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End Game Excerpt

Copyright © 2015 Ginger Booth.

All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

Interesting fact: UNC Inc., headquartered in Stamford Connecticut and New York City, built its ark in mid-Tennessee.

My first shot at an ark berth arrived as one of life’s little pop quizzes.

On a typical Tuesday I expected the usual afternoon meeting down in Stamford. Normally I’d take a long walk to the train station, make one transfer en route, and I’m there at corporate headquarters. I had navy chinos and blazer and professional-enough looking tops expressly for Tuesdays at HQ.

I’d been doing this once-weekly commute for a few years. One of the interns had begun to imitate my ‘signature style,’ right down to the bright horizontal stripes under a navy blazer. Maybe it was creeping me out. Well, no – it was definitely creeping me out. If she copied one more of my mannerisms, she and I were going to have a little talk of the brush-off variety. Asking my professional help as a mentor is one thing. Mimicking my clothes is just weird.

At any rate, that Tuesday I ditched my navy corporate camouflage gear, and wore my favorite steampunk outfit to Stamford. There are so few occasions to wear it, you know? And maybe Shelley the Intern and I could skip that little creepy talk.

One thing leads to another. It’s a couple miles to the train station. I have gorgeous mid-calf lace-up boots with lace gaiters to go with my steampunk ensemble. They wouldn’t fit in my backpack the way my sneakers do. And the striped rose sateen skirt would just look foolish with sneakers. And I’d been meaning to try out the robot taxi service just unleashed in my area.

I own a car, mind you. I just hate driving.

The adorable robot vehicle showed up right on time, as promised on my mobile phone. To bolster their advertising, the robocar was painted as a cheerful pumpkin. A couple neighbors were out walking their dogs, and did a gratifying double-take. They enthusiastically waved me off in my Cinderella’s carriage. I waved back. No doubt the feather in my little rose felt hat waved too.

My phone rang. The caller was the car I was sitting in. It called to ask me to open its special tracking app. I reviewed its proposed detour to pick up someone in East Haven on the way in to the New Haven train station.

Add 5 minutes to trip and save $0.50?

Accept or Decline.

Accept.

Connect to a train at New Haven station?

Yes.

Are you going to New York City?

No, same train, but destination Stamford.

Apparently the car had nothing further to discuss just then. The app display returned to live tracking on the route map into East Haven. We stopped at a million dollar beachfront property. A very fine-looking man in perfectly fitted business suit – Adam – climbed in to join me in the robo-pumpkin.

As the car drove off, introductions were interrupted by Adam having to answer his own phone. I recognized the ever-widening goofy grin from my own face wearing it moments before.

“Holy – !” he finally began.

I lifted a ‘wait’ finger as my own phone buzzed for attention.

Add 15 minutes to trip and save $25.50?

I frowned at this. A garden-variety yellow taxi could get me to the train station for $15, and the app had promised me $10. My pumpkin app hadn’t let me down before. Then I saw that the proposed destination was all the way to Stamford, not just the New Haven train station.

Accept!

My ride partner was grinning like he’d just been waiting for me to see the punchline. “Stamford?” I asked, matching his grin.

Adam shrugged. “Greenwich actually. But we’ll be together a while, it seems. Adam Lacey.”

“Dee Baker,” I replied, accepting his handshake. “This ride is just too entertaining. Do you work in Greenwich?”

“Well, meetings sometimes. You?”

“Meetings every Tuesday afternoon. I don’t usually enjoy the commute so much!”

Other riders came and went. We collected a couple with skis – the pumpkin car featured a roof rack – and rendezvoused with a pumpkin limo. Apparently a half dozen skiers were taking a robo-ride up to Vermont.

“I should do that before the borders close,” Adam commented.

Sad thought. I murmured, “Mm. I’d like to see Montreal again.”

Adam smiled warmly. Maybe he felt guilty for disturbing my obvious delight with the transportation, which we had to ourselves again. “Don’t ski, Dee? Though I like your idea better. I love those little sorbets they serve between courses at the French restaurants in Montreal.”

