too many words by laura lemay

The Deadline

“No. I can’t do it.” Susan shook her head violently, rising half out of her chair, trying once again to get her point across to the three executives at the other end of the table. “Ask me to do something easy. Ask me to part the Red Sea. Ask me to get blood from a stone.” Her voice rose in volume and in pitch as she worked up to a good rant. “Ask me to bring people back from the dead. Anything. But I just can’t get you sixty engineers in three weeks. It Just. Can’t. Be. Done.”

Lewis Levant, CEO of InterMob Media, age 26, dressed in a light grey Armani suit, and with a net worth of over $1.2 billion dollars in recently minted company stock, steepled his fingers and pursed his lips disapprovingly. The very blonde marketing VP to his right, equally young and equally well dressed, gazed at him adoringly. The Chief Financial Officer on the left, mid-fifties, less well-dressed, scribbled spirals on a pad as if the whole conversation bored him. Lewis waited several moments, as if he was letting Susan’s protests settle around him like dust onto the carpet.

“When I hired you to run this division, Susan,” he finally said, “it was my understanding that you had significant recruiting connections in the Valley. Are you telling me,” there was a significant pause — Lewis knew all too well the value of the significant pause — “that your skills are not up to this challenge?”

Susan reddened and thought she might press her fingernails right through her palms. “I am telling you, Lewis,” she said, carefully, slowly, repeating the same words for the umpteenth time and wondering if her CEO was excessively stubborn or just plain stupid, “that no one, not even the king of recruiters, can find sixty qualified programmers in this valley in three weeks. I can staff you a department. I can find you programmers. But it will take TIME. When you hired me you told me I had six months. Now you move up that schedule to three weeks? Three weeks doesn’t begin to cover it.”

Lewis stood up and put his knuckles down on the conference table, a habit that made him look somewhat like an over-groomed gorilla. “Let me emphasize to you, once again, how important this project is to InterMob.” he said. Susan groaned inwardly. Oh God, not again. “UniMicro has announced a video server project. Other companies are about to announce video server projects. I believe that if we have a video server project out before them we can successfully leverage our reputation and our user base into social media, and from that we can achieve recurring revenue. We *like* recurring revenue, don’t we Audrey?” He turned to the woman next to him, who grinned and blushed. “Yes we do, Mr. Levant!” she chimed in brightly. Susan wanted to twist her head right off her skinny little neck.

“With a successful video server project I believe we can compete on the level of a UniMicro or an NOL. I believe that with this project we can catch the wave, cross the chasm, and enter the tornado. I believe we must step outside our value network to avoid the innovator’s dilemma.” He paused, significantly, as if to make sure the buzzwords had sunk in. I read best-selling business books, was the impression Lewis wanted to give. I don’t understand any of them, was the impression Susan got. “But in order to do that, we need to start now, or we will miss this window. And our shareholders don’t appreciate missed windows.”

Obviously making the same point yet again wasn’t the right tactic. So Susan tried another one. “I understand that this project is very important to the company,” she began. “And I hope I’ve impressed upon you that getting these programmers this quickly will be exceedingly difficult.” Lewis opened his mouth to interject again, but Susan stormed ahead before he had a chance. “–but I have a suggestion. While we’re interviewing for the full-time staff, we hire contractors to get the project off the ground.”

“Contractors, there’s an idea.” Lewis mused. “InterMob has had very good luck with contract web designers.”

Susan smiled wanly. InterMob’s “good luck” with web designers, of course, meant hiring recent liberal arts grads who had read a couple books about web design, paying them next to nothing, giving them free pizza and nerf toys and convincing them it was a Cool Working Environment. It meant working them 100 hours a week and then firing them on a whim when they started to burn out. Programmers, with a lot more core skill and much more scarce, wouldn’t tolerate that sort of nonsense.

“Contractors will, unfortunately, be significantly more expensive than staff,” Susan said. “*Significantly* more expensive.” She emphasized. At the mention of money Bob, the CFO, suddenly woke up and put down his pen. They were talking money. Money was his territory.

