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THE DISSECTION & REASSEMBLY OF COHEN HOARD

CHAPTER 1

The hammering on my door startled me so much I dripped raspberry jam all over the table. It splatted, red and globby, like my kitchen table was the scene of a very small murder. I grumbled, running my hands through my hair and grabbing my robe off the back of the couch since I was still in boxers, and shuffled toward the door. It was too early for guests, but a tiny part of me wondered if it was Jocelyn.

She’d smiled when I said hello to her yesterday, so it wasn’t completely impossible.

I opened the door as the retreating form of the SMax rider jogged down the steps. A flat, SwiftMax Extreme cardboard envelope lay on the doormat, big black “Urgent” stamp in the corner. I glanced toward Jocelyn’s door, then bent over to pick it up, noticing as I did so that the name on the address label was wrong.

I rushed over to the stairwell. “Hey!” I called, though there was no sign of the SMax rider. “This isn’t for me! My name is Cohen! This is addressed to a Calla!” I checked the shipping label again. Calla Human? What kind of a name was that? But the address was definitely mine.

Boy, somebody really screwed up.

A door opened behind me, and I turned as Jocelyn peeked out, her red hair mussed in a bright halo around her head, makeup blurry around her blue eyes. She held a giant cup in one hand, phone pressed to her ear with the other, eyebrows raised in question.

“Oh, hey Jocelyn.” I tightened my robe and ran my hand over my hair a few times, knowing it was sticking up all over the place. “Sorry about the noise. Just got delivered something by mistake. Do you know a . . .” I looked down at the cardboard envelope in my hand to reread the name. “Calla Human?”

She frowned in confusion, then looked away nodding. “I know,” she said into her phone. “I said the same thing so many times, but she never listens to me.” She noticed me still standing there and shook her head, waved her fingers at me, and shut the door.

I stepped back into my own apartment, pushing the door closed behind me, and dropped the envelope on the table just before remembering the jam splatter. I grabbed a rag and wiped the package off the best I could, but there was a definite pink splotch in one corner.

I really didn’t have time for any of this. I’d been up till one last night working on my code for the DarkWave Demo, and I still couldn’t figure out what the problem was. It was driving me nuts. And now I was going to have to deal with correcting some schmoe’s shipping error. Well, it would have to wait. I had to get to work.

When I left a half hour later, I took my usual path through the park to get to work. The sun shone down like it owned the sky, but water from last night’s storm still dripped from the trees that arched above the sidewalk. As usual, I was the only person carrying an umbrella. I shook my head wryly. Birds chirped at me from nests attached to the underside of the broad tree leaves, ready to face the world again now that the rain had stopped for the day. A bright red bill poked out of a nest ahead of me, then the bird jumped out and set to work tidying its home, reweaving the twigs and branches that the storm had pulled apart. Saluting him, I stepped around a puddle on the path in front of me. Several joggers ran toward me, their wet running gear splashed with water, and I scooted over, my briefcase with the inconvenient envelope held out to the side.

I felt the whoosh of air before I heard it and looked back as a hydrocyclist rode straight toward me like she was in a race. Before I had time to react, she swerved past, wheels slicing through the puddle in the path without even slowing down. Water splashed across my pants, destroying the crease I had ironed in them and cascading onto my shoes.

“Thanks a lot!” I called after her as she turned and headed toward a river the rain had carved into the landscape. Without stopping, she jumped off the bike and ran straight through the thigh-high water, holding her bike over her head. Hydrocyclists. Sure, they could go some places cars couldn’t, but they were just so annoying. I hurried toward the GridLox building, trying to ignore the squishy, sucking sound of my shoes on the sidewalk.

I had only just gotten settled at my desk when Mr. Steenrod came by.

“There he is,” he said, patting my cubicle wall. “How’s the weather out there, Mr. Hoard?”

“Dry and getting dryer, Mr. Steenrod!” I said with a smile. It was a silly question. Ever since they broke the weather twenty years ago, that question had been unnecessary. Daytime? Here in Portland it was sunny and warm. Nighttime? Rainy. Well, no, not just rainy. More like torrential. Like the earth was a marble sprayed off with a hose, rinsing away anything that wasn’t holding on tight enough. People still asked about the weather though, an old habit that never seemed to rinse away.

“How’s the demo coming?” Steenrod asked. “Got it finished yet?”

“Still working out that bug. But don’t worry. It’ll be ready for Friday. I promise.”

It had to be. We were running out of time. Automated Safety features (affectionately called Auto Save) had revolutionized driving for a large part of the population, but there was still plenty of room for improvement. While we were still a few years away from truly driverless cars, the advanced collision avoidance technology of Auto Save had cut traffic accidents in half. DarkWave’s purpose was to fill in the gaps by connecting all the vehicles, traffic lights, and other smart traffic signals into a sort of collective intelligence. DarkWave’s AI functioned as the central brain, coordinating all the moving parts so that traffic ran fluidly, more safely, more coherently.

