour. The cursor blinked, daring her to type something. They didn’t seem to have anything a business was supposed to have, mission statements, market overviews, customer segmentation, sales and marketing plans, intellectual property protection, go-to-market strategies, SWOT analyses, competitive differentiation, or financial projections. They didn’t even have a bank account.

She snuck into a few business classes at the Deming Center and was overwhelmed by the complexity of what they seemed to be doing in Microsoft Excel. All their calculations and strategizing seemed well-suited to someone in charge of managing a subdivision of a giant company like IBM but she couldn’t understand how it was supposed to help anyone start a new business. Plus, the business majors drove her crazy. She had never seen so many undergrads in button downs and boat shoes.

Mara spent a week wrestling with spreadsheets. How was she supposed to know how much money they would be making five years from now or how much they would be paying in utility bills? She muddled through and built a model that followed the same approach of some examples on Investopedia. But it was ridiculous, everything was based on guesswork. Was this how each new company did their books? She decided never to take anyone’s financial projections seriously again.

Every few days Mara and James would dream up new applications for Mozaik. The algorithms had been progressing as James built a more comprehensive set of code around his original go architecture. He took a freeware version of go and welded on the Mozaik code as the primary driver behind the artificial intelligence computer player.

A significant chunk of James’ social life revolved around various online forums. She recommended he release the modified game to the go forums he frequented.

James loved the suggestion and one-upped her. He didn’t release the file as a downloadable game, a piece of software you would actually have to install on your computer. Instead, he created a version that anyone could play in a browser.

All the code and data was hosted remotely. They set up a small account with Amazon to rent some server space. She hadn’t realized that Amazon and another company called Rackspace controlled so much territory of the cloud. She had no idea where they were going to come up with the money for the long-term but the initial small amount of space was cheap enough that they just split the first month’s payment.

This approach allowed them to track, store, and analyze every move of every game. More importantly, Mozaik was able to learn and evolve based on its interactions with each player. It also kept Mozaik’s back-end code hidden from the prying eyes of too-curious go enthusiasts.

James played daily and invited a few close friends to test the game. Mara tried it a few times and lost interest. She still couldn’t understand the appeal.

Mara’s phone beeped and jerked her back to the present. She hadn’t gotten enough sleep last night and had a bad case of bedhead. She had been working on rewriting the business plan again. She looked down at the screen. It was Craig. “Let’s grab dinner tomorrow at 7 p.m. If you cancel again I will literally come over and abduct you.”

Chapter 6

Garlic, chili, curry, coconut, grilled meat, and onion wafted together into an aroma so delicious that Mara’s mouth started watering, no, slavering, the minute she walked through the door. The bell jingled. Thai food was one of her favorites.

“Good call, I think I’m going to order the whole menu,” she said as she gave Craig’s hand a squeeze. Rough calluses rubbed against her palm.

“I knew that Chez Thuy would lure you out of your cave.” He chuckled as the hostess waved them over to a tiny corner table.

Mara had always been enamored by this place because it was so clearly a labor of love for the small Thai family that owned it. Assorted indoor plants perched on shelves along the back wall but her favorite decoration was the old photograph of the King of Thailand dressed in formal regalia, holding a puppy while sporting an enormous smile. No American presidential portrait she had ever seen evoked such genuine joy. Then again, most American presidents didn’t grow up with mango sticky rice for dessert every night.
When the peppy waitress came over she ordered a Thai iced tea. She never ate here without one. They spent the next few minutes poring over menus and debating options. It was always the same problem, everything looked too good.

Making up their minds, they put in their orders. Then began the longest part of the evening, waiting for their food to arrive while the other diners’ feasts barraged their senses.

“I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever.” Craig’s expression was guarded. “What’s going on with you?”

“I know. It’s been totally crazy. I never knew how much work went into starting a company. I’ve been leaping from one thing to the next nonstop. Did I tell you that we uploaded a Mozaik-powered go game?”

“What about your classes?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve been doing all that too. I mean I missed my LSAT class on Tuesday but mostly I’ve been just working on Mozaik stuff while I’m in lecture. Hah, I never realized how productive seminars could be.” She gave him a smile, but he frowned slightly.

The waitress arrived with their Thai iced teas. Mara stirred hers up and watched the coconut milk and deep red tea swirl into a milky orange mixture. She took a nice long sip of the sweet, earthy beverage. Yum.

“So how’s your quarter going?”

“Pretty good, actually. We’ve done a few fun field trips up into the mountains.” Craig was majoring in geology. “Geomorphology is a lot of work and we just started doing some seismic reservoir analysis.” He raised his eyebrows at Mara’s bemused expression. “Basically we use sonar to try to figure out what’s underground. The sound waves bounce uniquely off different rocks. We use the results to make an acoustic map of the subsurface. I think I already mentioned this to you, but it reminds me of my dad’s work. He’s a detective with Denver PD and geology makes me feel like I’m solving mysteries in the rocks. I think that’s why I like it so much.”

“Wow, that actually sounds pretty cool.” Mara laughed. “Sometimes I wonder whether us B.A.s learn anything at all. Most of my readings seem to be about what certain academics think about how other people behave. It’s sort of like being in a hyper-intellectual coffee house conversation about politics or psychology. We craft really refined opinions but don’t really learn anything specific about the world.”

“Hmm, yeah I can see where you’re coming from. It’s funny being on the B.S. side of campus. I always wonder whether there’s really a true point to learning all of the arcane knowledge that’s accumulated about rocks. I mean, I like it a lot. It’s fun and interesting and the fieldwork is great. But when I look around at the world beyond campus, all of the decisions seem to get made by non-technical people. Most geologists end up working for oil companies, but the people making the important decisions about business have a very different skill set. They’re doing all the things you guys are learning about, crafting well-articulated arguments, managing teams of people, and building consensus. I guess the grass is always greener, right?”