“The budget we’ve given you for this division is already quite generous.” the older man said, frowning, pulling a printout of a spreadsheet out of a folder and gearing up for an argument. “The budget for your division already exceeds our current operating capital –“

“But contractors will get us off the ground quickly?” Lewis asked. Susan nodded.

“Do what you have to, then.” Lewis said. “You have InterMob carte blanche.”

Bob stared agog at what Lewis had just said, and then stared down at his now useless spreadsheet as if it would get up and crawl away. “Lewis, I must protest,” he stammered. “This will totally throw off my projections, all the earnings forecasts — the stock analysts –“

“Shut up, Bob,” said Lewis, in his typical style. “Do what you have to.” he repeated to Susan. “I need the video server project up and running in three weeks.”

* * * *

Susan was finally released from her meeting, and trudged back over to her division in building D. The building was mostly empty, its cubicles still being assembled, the network wiring still being strung, for the project she would run and the staff she would hire. The staff she had to hire in three weeks.

She had been working through her usual headhunter contacts since she had arrived at InterMob, used her usual methods of finding programmer recruits. It had been working reasonably well. But there wasn’t any time for “reasonably well” any more. It was time to call in the really big guns.

A quick glance at her contact list for the phone number, and she dialed the direct line of Martin Amherst, of Martin Amherst and Associates, Recruiters.

“This is Martin,” came the venerable voice at the other line.

“Martin, Susan Foster,” Susan introduced herself.

“Susan!” Martin replied warmly. “It’s good to hear from you! How are things?”

“Not too bad,” Susan said.

“How is your father?” he asked.

“Oh, fine, fine.” Susan’s father had been an executive at Hewlett Packard for many years, and now advised top venture capitalists on technical strategy. He played golf with Martin. It was her father’s friendship with Martin that allowed her access to his direct line. No one had access to Martin’s direct line.

“So what can I do for you this morning, my dear?”

“I need help. Big help. You know I’m running this new division at InterMob–” she began.

“Yes, your father mentioned that. Congratulations.”

“Well, I have kind of a recruiting problem.”

“I can help you with a recruiting problem!” Martin laughed. “What sort of recruiting problem is this?

“I need to come up with sixty programmers in three weeks.”

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. “Hello?” Susan asked, wondering if the line had gone dead.

“Good God, Susan,” Martin said in a long exhalation of breath. “Why didn’t they just ask you to move the mountains into the bay with a spoon.”

“Would have been easier, huh.” Susan said ruefully. “But its not all bad. They’ll let me bring in contractors while I hire full-time people, and I have a big budget on this. Big. But I need to move really quickly. I need lots and lots of contractors. Any ideas?”

Another pause, and a riffling noise, like paper being flipped through. Martin was an old-fashioned kind of guy; whereas all the new young recruiters had moved their contact databases onto computers and tiny sleek handheld toys, Martin still made do with a huge row of well-thumbed circular rolodexes. Between the rolodexes, his seemingly bottomless memory for people and faces and connections, and the thirty years he had spent in the Valley recruiting for the biggest and best of companies, Martin had no problem keeping up. No problem whatsoever. He was the uber-headhunter.

“About how big was that budget, you said?” he asked.

“BIG big,” Susan emphasized.

“Money-is-no-object big?”

“I’d put it right up there.”

“Hmmm.” Martin mused. “InterMob’s stock is up some 800% from the IPO, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know you played the market, Marty. Yeah, we’re doing well.”

“Congratulations,” Martin said. Susan, as an InterMob employee, had her own share of stock options and would of course benefit from the stock price.

“Don’t congratulate me yet,” Susan said. “I don’t vest for three years. A lot could happen in three years.”

“True, true,” Martin said. Martin took his commissions in cash and stock. No options; actual shares of stock. Given his Mercedes, his huge house in Woodside and the summer house in the Bahamas, this had served him well over the years. “I believe I know someone who might be able to help you with your problem.”

“Great!” Susan grabbed a pad of post-it notes. “Hit me.”

“His name’s Rafael St. John.” He rattled off a phone number. “He runs a very special agency for engineering emergencies just like yours.” He paused to let her write it down. “He can supply good programmers, lots of them.”

