Wherein I Choose a Car?

As mentioned in Wherein I Go Car Shopping, I’ve been in the market for a new car after three years of driving a wonderfully capable but not overly fun Nissan Rogue. I ended the previous post with the intention of driving a couple more cars before making a decision. I got halfway through that plan before I crowned a winner, and that car is…

The 2018 Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0t. Probably.

2018 Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0t

At an MSRP of $33k, the Sonata was outside my budget, and honestly what got me to the dealership was the Hyundai Sport 2.0t at a much more reasonable $27k. Throughout my search, I kept running into the same problem, which is best expressed in a familiar diagram:

Fast Full-Featured Affordable

The Nissan Maxima is fast and affordable, but only at lower trims, which are sparse on features like Forward Collision Warning, Adaptive Cruise Control, and Lane-keep Assist. If you want those, expect to pay around 42k. Meanwhile, the Mazda6 is loaded with features, is affordable at 27k, but maxes out with a four-cylinder 184-hp engine.

The Sonata is the ultimate compromise between affordability, speed, and features. It doesn’t have a V6, but the 2.0L 4cyl Turbo engine puts out 245 horsepower. The MSRP is within haggling distance of a sensible $30k, and the feature list is unmatched (in my search, anyway).

2018 Hyunda Sonata Butt Shot

Here are some of the things you get in the Limited 2.0t:

  • Forward Collision Warning with Emergency Braking
  • Adaptive Cruise Control
  • Lane Departure Warning with Lane-keep Assist
  • Blind Spot Monitoring
  • Keyless entry, push-button start, remote start (via iPhone app)
  • Backup camera
  • Electronic parking break with Auto Hold (no more holding the brake at red lights)
  • An overeager trunk that opens by itself for some reason
  • Sunroof
  • Auto-dimming rearview mirror with garage door openers
  • Heated and cooled seats
  • Dual climate controls

The features in bold are the ones I cared about most, especially the Forward Collision Warning and Blind Spot Monitoring. I’m not sure why you would build a car without a rearview camera anymore, and I’m not turning a physical key like some kind of neanderthal. Okay, I would if I had to, but I wouldn’t be happy about it, man.

Unlike the 2018 Toyota Camry, I find the Sonata’s center stack to be well-organized and engaging.

2018 Hyundai Sonata Inside

It’s got everything you need, like an unobtrusive navigation / entertainment area, simple environmental controls, and these cool little piano keys that give your fingers a break from tapping screens all day. It’s got a couple of 12V plugs at the bottom that you could easily drop a double Anker power supply into and end up with 5 USB charging ports.

Anecdote: During the test drive, I sat back in the driver’s seat with hands off the wheel and foot off the pedals and watched as the Sonata drove itself around a curved section of I-35. It’s not a self-driving Tesla, but it was still pretty surreal.

I’ve still got a couple months before I can go pick up this surprisingly awesome Hyundai Sonata, which means I get to keep fielding calls and texts from the 10 dealerships I’ve visited over the last couple months. It’s interesting how different the salespeople have been, from the bro-douches to the My boyfriend drives this BMW to my favorite: the hands-off, no pressure, let me know if you have any questions salesperson.

I met two of them, so if you’re in the market for a new car, go see Jamison at Round Rock Mazda and Rick at Round Rock Hyundai.

Speaking of calls and texts, here’s one I got yesterday.

Round Rock Nissan Text

Round Rock Nissan, keeping it classy.

Connect iCloud to Windows 10 Calendar App

Calendar

I wrote this post because, although I set this up earlier this year, I tried to do it again the other day and couldn’t remember how it was done. ALL of the information I searched for was wrong.

So, to my future self who will set this up on a computer some day, this is how you can use your iCloud calendar in the Windows 10 Calendar App.

