Deb Bollinger has no time for corporate training.
Her company’s top engineer at just twenty-seven, Deb has blocked off her day for the one project she truly cares about: the launch of Carebnb, an app that finds spare beds for the homeless. When she’s told all employees must drop everything for some busywork exercise called Blackquest 40, it’s an easy no.
Trouble is, her bosses aren’t really asking.
Blackquest 40 is the mother of all corporate trainings. A near-impossible project to be completed in forty straight hours. No phones. No internet. Sleeping on cots. Nobody in, nobody out. Deb finds the whole setup creepy and authoritarian. When a Carebnb issue necessitates her leaving the office, she heads for the door. What’s the worst that could happen?
Armed commandos, HVAC-duct chases, a catastrophic master plan that gets darker by the hour — Blackquest 40 is a fresh take on the Die Hard formula, layering smart-drones and a modern heroine onto the classic action tale.
I am in the middle of solving homelessness when my boss raps his knuckles on my cubicle border. I know it’s Paul—my eyes stay on the computer monitor, what with an intractable social ill hanging in the balance—by the timid tap…tap-tap pattern. Also the smell. Paul eats McDonald’s every morning for breakfast. He’s a Sausage McGriddle man.
“Deb, we’re heading up to the meeting—”
“Busy.” I squint around the San Francisco street map on-screen, mousing over a blinking dot labeled Wanda. She isn’t moving. None of them are moving.
Paul sighs. “We’re all busy. But it’s a Company-All, so if you—”
“Is it a Susan meeting?”
“No. It’s the kickoff for Blackquest 40.”
“Means nothing to me.” I click Wanda. Why aren’t they moving? Database problem?
Paul says the meeting invite should have explained everything. Blackquest 40 is a training exercise, mandatory for every employee in the company.
I look up and see that, indeed, he has the whole team in tow. Jared in his My Code Can’t Fix Your Stupid trucker hat. Minosh fingering his spiral-bound notebook, peeking at a clock. They are watching me—all 5’2” if you count the platinum spikes, and a decade younger than them—like zoo visitors wondering if the glass is thick enough around this freak-colored poison frog.
“Susan hired me,” I say, invoking our rockstar CEO again. “Susan said I don’t have to participate in anything I don’t believe in.”
“Look, this project—”
“Is corporate training. High on my list of things to not believe in.”
With that, I pop over to the log file, which confirms my worst fear: the Carebnb database isn’t refreshing. The last GPS coordinates are from eight minutes ago, meaning Wanda and every other unhoused person on that map is misplaced.
The timing is brutal. Today is my launch, the day I am supposed to start demonstrating to all the venture capitalists not funding my side project that a little technology plus basic human decency can equal disruptive positive change.
Across the city, 137 unhoused San Franciscans are wearing 137 smart wristbands, produced at great expense by a local micro-manufacture co-op, in the hopes of connecting with a beta host. I signed up 344 hosts, but that number is dicey because many I bullied into joining. Some will have uninstalled the Carebnb app, not anticipating that I’ll soon be combing my list for chicken-outs and visiting their apartments to measure, then post on social media, just how many square feet of covered living space they waste nightly.
My brain races for solutions, but Paul’s voice and eau de McGriddle distract me. He’s explaining that Susan is out of pocket tying up loose ends in Davos, that Carter Kotanchek has the ball until—
“Okay Paul, honestly?” I click over to the T server, the probable source of my issue. “There is no combination of words or faux-words you can say that will get me off this workstation.”
“You’re the principal software architect, Deb,” he says. “We need you. I’m still in the dark myself, but I’m hearing Blackquest 40 is enormous.”
My mouth twists. “Getting colder.”
Paul hates managing me. I’m sure he goes home every night to Li Wei, his former-secretary-now-wife, and curses Susan for poaching me away from Google.
Now, as his eyes roam my workspace—hemp satchel, bin of droid Hot Wheels, Polarity of the Universe toggle currently set to Amoral, my toes in their sandals (he has a pervy thing for my feet)—his face drops another shade closer to dough.
He looks at my screen. “How much time are you spending on Carebnb?”
“Twenty-five percent, just like my contract says.” I manage to keep a straight face.
It’s a required Company-All. You don’t badge in, you lose network privileges. It would set you back.”
“You can void that.”
“I can.” Paul taps his ample jowls, thoughtfully paternal. “But I won’t.”
I’ve been working throughout our exchange, deciphering error messages, rebooting, tweaking this and that…nothing is helping.
I grit my teeth. Resetting my network privileges would be a big, sticky wad of red tape.
“Fine,” I say, “I’ll do the meeting. But I am still not participating in this Blockquest deal.”
“Whatever.” I can bring my laptop and troubleshoot from the conference room. “Our queue is about ten miles long—whose bright idea was some lame time-suck training?”
Paul grimaces. “Carter is driving it.”
Carter Kotanchek, our chief financial officer, is warring with Paul about the makeup of the Codewise Solutions workforce. Paul favors programmers in keeping with our reputation as the leading machine-learning and optimization company on the planet.
Carter wants more salespeople and has a knack for finding third-party vendors who sport the same Gatsby slickback he does. Inexplicably, Carter is winning.
The engineers behind Paul knock in place like pens in a mug, waiting.
I flop my wrist toward the elevators. “Go, go—I’ll catch up. Two minutes.”
They go. Paul lowers his gaze in a final I know you will choose wisely appeal.
I focus on my screen with a wonderfully McGriddle-free breath, then try refreshing the database.