Yes! Susan thought, scribbling madly. Just what she needed. Contractors would get the job done, but leave her time to be able to hire full-time employees. This would work just fine.

“Now, I should warn you, Susan, that Rafael runs a really unique shop. He will have some unusual requests.”

“Unique?” Susan echoed. “Unique in what way?”

“I should let Rafael explain that to you,” Martin said, coyly. “But I can assure you — those clients I have referred Rafael to have had nothing but praise for his programmers and for his professionalism.”

* * * *

Rafael’s office was in a small building in a town called Colma, just south of San Francisco and off of Interstate 280. It was a short trip for Susan from the InterMob offices in Menlo Park; a quick and scenic drive over the mountains for lunch.

Rafael was an older gentleman, well-groomed, with a slight european accent she could not place. He wore the same expensive italian suits that Lewis Levant had custom made but still managed to look uncomfortable in. Rafael looked as if he had been tailored from birth.

They went to lunch at a small Italian restaurant where Rafael knew the owner, and discussed her little recruiting problem over excellent hand-made ravioli and a bottle of Sangiovese. Normally she would not drink in the middle of the day, but with Rafael, somehow it seemed appropriate.

Rafael had seemingly solved her problems even before the main course arrived. He could supply her with the programmers she needed, with the skills she needed. He explained to her that his programmers were already even organized into teams, and there would be team leaders she and her managers could work directly with on specific portions of the project. She could barely believe her luck.

But then he quoted her the rate, per programmer, for that six month contract, and she turned white. “That much?” she stuttered. Bob the CFO would string her guts up in the courtyard flagpole for that.

“Allow me to explain,” Rafael said, placing his hand gently over hers, a gesture that would have seemed patronizing in any other man but totally natural in him. “My programmers are amongst the most dedicated in the Valley. They live for the art of programming, and they will live and breathe your project for the time that they are working on it. They do not keep apartments, and they do not have personal lives outside of work. They cost this much because they work in shifts and sleep onsite. You are actually getting at least two to three normal programmers for one of mine, well-organized, well-trained, working around the clock. You are getting a ruthless programming machine from me for that price.”

Susan did some math in her head. Even if his programmers weren’t as good as he said he was, just having those bodies around for that much time meant a lot of work would get done. Lewis could make serious headway on the video project, and Susan could get plenty of time to staff the project for real. She could probably make the case for the cost. It was a big risk. A really big risk. But Lewis liked big risks. It could possibly work.

“In return for their dedication, however, we will need dormitory quarters made available for the team,” Rafael added. “That will be an additional cost you must incur if you agree to take us on.”

Sleeping and showering facilities were not a problem at InterMob; they already did that for the Web designers. Adding a few more to building D as it was being constructed would mean only a slight incremental cost. Susan nodded. “Will I need to feed them, too?”

“No,” Rafael said. “That we take care of ourselves.”

“Not even soda?” Susan joked. Free soda was one of the mainstay benefits of Valley programmers. If you didn’t have free soda available, you almost weren’t considered a real company. Rafael smiled. “We will supply all nourishment for the programmers.”

“This isn’t some kind of cult, is it?” Susan abruptly asked. “You haven’t brainwashed these guys or anything, have you?”

Rafael exploded into laughter. Customers at adjoining tables stared. “I assure you, all my programmers work for me of their own free will. No cultism involved.”

“Then how do you get programmers to work for you, with such strict controls on their lives?” she asked. “The programmers I’ve known have always been much more free spirited than that.”

“Many of them are,” Rafael explained. “But there is a certain class that appreciates the sort of working environment we can give them. We take away the difficulties of life so they can concentrate on what they love the most: the code. Many of them appreciate that. And a few years of consulting with me and they can retire comfortably. There’s none of the risk of a startup, where maybe they’ll strike it rich or maybe they’ll be working this hard for nothing — they WILL be able to retire off the pay they make working for me. Its not an uncompelling arrangement.”

Susan shook her head. She couldn’t believe how easy this was going to be. “Is there anything else?” she asked.

“Yes,” Rafael said, picking up his wine glass and taking a short sip. “The most important requirement of all. We are signing up for a six month contract. That six month contract is firm.”