“Oh, I love those!” I agreed, his downer promptly forgiven.

We passed the big sign to the Trumbull ark without comment. At that point, it was still considered vulgar to ask if one had an ark berth yet. Granted, in Connecticut, even introducing yourself for an hour-long robo-car ride was a bit forward. This isn’t the friendliest place I’ve ever been. Actually, it’s the least friendly place I’ve ever been, but it’s home. By then, it was already assumed that of course you would do anything to get into an ark. Perhaps Adam just assumed we both already had one.

Excuses were found to exchange business cards as we pulled up to my corporate headquarters campus. As Connecticut Yankees, it would never do to simply say, “I had fun. Let’s exchange phone numbers and get together again some time.” Or maybe…

Maybe nothing. I’d likely never hear from Adam Lacey again. Time to get some coffee.

The robocar pinged me again first, though.

Did you enjoy your travelling companions?

5-star.

Did you enjoy your trip?

5-star.

Would you like a return trip?

Sure! Probably after 5:00.

I love cool tech. I really do.

-o-

“Dee!” my pal Mangal called out with a grin. The cubicle maze didn’t have room for all of us telecommuters, so we thronged the break room waiting for the weekly meeting.

My boss Dan and Shelley the Intern turned toward me with smiles preloaded on their faces. “Dee!” they cried. Smiles morphed into puzzlement and gradually alarm as they took in my steampunk outfit.

“I love it!” cried Mangal, pushing through the throng. “Wow, even lace on the gaiters.”

“We weren’t doing a Halloween party,” said my boss Dan, still much put out.

I shrugged. “Just breaking out of the rut. Hi, Shelley.”

Shelley the Intern stood frozen. She’d surpassed herself today. Her navy corporate camo outfit matched my usual look right down to the horizontal melon stripes on the dressy T-shirt. Her jacket was a gold-buttoned double-breasted blazer, just like mine. I scowled at her outfit – my outfit – even more strongly than she frowned at my steampunk.

“Ah –” said Dan. “Am I missing something?”

“Probably,” Mangal agreed. Mangal grimaced at Shelley’s outfit, too.

In all likelihood, Dan had never noticed my clothes or Shelley’s before. Now what he noticed, was that I was being weird. This was not unusual.

“Dee, let’s, um, talk, before the meeting.” Dan steered me toward his office. Mangal made urgent motions toward his phone at me behind Dan’s back. “That’s, um, quite an outfit,” Dan continued. “I guess I should have warned you. But I mean, why would I warn you? You always dress… normally. And I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”

“Dan? What are we talking about?”

He found some paperwork on his desk and handed it to me. “I got you to the head of the list. You’re my best, Dee. I’m even assigning Shelley to report to you full-time. Hey, maybe you could borrow Shelley’s clothes?”

“No. About Shelley, Dan –”

“No, you’re right, there isn’t time. Conference room 108A, by the elevators in the lobby. You’ll probably miss today’s meeting, but that’s OK.” OK by his bossly fiat, he meant. It wasn’t particularly OK with me or my current project.

I should have checked my phone for what Mangal was so anxious to tell me. But I was too preoccupied with how to discuss my creepy Shelley problem with Dan.

-o-

I don’t want to remember my interview with the corporate psychologist. I was shaking when I escaped conference room 101E, or whatever it was. The meeting I was supposed to be in, the one I’d travelled to Stamford for, was still going on and would be for another hour or so. I took the elevator back upstairs on automatic. But then I turned the other way at our floor, and got my belated coffee in some other cubicle farm’s break room.

I’d just have some coffee and calm down, I thought, then rejoin the meeting. I chose an empty stretch of high-rise glass to look out of. This patch of hallway was organized as a social area. There were orange upholstered seats and one of those plants that might as well be plastic, and some corporate art on a fragment of wall. No doubt someone somewhere selected the corporate art and orange upholstery for some carefully considered reason. I contemplated the pale watercolor print of an anonymous looking little brown songbird. The label advised that the portrait was of a boat-tailed grackle. This little nook was a mirror image of my usual side of the elevators. Ours featured mustard yellow and blue upholstery and a watercolor of beach toys abandoned to the rising tide. None of it meant anything.

