Chapter 10 – Cakewalk Tango (Part I)

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“The dean isn’t in this morning,” the woman behind the receptionist’s desk said, her voice a dead-monotone matter-of-fact. After a few clicks of her mouse she shook her head. “He didn’t leave me any instructions for you personally, either. I could convey him a message for you, when he returns, if you’d like.”

Elaine had seen her before. She was a middle-aged woman with a conservative haircut wearing a green silk outfit that made her look a little more dressed-up than she needed to be. Everything about the Dean of Engineering’s office seemed formal—the windows, desk, and chairs all focused attention on the secretary in the center, whose emerald green dress made her feel like a jeweled fitting amidst the mahogany furniture. From her accent, and previous encounters, Elaine surmised that she was an Arizona native. A faded, white line on her right ring-finger suggested she’d once worn a band there. Sheila Blake, read the nameplate on her desk.

“Do you know when the dean will be back today?” Elaine asked.

“He does have a meeting with the department heads at one,” she said. “Those generally only last about forty-five minutes, so if you came back just before two, you might catch up with him then.”

“I’ll do that,” Elaine said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the receptionist said.

When she passed back out of the Engineering building, Elaine found herself once again in the cold dry of the desert air, embraced in the warm sunlight. It sparked a notable difference from the frigid air-conditioned indoors that lacked the sunlight; but inside also didn’t smell prominently of dust and car exhaust.

She’d cleared her entire day’s schedule for assisting Zane’s DarkNet team with a “Black Ops” job today (basically a mid-term mission theARGgroups had to commit forces to in order to earn points) and she’d hoped that she could update the dean on her progress before making her way to mission control. His absence from the office puzzled her. Elaine reached into her backpack to withdraw two sticks of pocky and munched them as she walked through a slab of sunlight towards the Computing Commons. Two students gestured and spoke her name as she passed, she acknowledged them with a nod—members of Zane’sARGteam, Russell Murphy and Susan Pilgrim—they waved their burner crypto-phones at her in a show of solidarity. She’d be seeing them shortly.

Zane’s communiqué about theARGblack ops mission had suggested that it would begin early in the day and that the organizers had permitted outside help. As a result, he tapped her for expert assistance and asked if the team could use her lab as a base of operations. He left her an invitation on her calendar by dropping an e-mail with the tag on it. The event might run all day, he’d mentioned, so she’d have to duck out sometime around 2 p.m. in order to hook up with the dean. She’d just have to let Zane know.

She shouldered the double door of the Computing Commons open, buried her nose in the display of the Enoch, and headed to her lab on autopilot. Her feelers set out the day before into the hacker community had resulted in some interesting speculation as to the nature of the improbability engine and how it might have affected the historical and present test scores of the students the dean hired. Also, the residual splash that Frog received when they erased the spellcode from Brad Wright and friends had given her some extra data in regards to the phenomenon that she thought could be used to detect it in situ.

Elaine’s mental autopilot dumped her to manual and hit the brakes when a shadow occluded the lights and a body blocked her path.

“You’re up early.”

A wild Zach Rooke appears!

The voice and hulking shape belonged to none other than Zach “the Attack” Rooke—close friend of her older brother and a constant source of noise in her social equation. For some reason he’d decided it was up to him to become her brother’s proxy in absentia. Her brother had graduated from ASU four years earlier and now worked at the Large Hadron Collider preparing the world’s destruction by way of black hole or Black Mesa—whichever conceivably could come first.

“I have work to do,” Elaine said without looking up. “Unless, of course, you’re here to tell me that the campus police have raided my lab again.”

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