  1. Go to http://www.icloud.com and log in.
  2. Click on Settings
  3. Under Apple ID, click Manage
  4. Log in again for some reason
  5. Under SecurityApp-Specific Passwords, click Generate Password
  6. Load Windows 10 Calendar
  7. Add Account
  8. Choose iCloud
  9. Use your Apple ID and the app-specific password generated in Step 5.

And that’s it. No privacy settings. No rebooting your computer. It’s so easy and so IMPOSSIBLE to find on the Internet.

Wherein I Go Car Shopping

As a Science Fiction author, the car I drive is paramount to my personal brand, as a recent Kline Group survey showed that 88% of readers choose books based on the kind of cars the author drives. If you think you’re getting into the Amazon Top 100 in a Nissan Versa, I’ve got bad news for you. If you want to play in the big leagues, you need a flashy car that screams “I get by.”

So, armed with an expiring lease, a tight budget, and a penchant for haggling, I set out to find the perfect car for me. Besides terrible salespeople, here’s what I found out there.

(Presented in the order I tested them.)

2017 BMW 330i

2017_BMW_330i

Since my latest novel Por Vida has a whopping 8 reviews on Amazon, I decided I would treat myself to a really nice car. Having never driven a BMW, I headed over to McNeil and 183 to test drive the 330i.

Long story short: this was perhaps the most boring car I’ve ever driven, and I’ve been in a Saturn. It accelerated just fine, but the interior felt like a smoke-filled office straight out of Mad Men. That’s the best description I can come up for it.

I’m not a 50-something CEO of a trendy new Austin startup; I don’t belong in a BMW.

2017 Audi A4

2017_Audi_A4

As my daddy used to tell me, “Son, I’ll never truly be proud of you until you buy an overpriced luxury sedan.” That led me to Audi North Austin in search of the 252hp A4 in my signature gray. The car pictured above retailed for about $42k, and they were willing to lease it to me at a price of about $42k. What a deal!

What I Liked:

  • Drives like a dream. Ultra smooth handling. Far superior to anything else I’ve had my hands on.
  • Looks good
  • AWD for those frequent Austin snow days
  • Rear-view camera

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Bare-bones inside for $42k
  • No blind spot monitoring, no forward collision warning… nothing to save me from the perils of driving Loop 360

Ultimately, it was the cost of this bad boy and the lack of any features that sent me running.

2017 Dodge Charger RT

2017_Dodge_Charger_RT

When I arrived at Covert Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram at 8107 Research Blvd, Austin, TX 78758, I was greeted by a salesman whose nametag read Worst Salesperson Ever. Here’s what the exchange was like:

Me: Hi, I’d like to test drive a Dodge Charger and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

WSE: Okay. If I make you a good deal, are you gonna buy today?

Me: No, probably not. I’d like to test drive them first.

WSE: Wait here.

A few minutes later, WSE came back with Junior Sales Employee #291092 and said JSE would be helping me going forward unless I wanted to buy.

Undeterred, JSE and I set out in this beautiful blue 370hp Charger RT and we zip-zoomed up and down 183 for a little while. Throughout the entire drive, I wondered how this car was going to look parked outside of my frat house. I also wondered how I was even allowed to drive it without wearing two polos and having both collars popped.

I can see the appeal of this car’s power, but the College Douche-Bro vibe was just too strong with this one. It may have even smelled a little like Axe body spray inside.

2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee

2017_Jeep_Grand_Cherokee

For a brief moment, I considered getting another SUV, but with a bigger engine than my Nissan Rogue. Enter the Grand Cherokee, a kinda mean-looking SUV with a decent base 245hp.

Now exit the Grand Cherokee because there’s really nothing special to see inside. It drives well, has a good amount of power, but the interior is not particularly interesting. It’s an SUV. Not much to get excited about here.

We returned to the dealership and I had another warm and fuzzy conversation with WSE:

WSE: So what’d you think?

Me: They’re nice, but they’re probably not for me. I’ll let you know.

WSE: I’m never going to hear from you again, am I?

I shook my head and left.