Susan waited for the actual problem to be mentioned. “I’m sorry?” she asked when Rafael didn’t continue.

“I mean that we can only work for six months. After that time the contract is over. Irregardless of whether your project is complete, whether you have the money to retain us for longer, or whether you think we are the best programmers you have ever met — the contract is over. My programmers will leave before noon on the final day of the six months, and you may not re-contract with us for another year.”

Susan blinked. What was this arbitrary six month deadline thing? Just six months and that was it? How bizarre. “Why the six months?” she asked.

“You could call it a requirement of byzantine government regulations,” Rafael said, waving his hand dismissively. “It would be too difficult to explain. At any rate, that requirement is absolutely non-negotiable. If you cannot acquiesce to that, I’m afraid we cannot come to an agreement.”

Six months. Susan puzzled. The project was supposed to be finished as soon as possible. But six months of killer programmers, working around the clock — and six months of time in which she could hire full-timers. If the project wasn’t done in six months she would possibly have enough staff engineers around to pick up the slack. But if not — at the end of six months things could seriously fall apart without Rafael’s programmers. Another big risk. A big expensive risk for the company. But a major coup if it worked. If it worked Lewis would be all over her.

“I can have my building done in a week,” she said. “How soon can your programmers move in?”

* * * *

She was right, Bob the CFO did go utterly postal when she told him how much Rafael’s programmers would cost. But she was also right about how Lewis reacted when she proposed hiring Rafael’s programmers in the right terms. Lewis had grabbed the bait; the ability to get off the ground this quickly was too tempting. In fact, after talking to Rafael personally Lewis came down so much in favor of the plan that he decided it was his idea in the first place. Susan, being the good executive that she was, allowed him this belief.

The programmers had arrived on schedule in two big unmarked busses. They looked like any other programmers in the Valley, running the gamut from large unkempt bearded hippies to younger men of Indian descent in cleanly pressed Gap khakis. There was even a woman or two.

Rafael arrived with them to finalize the deal, to tour the building, and to make sure his programmers got settled. Susan introduced him to Stewart, her technical architect and operations manager, the man who would be the actual director for the project. Susan had worked with Stewart in many previous companies and knew he would ensure that the group stayed on schedule and to update her regularly. Stewart was her field general and she trusted him.

“Well, what do you think?” Susan entered Stewart’s office a few hours after Rafael had departed, shutting the door behind her. Stewart was practically bouncing in his chair with excitement.

“I was just sending you email with the new schedule,” he said. “These guys are really hot. I put the architecture up on the white board and the project leads just took it and ran. I didn’t even have to explain much of it at all — just a few of the more complicated protocols and connections between components, and they all grasped it immediately. Then they broke down all the tasks, set milestones for themselves based on which team was better at each particular thing — I don’t think I’ve ever worked with guys this good.”

“So you think we can make the deadlines Lewis has set for the project? You think this team can get us significantly underway in six months?”

“I think we may be able to *finish* the project in six months.” Stewart’s excitement was contagious. Maybe this was going to work, Susan thought. Maybe they could pull it all off.

They had six months to find out.

* * * *

Nearly six months later, Susan was getting increasingly nervous. The first few months had been spectacular. Code flowed like wine. The status reports from Stewart were good — the programmers were making astonishing progress, far more than would have been expected, and with hardly any complaint. But as the months progressed the reports were less positive; Stewart admitted that things were not progressing as well as he’d like given how much Lewis interfered and how often he changed the scope of the project. Additionally neither Susan nor Stewart had been doing as well as she had hoped in hiring on full-time staff. Part of the problem was Bob — after losing the battle with her over the contracting budget, he had retaliated with her by cutting her stock option budget to almost nothing. How was she supposed to hire programmers if she couldn’t offer them significant options? Getting Lewis to listen wasn’t working; he was so focussed on the brilliance of Rafael’s contractors, on the sheer amount of work they generated every day she could not get him to put the squeeze on Bob to get him to release her more options. The net result was that in five months she had only managed to hire a dozen full-time programmers 8212; far short of the number she needed to replace Rafael’s contractors once they disappeared after their six-month term was up.