Maybe that was the point. The décor was to distract you from the zombie rut of life in a cubicle farm. But I only visited cubicle land for a few hours on Tuesdays. My real life was out in the woods and shoreline, full of real birds. When I was out for a walk, I picked up lost beach toys and put them in the trash before they washed into the Sound.

Someone must have narked on me. Dan left the meeting and joined me at the window by the boat-tailed grackle. “That bad, huh?” he asked gently. Dan was a good guy. More heart than brains, but a good manager.

“Not the best day to wear steampunk to the office,” I agreed, and stared out the window. The corporate psychologist had dwelt at length on my costume during my misbegotten interview, and not in a good way. The shrink was very impressed with herself for concocting a theory about my using steampunk as a way to avoid ‘authentic’ interaction with others. The conversation went downhill from there. I hate shrinks.

A squall of sudden rain had come and gone while I stood there. Indian summer was starting to break up into the cold clammy bleakness of late autumn. In Vermont there was already enough snow to ski.

“Why steampunk?” Dan asked.

“We need to talk about Shelley, Dan. She keeps copying what I wear. It’s creeping me out. Maybe you should get one of the guys to supervise her instead.”

“Oh. I tried that. She came on to Mangal. He was polite – you know Mangal – and told her he was happily married with children. But she told him she didn’t mind if he was married. I’m thinking, not the guys.”

I laughed, too hard, but it was good to laugh about something. I wiped tears from my eyes. “OK. So I’ll talk to Shelley. Maybe I could get her a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. Giftwrap it nicely with a little bow. And then tell her if she ever wears my clothes again, she’s fired. Because she’s creeping people out.”

Dan smiled. “You see, that’s why I want to give her to you. A girl who’s that clueless how to act – she needs a woman’s guidance. She does know how to program, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah, she’s competent enough at the work. I’ll deal with it.”

“It’s not just you, you know,” Dan offered, after a pause. “They’re not even going to interview most of the programmers. They’ve got these ideas, about who will fit in, in the company ark.”

“Who will fit period, Dan,” I said. “Less than half a percent of the population.”

“It’s not that way! Personnel says they’re building room for 12,000 in our ark. Not everybody, but… It makes sense, what they’re trying to do with the psychological interviews. Everybody needs to get along well in tight quarters. I thought, because of your gardening, you’d have the best shot of any of my people. And you’re great with people.”

I nodded slowly. “I think we already know which half of one percent will be in the arks, Dan. That wasn’t really in any doubt. Was it?”

“Look, I’ll talk to the shrink, get you another appointment. Promise me, you won’t go looking for another job for the ark benefit.”

That’s how it was supposed to work. Everyone was scurrying after ‘good jobs’ back then, that offered an ark berth as an employment benefit. Of course ‘everyone’ couldn’t get that kind of ‘good job.’ Probably less than a quarter of people had any benefits at all from their jobs, not even a living wage.

“Thank you, Dan,” I murmured, in polite reflex, if not faith.

The storm clouds broke into a cloud pattern that looked weirdly like parasitic wasp egg sacs, in yellow, dangling from a giant grey tomato hornworm in the sky. I didn’t mention it. Dan of corporate HQ didn’t know what hornworms or egg sacs looked like. He probably wouldn’t even realize that it was a bizarre cloud formation.

“Interesting times,” I murmured. I kicked the glass window lightly and turned back toward our proper cubicle farm. “Anything else for me before I head home?”

I took Metro North back to New Haven. The commuter train was papered with advertisements for the most ‘aspirational’ arks. In the fabulously wealthy suburbs of New York City, there in the Gold Coast southwest corner of Connecticut, plenty of people didn’t worry whether they could get into an ark, but rather which was the most prestigious one. As we got further from Stamford, the Wall Street business suits thinned out. Students, inner-city blacks, and tired women dominated the train. In my steampunk costume finery, I should have struck up more conversations than ever on the train. But I stared out the window.