2017 Nissan Maxima

2017_Nissan_Maxima

I’ve driven a Nissan ever since the 1995 Chevy Blazer family SUV turned off in the middle of I-35 while I was doing 70mph. Two Altimas, an Altima Coupe, and recently the Nissan Rogue. You’d think that with that kind of history, the good folks at Round Rock Nissan might want to cut me a little break.

Think again, sucker!

By the time I got back to looking at the Maxima, I’d given up my dream of that Audi, so I was looking for a more reasonably priced vehicle. A helpful salesman from RR Nissan emailed me to let me know they had a 2017 Maxima SR for only $33,900. Yikes! Sign me up!

I hurried to RR Nissan and put the Maxima through its paces. After driving a bunch of other cars with actual gears, the Maxima’s CVT engine really started to stand out… in a bad way. Yeah, there’s lots of power here, but it feels muddled / hidden behind the CVT. Inside, the interior is like a cockpit, which is funny because the car feels like a boat. Steering at idle speeds is a workout. Bringing this beast to a quick stop sent shudders through the frame and scared the nice lady who was helping me out.

Still, for $34, I was willing to haggle.

Me: Alright, let’s talk numbers.

Her: Okay, so this car is $41k MSRP.

Me: And what’s my price?

Her: $41k.

So I won’t be getting a Maxima. Minus the black wheels, I really like the styling on this car. It feels familiar too. Just wish they’d been willing to work with me a little more. Or at all.

Useless Trivia: Nissan is the preferred brand of the Perion Synthetics corporation.

2017 Mazda 6

2017 Mazda 6

Every review I read of the Mazda 6 started with the qualifier Sure, it has a shitty engine, BUT… And they were right! 184hp 4-cyl with no turbo. It’s about what you expect.

BUT… step inside this monument to feature-glut and you’ll see just how much $27k can buy you. Rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, comfortable seats, a heads-up display, a cockpit-like feel, and so on, and so on. For the money, I have not seen a more feature-complete vehicle. It handles well too, but not perfectly, as if it is still trying to prove that it can be sporty.

I would have bought this on the spot… if it weren’t for that engine. It. just. needs. more. horsies.

Right now, this guy is #1 on my potential buy list. It’s going to come down to what’s more important: a roaring engine or safety features that will help keep me alive.

2018 Toyota Camry

2018 Toyota Camry

The timing is all wrong on the V6 Toyota Camry (RR Toyota won’t have them until Feb), but since the dealership was on my way home, I decided to go test drive the 4cyl version and see what the interior was like.

Long story short again: I can see why so many people buy these. The ride is smooth and sturdy. The 4cyl engine does fine for what it is. It’s just that… well… it’s a little dull. The center console was sparse, as if the car didn’t do much beyond Park, Drive, and Reverse.

The 2018 redesign looks good from the outside, but inside you’ll find one size fits all. Maybe a stronger engine could have swayed me, but we’ll never know.

2017 Buick Regal

2017 Buick Regal

Oh, my poor, poor baby Regal. You are stuck in two worlds. One is modern, with steady handling, confident acceleration, and a plush interior. The other is a last-century Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Those touches may keep the GM diehards coming back, but for new generations of drivers, they’re relics of a past age. And sadly, it doesn’t matter how great your car is… people aren’t going to buy it if it feels like their grandfather’s car.

Fully-loaded, the Regal Premium II comes in at $36k. While it’s always nice to do something in your grandfather’s memory, there has to be something better than buying this car.

The Regal above lacks the safety features (blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning) I so desperately want in a new car. When I brought that up to the salesman, he said, “Well, no, but it has a really good crash rating.”

Great.

All that said, this car (~4k less without the safety features), is sitting at #2 on my list. You can see why I’m getting worried.