And that six-month deadline was awfully close, a cliff wall looming up at the end of the highway she was traveling at 100 miles per hour. Every morning she woke up closer to the wall, still with more of the project left to do, still with more programmers left to hire. What would happen if she didn’t make it? She tried not to think of that. She got up every morning and called more of her contacts, went over more resumes with the HR associate she had working for her, schmoozed with more prospective applicants. Every day she had an appointment for lunch with another programmer who was trying to decide between an InterMob offer and other offers from other companies — usually better offers from smaller, pre-IPO companies with more excitement and better options packages. It was hard to get the programmers to come around to her point of view.

One day she took off from the persuasion lunches and had a lunch with her friend Brenda instead. They had met at a small cafe in downtown Palo Alto. It was nice not to have to do the hard sell over artisan bread and dipping oil, for once; here she could relax, let down her hair and just rant about how nervous she was about the project.

“It would have been so easy if it wasn’t for Lewis,” she said after filling Brenda in on the details. “Every day he has a new idea. Every day he changes the spec. Every day he comes over to my building and mucks around with my programmers. This isn’t my project any more. Its my name on the org chart, but its really his project. His project when it goes well, but if it gets screwed up its my butt out the door with footprints on it.”

“Typical,” Brenda commiserated. “Typical pushy type A CEO behavior. You think Ellison or Clark or any of those guys are any different? Could be worse,” she said, taking a sip of her wine. “He could also be hitting on you.”

Susan’s hand, with an olive in it, paused just short of her mouth. She made a face. “I’m trying to eat here.” she protested.

“Now Susan,” Brenda admonished, jokingly. “Lewis is quite a catch. Young, relatively good-looking, excellent future earnings potential — ow!” Susan had pelted her with the olive.

“*I* have excellent future earnings potential,” Susan insisted. “At least I will if this project doesn’t fail.” She paused and picked at a thread in the tablecloth. “I have to give Martin Amherst credit, he’s the one who got me this far, recommending Rafael’s outfit to me. Those programmers are just totally amazing. They never stop! They just keep working! No complaints, no tantrums, they just generate enormous amounts of code. Its brilliant.”

“Yeah, but what about that six month thing?” Brenda asked. “What happens when the deadline is up?”

“I have no idea.” Susan breathed. “I have no idea. I try not to think about it, but sometimes it keeps me up nights. I’m just scared to death that on the first of the month he’s going to show up with those busses of his and take his programmers back to Colma and I’ll be left with hordes of incomplete code and no one to work on it and Lewis will have my head..”

“Colma?” Brenda laughed. “Your recruiter is based in Colma? That’s funny.”

“Why do you say that?” Sarah said, looking at her quizzically.

Brenda stared back. “How long have you lived here?” she asked. “Don’t you know Colma? No one actually does anything in Colma. No one alive, that is.” She picked at her salad and laughed again.

“Excuse me?”

“Suz, you really need to get out see more of the Valley beyond the freeway and your office. Colma is the city of the dead. It’s ninety percent graveyards. When San Francisco got too busy during the gold rush they relocated all the graveyards to Colma so they’d have more room for houses. Its more built up now, there are townhouses and stuff, real people do actually live there. But mostly it’s still just graveyards. I can’t believe you didn’t know that.”

Susan thought back to her her first meeting with Rafael, and did vaguely remember driving past a number of graveyards to get to his office. She didn’t think much of it at the time, so eager was she to meet Rafael and to get the deal signed. She shrugged. “Is it such a big deal? Maybe offices are cheaper there or something.”

“It’d creep me out,” Brenda said. “Working right next to all those dead people. I wouldn’t want to work there.”

“Doesn’t seem to bother Rafael,” Susan said. “Doesn’t seem to bother any of this programmers. Of course his programmers work onsite all the time. We have dorms for them, did I tell you that?”

* * * *

They didn’t make it. The six months was up and they didn’t make it. Susan had hired a total of nineteen programmers, she finally managed to get Lewis to stop changing the scope and requirements for the project, but they didn’t manage to get everything done on time. From the estimates she and Stewart and the leads put together she figured they had only a month’s left of coding to do. Just a month. From there they could get by with the full-timers they had. But without Rafael’s programmers, for that month they were dead in the water.

