The three EIU compatriots had fifteen minutes to review their game plan before Chief MB Charlie stepped into the room. Adams quickly cut his comm and tossed the data routes map off his retinal, unfortunately leaving Shruti’s labs exposed underneath. Lisa stayed hunched over his chair, hoping to obscure as much of it as she could.
“Those Shruti’s labs?” MB Charlie asked from across the Atrium.
For a second, the ball hung up in the air, and neither Adams nor Lisa knew who should catch it. “Yes sir,” they both said simultaneously. They turned a crimson red. Simultaneous behavior revealed misbehavior. MB Charlie heaved a big sigh. His belted waistline approached them. “I’m really sorry, kids,” he said gravely, looking down at his toes. “I’m sure she meant a lot to you. It pains me to see you watching over her like that.”
“Oh, it’s no problem sir,” Adams replied hastily, eager to play the part of supportive peer, “It’s no problem at all. In fact, it’s our… duty… to see how she – Shruti— is doing. Make sure she recovers just fine.”
MB Charlie looked slowly up at them then, for the first time a sliver of suspicion in his eye. “Update the feed, Adams.”
Adams quickly turned to follow his orders. He could feel his throat burning red. Damn, damn, damn! was all he could think.
The feed updated.
<< SHRUTI MADHNAPARTHAM DECEASED. >>
<< DATA STREAM TERMINATED. >>
All Adams could see was red. He never wanted to turn around again.
Jean Paltron gripped the edge of her desk, her knuckles a blistering white.
Micro-reports were starting to stream in about a stun incident at the EIU during Davis’s little stint inside. As Head Conglomerator, Paltron had the power to feature stories and, as a by-product, bury others, but she couldn’t block stories completely. It just wasn’t possible. Micros spread like water through cracks – if the news had already reached her, then it had already reached millions of others. It was the nature of the web. There was nothing to roll back in an instantaneous world.
Paltron rocked her weight forward. If Davis had gotten a hold of her flame – and then idiotically fired it – it could be a matter of hours before the device was traced back to Paltron, if it hadn’t already. Once that happened, the link between Paltron and MAN would become clear. And that, that was something that could never happen.
Paltron quickly scanned through the four micros on her wall, looking for anything to suggest that something more harmful than a stun may have occurred. Nothing.
She waited breathlessly, frozen in place, expecting twenty more texts to scroll into place. “PALTRON TRAITOR” “TOP SECRET DEVICE DISCOVERED” Still nothing.
Her grip on the desk finally dislodged, but her fingers stayed crimped in the same position. The skin at her knuckles failed to ease. Who, exactly, was reporting all this? The EIU had always been airtight in terms of security, and it was strictly out of bounds to disclose any information acquired as a member there. Would someone really jeopardize their career for a scoop? She sat up. Or was it possible that someone was sending in false micro-reports to try and sniff her out? Watch what kind of queries she’d run? See who’d she call? Maybe track her location?
Paltron was an uncanny strategist, but in this instance, she started to feel a touch outplayed. It felt like the sand was breaking right under her, like she might have finally met her match. Something about being physically beat into a desk by another woman had humbled her, dear we say broken her. She was beginning to feel a little paranoid.
The phone rang.
Paltron sat staring at it, this relic of the past that she entertained in her office, suddenly aware of all the people who could easily tap in and start listening. It was her only gateway to that one obsolete, disjointed world that still existed, and her only link to some of the people living in it. Baldsmith, Ros. She had zettabytes of data streaming in from across the planet; she herself could transit in seconds from one meridian to another; and yet, here she was, frozen in place by a ringing phone that had the power to cripple her.
The phone rang again.
There was absolutely no reason to pick up. If the line was being tapped, there was no conversation she could have that would not be incriminating, and that was just using her sense of the word. If she let the call go, on the other hand, Stacy could take a message. Whoever needed to leave a message would know how to leave one discreetly.
The phone rang again.
But Jean Paltron, despite her hardened exterior, had a tender core – one that had recently taken quite a bruising – and as powerful and connected a woman as Paltron was, she was, and always had been, intensely isolated. In that way, it was an unfair fight – she could not resist the will to connect, the desire to hear another human voice in her time of need.
She picked up.
“Ms. Paltron?” It was none of her three men. But it was certainly a man.
“Speaking,” she answered tartly. To those who were useless to her, it was easy to reprise the role of Jean Paltron, business head to toe.
“This is Solomon.” His voice was deep and rich.
“Do you have a last name? You must know I’m a busy woman.”
The man went quiet for a moment. “I do not have a last name. I am an Abolitionist, Ms. Paltron.”
Paltron’s lips formed an O. Was this the asshole who’d come over in Glide Transit and then angrily stalked out? Was this the guy that that lunatic woman had blabbered on about how he’d gotten himself fired? The voice did sound familiar… But she couldn’t be too sure.
“Funny, I’m not sure who you’re referring to,” she bluffed drolly.
The stern response came quickly. “Then perhaps I have the wrong number.”
“Oh wait!” she jumped in. “Solomon you say? Something about your voice dropping into a disdainful register does ring a bell. Have we had the pleasure of meeting? Maybe I just need a refresher.” She leaned back in her chair, hoping that sitting like a cool and collected person would make her feel like one too. An Abolitionist on the line, this should be interesting. Maybe she was starting to feel a bit like her old self again after all. “Like I said, I'm a busy woman, but lucky for you I do have an excellent memory. It just needs jogging every once in a while.” She had visions of getting her head pounded into her desk. She waited. “So if you don’t mind, could you jog it for me? Do I remember correctly that you’re black?”
Solomon did not respond for several minutes. As each minute stretched on, Paltron wondered if she had pushed it too far. There was no doubt he was still there. For some reason in the silence, she could not bring herself to speak – any additional word she uttered would decrease her position, acknowledge some sort of advantage he had over her, reveal a weakness, an impatience. Nor could she hang up. She cursed him in her mind – what kind of game was he playing at? Maybe black had been too much.
She picked up a pen and twiddled it between her fingers. She looked up at her stream – still nothing new. She had to get a hold of Ros, see what he’d been able to find out. She had to get off the phone with this asshat, especially if he wasn’t going to –
“I’d like to arrange a meeting with you.”
Paltron’s pen slowed to a rest. The last time someone had come through Glide to her office, they’d left with her unconscious body in tow.
“I’m not taking meetings,” Paltron replied, and hung up.