Pending

I’m exhausting cars left and right, but I still have a couple I’m going to test drive before making a decision. They include:

  • 2018 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T
  • 2018 Honda Accord EX-L V6
  • Whatever you recommend

If you can help me out with a suggestion, leave a comment below. If you’ve taken umbrage with my personal opinions of these cars, please tell me a little about your childhood, preferably in the form of a haiku.

Sentence Length Variance

If you read enough books, you can gain an understanding of sentence length variance without really knowing what you’re learning. And when you sit down to write, you’ll follow the style and flow of your favorite authors, using short sentences if they used short sentences, and going on long-winded, semicolon-dotted tirades describing the contents of a store room if they went on long-winded, semi… okay, you get it. But if you do need it spelled out for you, consider this quote:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

— Gary Provost

I love and hate this paragraph. I love it because it’s dead-on. I have not seen a piece of writing advice that encapsulates rhythm and flow like this one. And I absolutely hate it because I wish I had been clever enough to think of it first.

Being aware of the flow of your words is paramount. It’s another layer of storytelling. It’s more than what you’re saying; it’s how you’re saying it. Can stilted language create anxiety? Or long sentences fatigue? Or any length any emotion?

If a character is overwhelmed, I’ll run a sentence into the ground until everyone is exhausted. If a character is scared or angry, their dialogue will be short, clipped. How fast the reader gets through the sentence, the paragraph, the page, the chapter… all of it matters. When do they stop for air? When does it all become too much?!

I finished another chapter in Book V this morning, so I loaded it up intent on counting the number of words in each sentence. When that got too tedious, I decided to count the number of words in each paragraph. After all, those need variance too, right? Too many big blocks of text and the reader’s going to go watch YouTube.

So I counted up the words. 2,106 words in 79 paragraphs. Smallest paragraph: 1 word. Longest paragraph: 95 words. Average paragraph: 27.

Here’s what it looks like:

paragraph_word_counts

I like short sentences. They have drama. Power.

Longer sentences are great too, especially when they’re drawing the reader in, showing them things they may have missed, expanding on ideas in a thousand different ways to show them the hopelessness of the character’s plight.

I was glad to see there was plenty of variance in paragraph length. I think I tend towards shorter paragraphs because of the way it looks on the page, so there’s definitely an aesthetic consideration at work here as well.

When I look at the shortest of sentences and take into account their content, it’s almost as if they serve as punctuation marks for groups of sentences. A handful of regular-sized paragraphs followed by a short stinger.

“Watch me,” said, Armando, tossing a wad of paper towels into the trash can. He hurried out of the bathroom, wanting to get away from Jimmy and Ethan and the office and the horrible malaise that was slowly enveloping him. It was as if reality had developed a feel to it, a weightiness, one he was only aware of now that he’d been outside of it. Standing beneath the falls, standing on the bleak emptiness of existence, he’d felt free, almost… clean.

That was the word he was searching for.

Reality was a shroud he was forced to wear. It weighed him down, connected him to the simulation. If he could break free of it, he would also break free of its feel, its smell and taste—just everything about it. He could shed it all.

But first he’d have to make it back to the underworld.

The Rogue sputtered, growled.

I could see another writer combining the first three paragraphs, just letting it all run together. But to have a single sentence on a line by itself imparts importance, a clear clue to the reader that they should pay attention, something interesting just happened.

Anyhow, I was just thinking about this today. I hope you think about it too.

Because if I preview your Kindle book and am greeted with a page with no paragraphs breaks, I’m probably not going to read it. I’m looking at you, Victor Hugo.

Working Out With the Bundys

2017-08-14 06.09.07

Running on a treadmill is terrible. All exercise, is in fact, inherently wrong. We’re all going to wake up in our stasis tubes some day and shake our heads at the amount of time and pain we spent trying to keep virtual avatars “healthy.”