Testing for the DarkWave product had gone as planned. My job was simple: create a demo to show what the AI could do, something that would wow the investors and excite the dealers. It should have been so easy. But there was a bug in the demo code that kept rearing its head when I least expected it. Every so often, for no apparent reason, the whole thing would crash and reset the system. It made no sense, and it was driving me crazy. But I’d figure it out. I always did.

“You sure it’ll be ready?” Steenrod brushed the cubicle wall fabric. “If we need to postpone again, we can, and I’d rather know it now than at the last possible second.”

I held in a sigh. It was too late to postpone. It was Monday. The launch was this Friday. But Mr. Steenrod had been tiptoeing around the whole thing for months. Besides the fact that DarkWave was a huge, powerful, lifesaving tool, it was also GridLox’s first new product since Steenrod’s wife passed away after a short battle with cancer two years ago. She’d been the publicity manager, and not only had he fallen apart when she died, but GridLox nearly had as well. DarkWave was a crucial step in keeping the company afloat, and we all knew it. My guess was that Steenrod had been dragging his feet because he just didn’t want to move forward without her.

“No, no. It’ll be fine,” I insisted. “Even if I have to scrap the whole demo and start over, I can. We’ll be ready.” There wasn’t time to start over, but it didn’t matter because I was going to figure this out—before lunchtime today, if all went as planned—and then we could go on with our lives.

Steenrod smiled and shook his head doubtfully, then he took me by the shoulder and stared deeply into my eyes. Like he was looking for something. I gulped and tried to maintain eye contact, but the awkwardness made my eyes sting, and I started blinking like he was spitting in my eye, not staring into it. He finally let go and gave my shoulder a pat, then wandered off to pour his insecurities into someone else’s cubicle.

I exhaled and dropped into my chair. Mr. Steenrod was a great boss. Definitely worth the idiosyncrasies. But they were multiplying, and I was getting worse at this new morning eye contact ritual, not better.

The map of the traffic lights downtown hung from my cubicle wall next to an actual traffic light I used for testing. My desk was tidy except for the stack of sticky notes, which Steve had obviously ransacked again. I took a deep breath, content in the predictability of my life, and opened my briefcase.

The SMax envelope lay on top, almost completely eclipsing all of the other essential items I carried with me everywhere I went. I exhaled and grabbed a pen, scribbling “not at this address” across the label.

Guilt poked at me. The contents must be important for someone to Extreme ship, and this was surely going to cause a delay, but I didn’t have time to do more. I wove my way through the cubicles of the GridLox building, then slid the envelope into the SMax dropbox in the receptionist’s office. They’d recently updated all of their dropboxes to the fancy model with the sensor, so that as soon as someone dropped in a package, a notification went out. The nearest rider should be there to pick it up in the next twenty minutes. It would have to do.

Sheila looked up, noticing me.

“Good morning, Cohen.” Her smile flickered on and off, like she couldn’t decide which expression to choose. She tucked her hair behind her ear. “Um . . . how was your weekend?”

“Same old, same old,” I said without stopping. “Lots to do—have a great day.” I buzzed past her desk on my way out, then rushed back to my cubicle. If I was going to find that bug, I had no time for chit chat. It was time for a stakeout.

I grabbed a big bag of pretzels and a large bottle of water from my mini fridge and parked myself in front of my monitor. Then I turned on the demo and just let it run. And I watched it. And waited. And watched some more. I was afraid if I looked away, I would miss it. So far, I hadn’t been able to replicate the set of circumstances that shut everything down. It would run perfectly for hours, or even days, and then crash out of the blue.

But this time I would not miss it. I had diagnostics running in the background and a bag of pretzels in my hand: I was ready for whatever this code could throw at me.

I was still staring at the screen at six o’clock when most of my coworkers had gone home. My eyes burned and my back ached. I would pull an all-nighter if that’s what it took, but first I needed a bathroom break, and there wasn’t anyone left to sit watch in my place.

I pointed at all my monitors in the most commanding way I knew how. “Don’t. Do. Anything.” I tiptoed away, looking back at the screens every millisecond or so, but the demo kept plugging along, running just as it should. I rounded the corner toward Steve’s cubicle and heard the whirring of a computer fan kick on behind me.

“No, no, no, no!” I darted back to my desk to find the demo display window frozen, completely unresponsive, the terminal window reading: LookupError: Vehicle with id XRF000435 does not exist.

“Ah HA! I caught you! You really were waiting until I wasn’t looking, weren’t you?”

I scanned the rest of the diagnostics for anything that stuck out, but nothing did. Still, now I had a lead, which meant I could go home and work from there. I saved everything and then sent it to print so I could review it at home even if the internet went out during the torrent tonight. Steve appeared while I waited for my reports to inch their way out of the printer and rolled his eyes. Everyone always made fun of me, but they simply didn’t understand how helpful reviewing hard copies could be.

Half an hour later my footsteps echoed in the stairwell as I climbed toward my apartment on the fourth floor. I whistled tunelessly, listening to the sound bounce around the concrete and metal enclosure. I’d picked a flower on my way home and now I laid it on Jocelyn’s doormat. As I did so, I noticed my own, and a shipping envelope lying on top of it. I marched over and as I neared, I noticed the pink splotch in the corner and my own scribbled note.

The envelope for Calla Human was back.