The robo-pumpkin car was awfully cool, though.

Chapter 2

Interesting fact: The Calm Act was introduced by the U.S. President in closed session, debated, and passed with a 78% majority in the House, and 63% in the Senate. Few sections of the Calm Act were ever made public.

I met Zack just a few days after Adam, just after Halloween. An Alberta Clipper storm front hit while I was out for a lunchtime walk. I’d only been out twenty minutes. I was headed home when it hit.

It was so lovely when I went out. Most trees were bare, but the last of the maples shone orange and scarlet, fluttering jewels gleaming in the early November sun. The Clipper hit out of a brilliant blue sky at about 75 miles per hour, a roiling black bank of hail and lightning and sheets of rain out of the west. When branches started to crack and fall, running for home seemed like a bad idea. I pelted up onto Zack’s covered porch for shelter.

I knocked on the door for politeness’ sake. Actually I tried the doorbell first, but the power was out. One of the lightning flashes might have been a transformer. We didn’t meet strangers at the door with a shotgun in that sort of situation yet. A neighbor taking shelter from a freak storm was a friendly occasion. Freak storms weren’t so common then.

“Hi, I’m Dee,” I babbled in a rush, when his door opened. “I live over there on Blatchely.” I pointed. “I hope you don’t mind if I hide on your porch for a few minutes.” I smiled, then cringed, as lightning and a huge boom! of thunder arrived simultaneously.

“Come in!” Zack cried.

He didn’t need to ask twice. I leapt into his house. We struggled to get the storm door closed, as the wind wanted to take it. But finally I was in, with the storm noise slightly muffled in the living room gloom. Soaked to the skin, I dripped on his hempen door mat.

“Maybe I should just, um, drip here. Thank you so much for letting me in. It’s kind of scary out there. Was that in the weather forecast?”

“I don’t think so. Let me get you a towel. Cup of tea?”

“Both sound great.

“I’m Zack Harkonnen, by the way. You were – sorry, the wind was kinda…”

“Dee Baker. I live over on Blatchely. I wasn’t gonna make it home.”

“Yeah, no. You’re welcome to wait out the storm. I’ll get you some sweats, too.”

Zack looked like a Harkonnen. Something Scandinavian, anyway – blond and muscular, over 6’ tall, with a weathered angular face, maybe a few years older than me. His living room looked like a political party headquarters, leaflets and posters everywhere, over beautiful woodwork. Plenty of plants loomed as anonymous organic black humps in the midday storm dark.

I would never have met Adam Lacey in the course of my normal life. He was out of my league. I’d never have met Zack, either, except maybe to wave at him working in the yard as I walked past. Though all three of us lived within a few miles of each other. It was a pretty area, the shoreline east of New Haven, and gave a carefully staged impression of small town New England. But the towns weren’t actually small, in population. They were right smack in the I-95 corridor, the megalopolis of 90 million souls that stretched from Maine to Washington D.C., embracing a quarter of the population of the U.S. At some level, we lived in a nicer neighborhood of the same city as Baltimore and the Bronx, only less friendly.

Yet charmingly, storms bring out the best in us. Everyone pops out of their emotional clam shells as instant friends, to pitch in, help clear downed branches, drain drowned basements, and cope with the power outages, in the wake of a storm. You’d think a hurricane was a ticker tape parade. It’s just who we are.

Freshly toweled off, with all 5’4” of me draped in sweats sized for a tall man, I settled down with him at the kitchen table. A picture window offered a great view of tossing trees, and the electric exhilaration of a thunderstorm.

“I love watching storms,” I said. “Thank you so much for letting me in. And the tea. This is good! I haven’t had sassafras in years.” The tea was deep orange and fruity, not quite similar to an unsweetened root beer flavor. The table offered sugar and honey, but we both drank it straight.

Zack smiled at me in pleasant surprise. “You know sassafras?”

“Mm. Used to make it out of sassafras saplings when I was a kid. Did you buy it?”

“Nope. Used saplings. Who does that, anymore?”