The only silver lining is that I get to relive my childhood by watching reruns of Married With Children, which stands in stark comparison to the show Dom is currently “making” me watch at home, Baby Daddy. I think it boils down to realism. Baby Daddy is like a Disney cartoon: bright colors, beautiful people, and edgy, I-can’t-believe-they-said-that veiled references to testicles. MWC is the opposite: muted colors, normal people, and constant cutting-down of family members, which is how you’re supposed to show love.

Some of the references are dated, but it’s easy to see how this show inspired the modern “edgy” sitcom, shows like Veep and Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Shows where they just don’t hold back. It’s like watching an episode of Rick and Morty, where you can’t believe people have the freedom to write shows with content that is really, really, really wrong.

Anyway, big thanks to TBS for showing this at 5 in the morning in Austin. I don’t know what I’m going to do when they change up the programming.

I’ll probably just stop exercising.

 

Conscription

 

The Perion Spire glinted in the mid-morning sun. For a week now, the weather in the remote desert of Southern California had been cool and sunny, almost to the point of being enjoyable. In response, there had been a rash of impromptu stay-cations among the rank and file of Perion Synthetics; you could practically smell the burning of PTO from all corners of the city. While this had led to more pedestrian traffic on the streets, it had turned the Spire itself into a ghost town.

For Conner Overton, this was a welcome side effect. He didn’t have to fight the crowds in the main atrium of the Spire, nor crowd into the elevators and smell a dozen different types of colognes and perfumes as he rode up to his office the forty-eighth floor. He didn’t have to greet anyone on his walk to his office; even the floor secretary had been gone since Tuesday.

There was still a small bustle in the office: a few senior coders, the muted bass thump of techno-slop, and of course, the synthetic staff. Synnies were unavoidable in Perion City, and they never took vacations. They kept right on cleaning the offices, emptying the trash cans, and more or less submitting to whatever whim an organic human might throw at them.

There had been a time when some people looked on synnies as near-equals, as recently as a year before, but after the Collapse, after the recall, their psuedo-AI had been dialed back, leaving them capable of only the most menial jobs.

Conner stepped into his office and dropped his bag onto the desk. The curved window on the far side of the room was catching the sun; it had dimmed automatically to a soft gray that turned the desert landscape even more alien. His workstation chimed and came alive as he sat down in the room’s lone chair. Having only one place to sit discouraged visitors from staying too long, something Conner had learned early in his career.

A few pop-up notifications cluttered his main view, but he clicked them away with his mouse. They were just reminders for the multitude of meetings he had seemingly every day. Normally, he would leave them up, off to the side where he could watch the timers count down, showing him exactly when he needed to leave his desk to reach some remote conference room somewhere in the Spire. This week, however, most of the meetings had been informally canceled, which meant he could finally have a full day to concentrate on the task at hand.

The screen filled with multi-colored code on a black background. The syntax highlighting let him easily pick out variables, function names, and operators. Next to each line was either a blue circle or empty space indicating whether he had reviewed that line or not. Currently, he was on line 1,902 of some class file; he couldn’t immediately recall the name of it, only that it was one of thousands of class files making up just a minuscule part of a pseudo-AI.

That had been his job for the last year: review the code and figure out why every synthetic in Perion City had suddenly lost its mind, first at the death of James Perion, and second at the behest of Savannah Kessler. The process itself was mind-numbing, but a synny kept bringing him coffee and there were free sugary snacks in the break room, so overall it wasn’t a bad gig. Conner longed to work on something new again, but now was hardly the time to make waves.

Joseph Perion had been at the helm of the company for a little more than a year, and in that time, nearly two thousand employees had jumped ship. They were mostly from two ends of the spectrum, either entry-level noobs who couldn’t handle a little crisis, or hat-in-the-ring executive types who knew it would be their asses on the line when the Spire came crashing down.

For everyone else, it was just a job. The office was just where Conner went during the day before coming back home to his wife and two kids. The youngest, a boy name Curtis, had just started first grade at PC-2 on the north side of the city. Like all schools in Perion City, PC-2 had an unlimited budget, and after decommissioning dozens of synny teachers, had plucked the best and brightest educators from all over the country.