DENIED: CONNECTIVITY ERROR 612.
I rejigger a script and try again.
DENIED: CONNECTIVITY ERROR 612.
Same error every time.
This is infuriating. Have I been found out? I never officially informed Paul about routing Carebnb’s unhoused-person GPS data through T, Codewise’s least busy server. Did he shut me down without telling me? Coincidentally on my most important day of the year?
No way. Paul would write a huffy email or file a ticket. He won’t refill our departmental stash of teabags without paperwork.
My calendar bleeps. YOU HAVE NOT BADGED INTO BLACKQUEST 40 KICKOFF (ORGANIZER: CARTER K.); NETWORK PRIVILEGES WILL RESET IN 4 MINUTES.
I stand and grab my laptop, then remember it doesn’t have the software to access the T server. I won’t be able to troubleshoot during the meeting after all. I’ll be forced to sit there and eat an hour’s worth of corporate mumbo-jumbo.
“Raven!” I call over my shoulder.
My trusty solar-powered quadcopter perks up. She hums around to my sightline, her underside dome blipping green to indicate her attention.
“Attend meeting in conference room 6-A. Badge in. Watch, back row. Record.”
Raven processes each command using natural language algorithms I wrote in grad school, then lowers her claw—repurposed off a junked arcade game—to accept my keycard.
As the drone whispers up the hall, I feel a twinge of unease. She’s attended meetings in my stead before but never on a different floor. She will need to push a button, read a floor indicator, possibly accommodate human riders…logic I have given her but not thoroughly stress-tested. It’s asking a lot.
I work another five minutes without success.
Air blasts through my nostrils.
I need eyes on a live wristband.
I grab the phone and dial Cecil, my go-to trial user. Cecil has known me since I was a baby, when Mom would push me around in her cart, snuggled in among dumpster scraps and Styrofoam peanuts. Cecil walked me through the roughest part of the city every day of second grade, and taught me the nutcracker choke after a kid pushed a shiv through my septum in fifth.
“Lil Deb, yo,” he answers in a deep baritone.
“Cec! Hey Cec, I’m seeing weirdness on my end and I need to know if you—”
“How’s your mom?”
“Oh, she’s cool, I talked to the orderlies and—”
“They’re keeping her meds straight?”
“No no, yeah, it’s all good,” I say—Cecil is so unfailingly polite you have to move him along sometimes—“listen, what are you seeing with Carebnb? Is your wristband working?”
“Map of available host beds showing up?”
“How many hosts in range? My database wonked and I gotta know if the problem is local or if peer-to-peer transfers are broken too.”
A guttural breath over the line. “English, Deb. Regular English please.”
I grip the keyboard tray, slow myself down. “Could we possibly meet? I think I have to see the wristband myself to diagnose this. Sorry, I hate to inconvenience you.”
“I’m homeless. Where else I gotta go.”
“Right. How about our usual spot, say twenty minutes?”
Before he can respond, the call drops. Bzzzzzzzzzz.
I clench my jaw and redial.
I stand and waggle my phone outside my cube, I walk to the window, I glare at the Verizon logo and telepathically threaten to hack their transceivers to mush if they don’t find me a signal.
I plunk back down. I’m contemplating flipping my Polarity of the Universe toggle to Evil when a tinny sound announces the presence of a new window on my monitor: Raven’s livestream.
She made it up to the Blackquest kickoff meeting. Atta girl. I resize the window to span my entire screen and watch as the big conference room comes into focus.
The Company-All is underway. Carter Kotanchek stands at the podium in a dapper summer-weight suit. Raven’s camera won’t win any TechCrunch awards, but Carter’s teeth still gleam from the middle of a plastic grin.
“Like y’t’meet Jim Dawson,” he says, introducing a stone-faced man in chunky glasses. “Jim here runs Elite Development, the company that will be facilitating Blackquest 40. Guys are doing phenomenal stuff in a new space called Extreme Readiness. Helping organizations build capability to complete projects of extreme complexity, requiring extreme teamwork, on extreme deadlines. So far they’ve been working with high-leverage government agencies, paramilitary, et cetera. We, ladies and gents, are fortunate enough to be corporate client number one.”
Dawson, in a bland accent—Ohio? Indiana?—thanks Carter and says he’s pleased to be here today. Excited for our shared journey.
Gag. So not participating.
As my focus returns to Carebnb, I groan at the ceiling. I need to test a wristband, but if I can’t meet Cecil…hmm. I have a few spares lying around, but none are initialized.
I’m figuring how long initialization would take—and how true a read I’d get from a wristband not in the field—when I hear something that stops me cold.
“…campus quarantine and data blockade will remain in place for the duration of Blackquest 40. If you absolutely require outside contact, in case of emergency or vital family obligation, a protocol exists…”
Wait, data blockade? I rewind Raven’s feed and replay the last fifteen seconds. Elite Development, in the name of “improved focus and personal efficiency,” is collecting every cellphone in the building and blocking all inbound-outbound internet traffic.
I feel slight queasiness at the authoritarianism of the whole setup, but mostly relief. Because now I get it. These jerks shut down T. They killed my call. Probably they’re using some military-grade antenna to zap cellular signals, and a simple software block on the servers.
And that won’t stop me.
Excerpt from Blackquest 40 by Jeff Bond. Copyright © 2019 by Bond. Reproduced with permission from Bond. All rights reserved.
Jeff Bond is a Kansas native and graduate of Yale University. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two daughters, and belongs to the International Thriller Writers association.