Their waitress started bringing out their food and they spent the next half hour in silent, focused eating. They started with a shredded papaya salad with chili so strong Mara’s eyes started watering. Then they moved onto duck larb, a cold salad of ground meat, onions, garlic, and spices eaten on cabbage leaves. Sautéed rice noodles with spicy mint leaves and pork came next. Mara had to get a refill of her Thai iced tea in order to wash down the second dose of chili. The waitress giggled when she saw how much they were both sweating from the spice. They finished with piping hot Panang curry over sticky rice.

Craig pushed his plate away, “That was unreal. Do they have hammocks here? Seriously! I don’t think I’ll be able to drive home.”

Mara laughed and wiped up the last of the curry with a pinch of sticky rice. “I want the chef to move in with me, I could eat this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No wonder they call Thailand the ‘Land of Smiles.’ How could you not smile with this kind of food every day? Well-chosen, sir. The way to a girl’s heart…”

A mischievous expression flashed across Craig’s face. “Hey, we could come here every day if it would get you to come out. Honestly, Mara, I feel like all you do now is work on Mozaik.”

Craig didn’t understand. It was so frustrating. Why couldn’t men ever seem to set aside their groundless sparring? Mozaik needed her. “Dude, lay off. I know you don’t like me working with James.”

Craig snorted and interrupted, “This has nothing to do with James. I may not like the guy but it’s your choice if you want to hang out with him. This is about you. When was the last time you went running? When was the last time we went on a ride? You’ve dropped off the face of the map for the past month!”

Craig could try to claim he wasn’t jealous, but Mara knew that his criticisms were laced with testosterone. “Look, I know I haven’t been around much but there’s just so much to do. If I’m not doing it, it just doesn’t get done. It’s not like working on a paper or a lab report. It’s my thing and if I’m not driving it forward, nobody will. Yes, it’s a lot of work. In fact, I’ve already been working harder on Mozaik than anything I’ve worked on before. But I’m also enjoying the work more than I’ve ever enjoyed working on anything else before. I’m bummed we haven’t been able to hang out together as much as we used to and that I haven’t been getting as much time outside. But there just isn’t enough time to waste on mountain biking.”

“I’ve never heard you call mountain biking a waste of time before,” Craig said.

“You know what I mean. Okay, I’ll come out more, alright?”

He pursed his lips but then relented. “Well, maybe I’ll kick myself later for introducing you, but there’s someone you need to meet.”

Chapter 7

Something was wrong. Puffy white clouds floated across a blue sky. Bright green grass cut a park through a patch of suburbia. Mara looked down at a picnic table piled high with a cornucopia of summer barbeque. Something was desperately wrong.

People milled around the table. Her parents were there but they didn’t look like her parents. James was there but he looked like Craig. James’ family was lugging over coolers full of drinks.

Mara screamed. She had to warn them. Something was wrong. Something bad was going to happen and she had to stop it. But when she opened her mouth to yell, her voice was muted and the wind wafted it away.

She tried to wave her arms to get everyone’s attention but she couldn’t move. Her limbs were encased in invisible strands of spider webbing that kept her immobile despite her violent efforts.

The harder she struggled the tighter the bonds got. Everyone was going happily about their business, oblivious to the mortal danger that overshadowed them all. Why couldn’t they see her? Why were they so oblivious to what was in the air? Why couldn’t she escape?

Mara woke suddenly in a dark room, sheets tangled around her, drenched with a cold, sour sweat. Craig’s arm draped over her shoulder. She untangled herself from the sheets and took a few deep breaths. The recurring dream was starting to dissipate but it left behind a smoldering emotional hangover. Gently shifting out from under Craig’s arm, she rolled over and tried to fall asleep.

Mara blinked open her sleep-heavy eyes and unraveled her legs from the sheets. Mid-morning light streamed into Craig’s room from the high windows and she smiled thinking about the previous night.

Craig was still asleep on his back with one arm tucked back behind his head. At some point in the night he had thrown the sheets down so they only covered his legs.

She ruffled his thick brown hair with her hand. She was starting to fall for this guy. At first he had come off as such a jock but beneath his veneer he was smart. Once she had made it clear Mozaik was a priority for her he had grudgingly tried to accept James as an unpleasant but unavoidable inconvenience. He was even making efforts to help them out as best he could.

Maybe she did need to prioritize him more. It seemed to really bug him when she had to opt out of dates because something had come up with Mozaik. Normally she’d understand, but it wasn’t like she was cutting out just for homework. She was starting a company after all! But that was no excuse, as their conversations were always compelling and she loved what she saw in those hazel eyes when he looked at her. It was funny how people could grow on you.

She leaned over and started to circle his left nipple with her tongue, rasping against the stubble of his chest hair. She smiled as it hardened. Then she reached her right hand down beneath the sheets and gave him a gentle squeeze. He stiffened immediately in her hand. His head turned on the pillow, mumbling in his sleep. She gave his nipple a tug with her front teeth and his eyes popped open.

“Good morning!” she said, her tone packed extra full of brightness, “Up and at ’em!”

“Somebody has a lot of energy.” He smiled.

“Apparently I’m not the only one.” She gave him another squeeze.

Afterward they lay sprawled on the bed, sweaty and winded, until they recovered enough to shower.

What happens next? Click here to read Part 2. Want to skip ahead? Grab the entire book here.

Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, Neon Fever Dream, and The Uncommon Series. His books have been praised by Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, Qualcomm, and Future in Review. When he’s not writing, he works with entrepreneurs and investors to build technology businesses. You can get his reading recommendations here.

Eliot Peper

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Writes speculative fiction that explores the intersection of technology and culture. Books: Blog:

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