Conner glanced at the framed photo beside his terminal screen. Elizabeth worked in the legal department down on the fifteenth floor—her group nearly rivaled the engineering team—and had a nice, cozy office with a big desk and a pack-and-play where Curtis used to spend his mornings. His daughter, Etta, was currently in the third grade, had long blonde hair like her mother, and had no interest whatsoever in the professions of either of her parents. She mostly played immersive world-building games in Perion VR all day.

He was just about to start reading code when a meeting invite popped up on his screen, sent by a name he didn’t recognize: Jamie Levin. He almost dismissed it, thinking it to be spam, but realized if it were, it wouldn’t have come in through the company Exchange server. When he clicked the Open button, the invite filled the screen.

The subject was a terse but evocative Emergency Meeting, and the required attendees were listed as Conner Overton, Charles Huber, Dominic Franco, and Jamie Levin. The body of the invite read: Joseph Perion requests your attendance to discuss development at NTX installation. It was signed Jamie Levin, Assistant to Mr. Perion.

Conner looked over the invite again just to make sure he was reading everything correctly. Charles Huber—usually known as Chuck—was the lead architect for all synthetic projects at Perion Synthetics. Chief Franco led security in the city, and was responsible for keeping the bad people out. The body text didn’t make much sense. Development? Did they have a new coding project for him to take over? As a senior developer, he was one of the most qualified to helm new R&D. And what was the NTX installation? He’d never heard of NTX or how it was supposed to be installed.

The meeting was to be held on the —number—floor of the Spire, and the timer that usually counted down to when he needed to leave to make the appointment had already expired. Its sextuple zeroes flashed in alarm.

Conner hit the half-moon icon on his keyboard and put his computer to sleep. He finished off his cup of coffee in one long gulp. In the hallway, someone called to him as he passed, but he didn’t stop to talk. Big J had summoned him to the highest levels of the Spire, and when you got a call like that, you didn’t dally for idle chit-chat.

He looked longingly at the restrooms as he hurried down the hall to the elevator. The car accelerated skyward, and every vibration seemed to climb his legs and settle in his bladder. Why had he had so much coffee? Now he was going to look nervous and fidgety in front of Big J. Maybe there was a bathroom on —number—.

The doors opened into a reception area, and a bright-eyed guy with long brown hair pulled back into a bun looked up and smiled.

“Mr. Overton? They’re waiting for you in Mr. Perion’s conference room.” He stood and came around the desk. “If you’ll follow me…”

Conner glanced at the door to the right. Gold letters on dark hardwood spelled out the word RESTROOM. He gestured to the door. “Do I have time for a pit stop?”

“Not really,” said the receptionist, offering a weak smile. “This way, please.”

Conner followed him down a hall to the left and through a tall set of double doors. The conference room took up almost a quarter of the floor’s footprint, though this high up in the Spire, the total area wasn’t that impressive. It was big enough, however, for a large oak table and about a dozen high-backed chairs. To the right, in an alcove no bigger than his own office, were two sofas and two standalone chairs.

Chief Franco sat alone in one of the chairs with one leg crossed over the other. He’d shed his usual black sport coat with the Perion City Security logo on it. His white button-up was impeccably pressed.

On one of the couches, a frazzled and sour-faced Chuck Huber sat scratching his chin. His lab coat was stained with errant strokes from dry-erase markers. Next to him was the man himself, Joseph Perion, CEO and son of the company’s founder, James Kirkland Perion.

“Mr. Overton,” said Joe, without getting up, “thank you for coming so quickly.” He gestured to the empty chair. “Please, have a seat. We were just getting settled.”

“Thank you for inviting me,” said Conner. “How can I help?”

Chuck spoke first. “How much do you know about PSOS upgrades?”

“In general terms? I’m familiar with the process. There’s been some changes since last year. I know we can’t really do over-the-wire upgrades anymore.”