“Us two?” I grinned. “I don’t know who else. They sold sassafras shavings at an antique store down by the reservoir when I was a kid. The store’s not there anymore. I’ve never seen it for sale anywhere else.”

“Huh! I’ve never seen it for sale.” We contemplated the hail for a few moments and savored our tea. Some of those hailstones were worthy of Oklahoma, not New England. Then. “Do we have tornado sirens here?” he wondered.

I shrugged. “With the power out?” We both shrugged. I was glad to contemplate this with an attractive stranger over a good cup of tea, rather than alone.

“So do you know wild mushrooms too, Dee Baker?”

“No. My mother took me on a hike once with an expert, when I was kid, up on Sleeping Giant, to learn edible mushrooms.” Sleeping Giant is a large ridge in the area, running alongside I-91, one of many north-south ridges left when the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago. We were sitting and talking on another such ridge. “But we took the mushrooms over to a friend of hers, and the friend was afraid to eat them. Maybe I learned to be afraid of them instead of how to tell which to eat.” I laughed. “More of a plant person.”

“That’s a shame. There should be good mushrooms up on Sleeping Giant in a couple days, after this.”

I nodded. I vaguely remembered something like that from my long-ago mushroom lesson. “So what do you do for a living, Zack? When you’re not rescuing damsels in distress. If you don’t mind my asking.” Thinking of the debris in the living room, I hoped he wouldn’t say ‘political organizer.’ I couldn’t escape just yet.

“I have an organic landscaping business,” he said.

“Wow,” I nodded, impressed. He had quite a nice house for that line of work. I honored the organic part. I’d had condos before my current house, and never felt good about the way they tossed chemicals around. Landscaping seemed to fit him.

“You?” he prompted.

“Web developer, for one of the Fortune 100 media companies down in Stamford. I telecommute.”

He frowned slightly. Maybe programming didn’t fit me as well as landscaping fit him. Maybe he knew exactly which Fortune 100 company I meant and didn’t approve.

“I love to garden, though,” I added, possibly to redeem myself with my host. “I’ve got flowers and vegetables spilling out of the house and down the driveway in season. Plenty indoors this time of year, too. Not so good with the lawn and shrubbery.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, I know that house on Blatcheley. The azaleas and lilacs look good.”

Eep. He knows where I live. Only fair. I knew where he lived, after all.

We chatted for an hour until the storm blew off to the east and deep blue skies returned. The temperature fell to near-freezing, though, and all my clothes were sopping wet. Zack drove me home, dodging a downed tree and a large bough with downed power line along the way. I was still wearing his sweats, so I invited him in to try my own fresh lemon balm tea while I changed out of his clothes. Lemon balm isn’t nearly as good as sassafras.

It would have been surly, after all that, not to accept his invitation to teach me edible mushrooms again on Sleeping Giant on Sunday. Maybe his Nordic blue-eyed good looks had something to do with it, too. But much as we seemed to have in common, and rare as those things were, I still felt he was judging me about something. At any rate, I accepted. You can never have too many friends, right?

How would I know? I worked home alone. Outside of Mangal and Dan in Stamford, I didn’t have a lot of friends. And I wasn’t sure that my boss Dan counted as a friend.

The news said the Clipper front killed nearly a hundred people in the Midwest. It blew across from the Canadian Rockies, a couple thousand miles. I don’t think I’d ever heard of an Alberta Clipper before. But the meteorologist on TV seemed to say they were a normal weather pattern, nothing new.

-o-

Dan asked me to come into Stamford early that Tuesday, to meet with him and Mangal before the usual telecommuter’s meeting. I wondered if I could have run into Adam again if I took the robo-car at the normal time instead. But I decided that road led to madness. Adam had my phone number and email address on my card. He could reach me. And I fully expected to never see him again. Adam was consigned to the daydreams-only file.

Of course, I’d just spent an hour daydreaming all the way down from New Haven.

“So what’s up, Dan?” I asked, to get the real agenda rolling. Dan and Mangal and I all had our coffee. We’d each shared at least one personal anecdote, standing around in the blue and mustard break room, suspended between the plate glass panorama and the cubicle maze. Enough with the bonding.