The day before the end of the contract Susan got in early and slogged down four cups of bad coffee in her office as she prepared her strategy. At precisely 9AM she met Bob at the door as he arrived to work. She was determined and wired enough to intimidate an army of Bobs, and with a minimum of shouting in the hallway and threatening to call Lewis she got him to sign off on a contract extension for the team. She went directly from his office to the fax machine and sent the papers over to Rafael’s office. OK, she thought, nervously wiping her hands on her skirt. We’ll all get through this.  

On the last day, Susan hadn’t slept much the night before. She hadn’t heard from Rafael. She didn’t know where they stood. The tension was killing her. She paid a visit to building D first thing in the morning. The busses were already there, taking up space in the parking lot, and waiting. The busses that would take her programmers away and ruin her career.

The programmers were still working on that last day, working as if nothing had changed. One would expect that normal programmers would slack off, knowing it was their last day. These guys just kept going and going, as if they had a fire lit inside them. Susan and Stewart stood at the edge of the cube ocean and watched as the programmers typed away at their desks. “They’re not going to just walk out?” Susan asked Stewart, who was just as surprised as she was. “What’s stopping them?”

“They say they won’t go until we release them. They’ll just keep working until we tell them to leave.”

“Oh, good,” Susan breathed. There was still time to work out a deal with Rafael. “Keep them here,” she told Stewart. “Keep them working.”  

Barely hour later the receptionist called her from the building entrance. Rafael St. John had arrived and was demanding to see her. “Ms Foster,” he frowned at her as she opened the door to the reception area. “I am greatly displeased. The terms of the contract we signed were very clear. Six months, not a day more. Your director will not let me into your building. He tells me he will not release my programmers until I clear it with you.”

“Please, come into my office,” Susan said placatingly, beckoning him through the door. He stood his ground in the reception area, his arms folded. “I would be happy to discuss this with you,” she continued, “I had a conversation with my CFO and I believe we can come to a new agreement.”

“My busses have waiting in the parking lot since early this morning,” Rafael insisted, standing his ground. “It is imperative that you release my programmers this moment. Absolutely imperative.”

“Now, wait, Mr. St. John,” Susan said, smiling her best and most conciliatory smile. “I faxed you a contract extension yesterday, and I hope we can come to terms. The programmers are already here, they have facilities, surely you won’t pull them–” Susan’s cell phone tweedled at her side. She pressed the ignore button unconsciously with one hand. “Mr. St. John,” she said, turning back to the man in front of her.

“This is a severe breach of our contract,” Rafael said sternly. “Very severe. The repercussions will be substantial. *Substantial.*”

“Look, Mr. St. John,” Susan said. “I appreciate your position. Please try and appreciate–” her phone rang again. She tried to ignore it. “We are very close to the end of the project. I am authorized to pay your programmers overtime pay if they stay.” The phone was insistent. “I am authorized to give them substantial InterMob stock options if they stay. I really don’t–” The phone interrupted yet again. Irritated, Susan answered her phone and shouted into it. “What do you want!”

“Susan,” Stewart was on the other side. His voice was urgent, scared. “You have to come over here. Something really bad is going on.”

“Really bad?” Susan echoed, looking up at Rafael, whose face suddenly furrowed. He covered his mouth with one hand. “What? What’s going on?”

“Please. Just come down here.” Stewart abruptly hung up the phone.

Susan turned on her heel, Rafael following close behind, and together they sprinted across the lawn to building D. They were held up at the door as Susan fumbled with her key card. “Do you know what’s going on here?” she asked her companion.

“Yes,” Rafael replied sadly. “I fear we are too late.” Through the door, past the receptionist, down the hall to the main floor of the building where all the cubicles were, where all the programmers worked. Susan flung open the fire doors.

The smell alone was enough to push her back a few steps. A dank smell, a thick, sweet, rotting smell, like the smell she had had in her house the previous summer when a rat had died behind the walls. “Oh, my god,” she said, reeling back. Rafael caught her as she stumbled, but she covered her mouth and nose with her hand and pushed away from him, with the other.