“That’s correct,” said Chuck. “We disabled remote upgrades for every synthetic in the city. Right now we’re doing updates on an ad-hoc basis when the synnies are hardwired into the network. Nothing over the air, nothing for people or a hacker to intercept and exploit.”

Had they really called him all the way up to —number— for a refresher on how upgrades worked? His bladder protested by sending a dull ache up into his stomach.

“Got it,” said Conner. “So what’s the issue?”

Joe gestured to Chief Franco. The law man grimaced, as if the explanation tasted foul coming out.

“They shut down upgrades for all the synthetics in the city. Not all of our synthetics are in the city.”

Conner shook his head, looked to Joe for confirmation. “That’s impossible. What about the Deadline? I didn’t think any synthetics were allowed to leave the city? Did they escape during the…” He trailed off, unsure if the topic was still sore for the CEO.

Joe waved his hand dismissively. “No, all of our inventory was rounded up within twenty-four hours of the breach. We only know of two prototype synthetics that managed to slip past. We tried to reacquire them but… that effort is still ongoing. No, what we’re talking about is a second, smaller deployment of synthetic humans, numbering around 75 units.”

“I always said it was a bad idea,” said Chuck, “but your father was so adamant about helping his so-called friends.”

“Did something happen?” I asked. “Something… bad?”

Chief Franco huffed, chuckled.

“Officially?” asked Joe, “No. I put in a call to NTX and spoke with Richard Lesner, an old friend of my father’s. He said everything was fine, but I don’t know the guy well enough to smell his bullshit. According to him, everything is five-by-five in NTX.”

Conner draped one of his legs over the other. He really had to go. Impatience slipped into his voice. “So what’s the problem?”

Joe lifted an eyebrow, looked to Chuck.

“The problem, Mr. Overton, is this.” He reached for a palette he had stashed between his leg and the arm of the couch. He unlocked it with his fingerprint and handed it over to Conner.

The text on the screen looked like garbage.

“What am I looking at?” he asked.

“Garbage,” said Chuck. “Or so we thought at first. It’s actually an encrypted message.”

“From who?”

“Not a who,” said Chuck. “A what. This is from a synthetic at the NTX installation. The synthetics there are still getting over-the-wire updates, and when we pushed a patch late last night, we got this in return. Normally, it’s just a boolean coming back, one or zero, pass or fail. Instead, we got this. Hit the button there at the bottom to run decryption on it.”

Conner tapped the button; the text morphed into words.

ALL DEAD

“All dead?” he asked. “What does that mean?”

“Well,” said Chuck, “it could mean that all of the human inhabitants of NTX are dead. But since Joe spoke to one of the residents this morning, that’s probably not the case.”

“More likely, one of the units is malfunctioning,” said Franco. “And if that’s the case, we have to be ready for another Collapse. It would be on a smaller scale, but it would be a hundred times more public.”

“We’ve already lost so much of the public’s trust,” said Joe. “If something happens in NTX, we’ll be done. That’s it. We’d have to go military to save the company and we’d lose all of our best people.”

“We’re not going military,” said Chuck. “We can handle a single malfunctioning synthetic without calling in the calvary.”

“So who are we calling?” asked Conner.

“We called you,” said Joe. “We need you to go to NTX and figure out what the problem is with this particular synthetic. If it’s malfunctioning, factory reset it to clear the problem. If that doesn’t work, bring it home so we can take a look at it.”

Conner shook his head, shifted in the chair. “I don’t do on-sites.”

“You do now,” said Franco.

Joe gestured to the Chief. “Alright, Dom. Relax. He’s not some augmented cyber stalker; he’s just a developer.” Then to Conner. “Look, I understand completely. We didn’t hire you to do on-sites. I know how it is with some people, preferring to stay holed up at home or in a single city, not wanting to go beyond the borders of their comfort zone. I’m not judging you, and I’m going to make sure you have all the synth you need to feel comfortable.”