“Right…” said Dan. He glanced furtively right and left along the hallway by the windows. Mangal and I looked, too. Dan gazed out over the cubicles. Someone joking with a neighbor popped his head up, caught Dan’s eye, and popped back down. The neighbor popped up, and down. They looked like cartoon prairie dogs. “We’d better use my office,” Dan murmured. Mangal and I shared a look behind his back as he headed off. Good – only our eyes were laughing.

Once we were settled, Dan solemnly leaned toward us, elbows on his desk. “We have some new assignments. This… isn’t our usual.” He leafed through some notes, and handed each of us an actual physical manila folder, with paper pages in it.

We programmers tend to favor electronic files. The last time I’d handled a manila folder was employee orientation at UNC, straight out of college. The media, news, cable, sports, and infotainment behemoth wasn’t even called UNC yet back then. Intrigued, Mangal and I both immediately flipped our folders open to page one.

“Wait!” cried Dan, hand out in warning.

Mangal and I obediently closed our manila folders. I noted that mine said ‘Mangal’ on the tab, and glanced over. Mangal flipped up his tab labelled ‘Dee’ with a finger so I could see it. I decided to follow his lead and not swap them just now. I’d never seen Dan this flustered.

Our job in this infotainment conglomerate, was to build little explore-more interactives for the assorted news channel websites, build custom web pages that didn’t quite work on the standard templates, create new standard templates, code up interactive video overlays, and things like that. I don’t belittle the work – it was creative, technically leading-edge, and on tight deadlines due to the daily and weekly cycles of news broadcasts. The websites frequently won awards, and the brass seemed confident ours were the best news-program-support sites in the business. It was also a lot of fun.

But by its nature – national broadcast and cable media – it wasn’t secretive. Until today.

“You two know that you’re my most trusted section leaders,” Dan confided in us. “And you’ve got the most tech-savvy teams. I want to pull you off the news merry-go-round for a couple new ongoing features.

“Marketing says the focus groups say we’re losing viewer confidence in a couple key areas. And support says viewer queries and complaints are going through the roof. I bet you can guess what areas.”

“Weather,” I suggested.

“Closing borders,” said Mangal.

Dan nodded gravely.

“Tracking politician’s votes…” hazarded Mangal.

That got a knee-jerk reaction. “No! That’s not our job!” denied Dan. “We… don’t go there. We’re still the infotainment division, not… political news. But you can see, these are… a lot more controversial issues than we usually deal with. They require media self-censorship. There’s a lot of sensitive information here, and… Well. Our usual sixty-forty rule applies.”

“Censorship,” I echoed faintly.

“Sixty-forty rule,” Mangal echoed in disbelief.

The UNC news editorial guideline was that 60% of our presentations had to be feel-good, positive, pro-American, and 40% negative, critical, or ‘concerning.’ Balancing an entire news broadcast seemed to be accomplished by substituting dog stories for hard news. But these were single subjects. Adding gratuitous puppies into a model of an Alberta Clipper weather system wasn’t going to work. An upbeat treatment of barricading the borders was also hard to imagine. The heartwarming home life of a border attack dog?

And of course self-censorship implied lying to the public in our role as journalists. Well, UNC’s role as journalists, anyway. I was employed as a programmer and graphics designer, not a journalist, as I was sure Dan would remind me if I got difficult about this.

Dan nodded somberly, “It’s a real design challenge. But the projections show these’ll be top features. You’ll get a lot of eyeballs on your work. And I know you’re up to it. Anyway, in those folders you’ve got background research from investigative reporters… Well, you’ll have to suppress most of that. And privileged logins to the real info, and the rules about what can’t be said. Federal security and UNC policy.”

I opened my folder again, or rather Mangal’s. I glanced at a few pages, then closed it slowly. My mind moved like molasses. Some experiences seem to draw me in, like a beautiful sunset, or diving into clear water. Other experiences, like this one, seem to kick me out, as though I held that bedamned folder with mile-long waldos. I swallowed.