“What the hell is this?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” he said, sadly, as Susan steeled herself and moved into the room. “I really did try to warn you.”

Initially, beyond the smell, everything seemed to be fine. It was awfully quiet, though. Usually there would be programmers wandering through the halls and grouped in the common areas, discussions and arguments going on — the sound of work. But now, nothing. It was utterly quiet, no sound except the faint hum of the machines.

The walls of the cubicles were tall enough to hide their interiors. Susan turned into the entrance of the nearest one. “Oh, my god,” she repeated. The occupant of the cubicle — Susan didn’t know his name — was obviously dead, slumped over his keyboard, letters still streaming into the editor on his screen. If Susan didn’t know better, if she hadn’t just been there a few hours earlier, she would have believed that the man had been dead for weeks. His skin was purplish, bloated, and a black substance that looked like tar had spread over his clothes and the chair on which he sat. Susan couldn’t bear to look. She backed away from the gruesome scene.

But that same picture was repeated all over the room, in nearly every cubicle. In the center of the room by the pool table it was worse; here the bodies had fallen as if struck. Coffee had spilled from cups as they fell, leaving dark stains on the carpet next to bodies that looked as if they might be leaving dark stains of their own. It was if some gas had come through, some nuclear blast, some sudden force had swept through the building and struck down every one of her programmers. 

Susan heard a noise, a faint cry, and turned to the office at the end of the hall. Stewart’s office.

Stewart was backed into a corner, crouching behind his desk, wild-eyed, his arms wrapped around himself. One of the programmers had fallen in the doorway, face down on the floor.

He looked up and saw Susan. “He just came in,” Stewart said, pointing to the body in the doorway. “He just came in, looking really bad, all bruised or something, and said he couldn’t work any more. None of them could. He said the contract was up and it was time to go back. And then…he…..” Stewart swallowed. “He had no eyes. He *had no eyes.*”

Susan looked down at the body in the doorway. The horror she had just walked through replayed itself in her mind. And the smell; oh, the smell. She could feel thick panic rise up like acid in the back of her throat, but with it a strange realization. The uneaten food in the dumpster. The agency based in Colma, city of the dead. This was impossible.

Where did Rafael get his programmers, when there were no programmers in the Valley to be had?

She turned to Rafael, who was looking about dispassionately, as if this was the sort of thing he saw every day. “Rafael,” she asked, licking her dry lips with a dry tongue. “Did you send me zombie programmers?”

“I am very sorry.” Rafael continued to be solicitous. “This is very unfortunate. But I did warn you. The contract was only to last six months. That was a very firm date. The programmers go bad after six months.”

Susan’s lower jaw fell open of its own accord, and then she burst out in a giggle. “They go bad?” she asked, looking down at the corpse at her feet. She giggled again, and nudged it with her toe. The nudging broke something inside, and a small spurt of brackish liquid stained the carpet. “They go bad. Of course. They go bad. Past their expiration date. I understand.” She pressed her hand against her mouth, wrapping her other arm around herself as if she would burst apart like the bodies of the programmers in her building.

Rafael clasped her by the shoulder. “I will send a team to retrieve the staff and to clean up,” he said.

“Oh,” Susan said, still trying to control the giggles. “That’s good. Thank you.”

* * * *

UniMicro announced its video product at Comdex in November to much industry fanfare. UniMicro stock was up five points on the day.

InterMob, which had earlier announced plans for a competing video product of great sophistication, claimed “difficulties adjusting to the new business model as well as extreme competitive pressures,” closed the division, and wrote of all of its considerable development expenses. On the announcement InterMob stock lost more than a third of its value, resulting in several nasty shareholder lawsuits and causing Lewis Levant’s net worth to plummet to a mere $900 million, dropping him off the list of Top Internet Zillionaires and severely impacting his social life. Susan Foster left InterMob when the division was closed, leaving the Valley and the high tech industry altogether to open a flower shop in her home town of Poughkeepsie, New York.

St. John Consulting continues to supply emergency programming services to some of the largest companies in the Valley.