“It’s not that…”

“Look, if there was anyone else, we’d send them, but you’re the most experienced.”

“What about my boss? McClain’s more senior than me, and I bet he has more experience using voice interface with synthetics.”

“Michelle McClain hasn’t worked here for six months. Nor has her boss, or his boss, or his boss.”

“What?” For a moment, Conner forgot about the discomfort in his groin. “I was just trading emails with her last…” He thought back. Had it really been six months?

“We’re hemorrhaging engineers,” said Joe. “So unless you’re ready to jump ship, you’re the most senior guy we have. No one else can do this except you.”

Conner imagined traveling. If by car, it wouldn’t be so bad, unless he was heading into a major metropolis. If by plane, it would be bad, crammed into a metal tube with all those other people. Crying kids. Rude flight attendants. It made him want to gag.

And what was this bullshit about no one else being able to do the job? Did they really expect him to believe he was the most qualified, out of the thousands of engineers at Perion Synthetics. Conner studied each of their faces, saw the restrained hope in Joe’s face, the restrained disdain in Franco’s, and the near bewilderment on Chuck’s.

“Do you mind if I use the restroom?” he asked.

Joe spread his hands as if to ask how could I stop you?

Conner stood and hurried out of the room. He nodded to the receptionist, gestured vaguely to the restroom, and mumbled something even he himself didn’t understand. The bathroom was opulent to the point of being distracting, with bright Perion silver adorning most surfaces. The sinks were translucent ceramic bowls sitting atop a quartz countertop. The two urinals were separated by a deep partition. Toward the back, an open door led to a private toilet.

He fumbled with his zipper as he stepped up to the urinal. As he relieved himself, he let out a long sigh.

“Heh,” said a voice. “And I thought you were just avoiding the question. Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Conner watched Big J step up to the urinal next to him.

“I just needed to focus on one thing at a time,” said Conner.

“I hear ya.” Joe’s voice changed pitch as he tilted his head back. “Sometimes I wish I could take a step back and get a handle on everything. But it all just comes too fast, you know? My father dying, all that business with the Collapse. And VFeed’s been teasing an expose on my father for a year now. So many balls in the air. Too few hands to catch them.”

“And this is just one more thing?”

“Exactly. Normally I might send an account rep, someone to smooth everything over and make sure the customer is happy, but the thing is, NTX never should have been a customer.” Joe shook his head. “Perion Synthetics has no customers yet.”

Conner zipped up and walked over to the sinks. Joe’s voice echoed over the sound of running water.

“You’d really be helping me out here, Overton.”

In the mirror, Conner saw himself smirk. Of course Big J would try to use his charisma to close the deal. Did he really think that highly of himself?

Joe appeared at the sinks and washed his hands.

The two men couldn’t have looked more different. Joe had a professional cut, with long hair perfectly styled over short sides. His blue eyes beamed over a wide smile. Conner inventoried his own face, with hair that laid flat on his head and brown eyes that hadn’t sat atop a smile in a long time.

Conner stalled, rinsing his hands repeatedly. Joe dried his hands with a paper towel and then placed one on Conner’s shoulder.

“Do it for me. Do it for the company. Or money or a promotion, whatever you want. I just want this off my plate. I need someone onsite with the technical know-how to fix the problem quickly. Do this for me and I’ll give you Michelle’s job.”

Conner looked over his shoulder at Big J. “And her salary.”

“And her salary,” Joe agreed.

“And her office.”

“Don’t be greedy, Overton. Next thing you know you’ll be wanting your own private bathroom.” He gestured to the room. “Not even I have that.” He removed his hand, walked to the door. “Join us when you’ve made up your mind. I hope to hear good news.”

Conner watched the door swing shut. His eyes fell on the evacuation map hung on the back of the door, leading him with a bright red line to the stairwell.

No, he thought. There’s no escape route from this.

Big J had called. Conner had to answer.