Mangal rose abruptly and said the exact opposite of anything I expected. “Thanks, Dan. We’ll get right on it. You can count on us!”

I rose in slow motion as Mangal enthusiastically pumped Dan’s hand across the desk.

No. We did not ordinarily shake hands with Dan. We never shook hands with Dan. Mangal never laid hands on me, either, but now he put his arm around me, and grinned, confiding, “This is going to be great.” And dragged me out of Dan’s office.

I should point out that Mangal and I started within a couple months of each other at UNC. We’d been best friends ever since. Not romantically – he had an arranged marriage set up before he came to the U.S. Though the actual bride and wedding were delayed a couple years. The point is, I trusted him, at least ten times more than I trusted our boss Dan. I trusted Mangal enough to follow his lead, smile wanly at Dan, and be dragged out before I could say anything.

What the hell?” I hissed at him once we were out of Dan’s earshot.

“You are not going to quit over this, or make a scene, or argue,” he whispered back, with a pleasant smile for anyone who might look our way. “We need to talk about this sub rosa. Wuthering Heights, 8 p.m.”

I gazed at him like he’d grown three heads. Slowly I replied, “Gulliver’s Travels, 7:52 p.m.”

“Great!” said Mangal. He flicked my folder playfully. “Better put that away before you lose it.” I started to hand it over to him, to swap back to my own assigned folder, but he waved that off. “Later. Ah, the gang’s all here for the weekly meeting.”

He avoided me the rest of the afternoon. We really weren’t going to talk about it until 7:52 p.m. Encoded and decoded with two public domain manuscripts from Project Gutenberg as code keys, no less, plus the 3-digit combos 800 and 752. I thoughtfully used the office copier on the contents of his folder as a keepsake. I saw him in the copy room soon after me doing the same.

After the big group meeting, everyone under Dan, I got together with my own team. I didn’t tell them anything beyond ‘big new feature project coming up.’ We plotted out how to wrap up our current projects.

Shelley wore a beige and fuzzy lavender ensemble, I was happy to see. We’d had our little chat by video when she was assigned to my team. Today’s outfit complemented her straight blond hair, but looked a decade too old for her. I gave her lots of positive reinforcement anyway, on the grounds that it wasn’t my navy blue. Dan was smart – and I didn’t often accuse him of that – to make me responsible for her. She was so desperately anxious to please, to be acknowledged. Now that she was my problem, I’d make a hero of her if I could. I sat and code-read her latest work with her, found two clever bits to praise her on, taught her two new tricks, and made sure she knew what to do for the next few days. “Thanks for the good work, Shelley. Keep it up!”

The rest of the guys didn’t need petting. We wrapped it up and headed home.

-o-

Wuthering Heights, eh?” I ribbed Mangal, once we got the extremely secure voice-over-Internet connection up, at 7:52 p.m., on the nose. “Do Brits actually read things like that in school?” A true international, Mangal was a Jain, born to Indian parents in South Africa, graduated from Edinburgh, and held E.U. citizenship. ‘Brit’ was an oversimplification.

“Of course. Haven’t you read it?”

“No. Ick.” I’d graduated from UVM in Vermont, where I successfully dodged all literature courses. “Back to the topic – what the hell?” I demanded.

We really weren’t in the habit of stealing secrets and having evil hacker conversations. We weren’t. We’d had too much time on our hands under a certain supervisor years before, and set this up on a lark. The political climate was really ugly then, and government spying a commonplace. So we had secure conversations sometimes. Because we could. Anyone monitoring our Internet traffic would see video files going back and forth between graphic developers. Even if anyone realized it was encoded audio, there was zero chance of them decoding it. But it was really quite innocent, I thought.

“You were about this close to quitting over this assignment,” Mangal accused.

“…True. It’s unethical.”

“Because it’s censored? It will be censored. You can’t stop that and neither can I.”

“It shouldn’t be censored.”

“…Have you looked at this stuff yet? It’s censored under the Calm Act, and the Calm Act certainly applies.”

“You know what I think of the Calm Act,” I said. But I had to concede the point. Congress had voted itself the right to control all public information to ‘preserve public order’ in the face of the weather crisis. UNC, along with all the other major U.S. ‘news’ media, had agreed to the censorship.

Mangal was the voice of reason. “We can do whatever we can do, tell the public everything we can, and not lose our jobs, or our spots in the ark.”

“…What price is too high?”

“I don’t know,” allowed Mangal. “But this isn’t it. Look, Dee – at least we have access, and finally really know what’s going on. I want that. I want to keep that. You?”

I was silent. He made sense. But I felt dirty, knowing things every American ought to have the right to know, and yet censoring it. And if I told people… Some hotheads at UNC had vanished. Questions were not encouraged.

Mangal was relentless. “The background researcher gave us access to way more than she should have, in those files. We have access to all the stories that got squelched. Dee – we have access to raw satellite feeds, Al Jazeera coverage of what’s really going on in the Middle East since the embargo –”

“And the folders, Mangal? Why the game with swapping folders?”

“So we both have access to everything. Neither of us has to pick and choose what to risk telling each other. We don’t have to tell each other anything. We just share our access. So that we can cover for each other’s sections, whenever.”

“Oh, that’ll hold up in a court of law.”

“What court of law. Dee, the background researcher who put together these packets was Deanna Jo. Have you seen Deanna Jo lately? I haven’t.”

“Christ.”

“She passed us this. And that may have been the last thing she managed to do.”

“Mangal, I am not this person.”

“The kind of person who goes along with what the company orders? No, Dee. You just look like you are.”

“Screw you!”

“Cheerful, dressed in fun fashions, trying out the latest robo-cars, dabbling in her garden. You’re the last person anyone would suspect of being subversive.”

“That’s because I’m not subversive. I’m honest to a fault. Love me love my steampunk.”

“…I absolve you,” Mangal eventually replied.

Dammit, Mangal had my number. I screwed my eyes up to stop the tearing up. “You absolve me of lying to the American people? While the government clamps down the borders, so that them that has, keeps? Takes away their freedom to travel? Refuses to tell them that the weather will kill them, that this is the end?”

“Yes,” he replied quietly. “I absolve you.”

“Are you going to absolve me of going into an ark while billions die, too?”

“I absolve you, and everyone else who seeks to survive.” His voice changed over to ribbing. “That is, assuming you ever make it into an ark. I’d lay long odds against it.”

I laughed. And I wiped off the tears. “Well, yeah, there’s that. I can always salve my conscience by dying.”

“And hey,” he joked, “that option remains open.”

“True.”

“Deal? No hopeless stands on principle? We learn all we can for ourselves, and tell the American people only what we’re allowed to.”

It’s not like we had a choice. We did websites, not live broadcasts. We couldn’t leak unapproved truth by accident. Too many people had to approve the work before it went live on the Internet. By then there were no live broadcasts anymore on the big networks, either. Close, but UNC used a five minute delay. They only said it was ‘live.’

I added, “And privately, we’re very careful what we share, beyond us.”

“Very. It won’t do anybody any good for us to get caught. Like Deanna Jo.”

“Agreed. Hey, Mangal, are you still in touch across the pond?” Meaning the Atlantic.

“Yes.” His extended family and friends were scattered across Europe, Africa, and India. The censorship was extreme, to go along with the U.S. embargo of the Eastern Hemisphere. “I assume you’re still in touch across the Pacific.”

“Sure.” I’d taken a year abroad in Tokyo. It was an international program. Aside from a few Japanese friends, I kept in touch with an Australian, a couple Chinese, and one Thai. “Don’t share Wuthering Heights with them, OK? Or Gulliver’s Travels. There are plenty more books on Project Gutenberg.”

“Agreed. Dee…”

“Yeah?”

“There have to be millions doing what we’re doing.”

“Yeah.” I drummed my fingers on my desk. “Let’s not try to hook up with them, shall we?”

“Good plan.”

That’s how I joined a resistance movement, without any ties to the Resistance. A cell of two, with no connections to other cells, is hard to crack.

-o-

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