Los Angeles
September 24, 2007
5:15 a.m.

The alarm clock's insistent buzzing struggled to pull Charles from sleep. His dreams, the ones of shapes sliding together, chased by endless reams of paper with strange markings, clung tenaciously in the recesses of his mind. Groaning slightly, Charles reached out an arm and slapped the snooze button. Why had he ever gone away from just letting music wake him? Oh, yeah, because it no longer did. A good night's sleep was just one of many things that now eluded him.

Looking over at the sleeping form next to him, he wondered how she could sleep through the sound. She'd always been a deep sleeper, but the last few months had pushed new limits. Maybe it was from getting home so late at night. Pushing the thought aside, Charles climbed out of bed and forced himself to shower. The water helped wake him up so that he didn't stumble much on his trip downstairs to make his breakfast and coffee. He brewed enough for two, even though he spent the early morning alone. A note on the table was his only communication with his wife.

Thoughts of the previous night's playtest session with Morgan filled his mind as he drove to work. The computer opponent was getting better all the time, but it still wasn't good enough to publish, not as it was. He felt on the cusp of understanding what needed to be done to fix the last few glitches, but the exact elements continued to evade him. He was so close, though, he could almost taste it.

Arriving at the small building which housed his company, he had to unlock the door which he had locked just a few hours earlier. It wasn't like he was the only one with a key, but he did seem to always be the first to arrive and the last to leave. Well, he reflected, it's not like there was much reason to be home, anyway.

It was almost an hour later before the rest of Charles's small programming team arrived. He always made the effort to greet each of them as they came in. Anna being the first to arrive was little surprise. She was far and away the most promising of the employees he'd lured away with his little enterprise. Not only did she have great skills with computers, she actually cared enough to do the job she was assigned, instead of something random. Charles did little more than greet her, as she was working on a long-term project and didn't need additional direction today.

Jeff and Lester were the next to arrive, reasonably early for them. Jeff's look had that not-quite-completely-focused look that signified it was still early, at least for him. It wouldn't go completely unfocused until almost lunchtime. Lester appeared to be having one of his hoping-to-pull-a-con days. His demeanor had that extra shiftiness which indicated he was hoping to get away with even more than usual. Getting work out of these two was an art – you had to hit them early in the day and assign exactly three projects, two of which were important and relatively small and the third of which was completely useless but seemed difficult. It had taken Charles months to master, but he now felt they almost justified their paychecks. He just didn't have it in his heart to fire them. And, honestly, he wasn't sure he could lure in more programmers anyway – not at the rates he had to pay.

His best friend walked in next, looking sharp as always in a three-piece suit. Everybody else in the office wore extremely casual clothes, but Bryce always looked his best. And Bryce's best was something that caught attention. His advertising skill had helped them on so many occasions, getting additional funding or finding just the right ad to keep sales up to make the quarterly requirements. For all his help and friendship, though, Charles thought Bryce was sometimes just too smooth for his own good.

"Chuck!" Bryce called. Bryce was one of very few people who still called him that. "You missed a great party last night. The girls were ridiculously hot. And …"

Charles interrupted him. "Umm…Bryce. Two problems. One, I'm married, remember? You were my best man? And, two, somebody had to stay here and playtest with Morgan, since we still don't have the AI built yet."

Bryce and Charles had worked together on too many projects to count. After Stanford, they'd immediately started selling some of the games they'd written in their spare time. That had provided them with enough money to start their own little company, and a series of small successes had kept them in business ever since. In many ways, the two still behaved like college friends, teasing and tweaking the other whenever the opportunity presented itself.

"Pfftt… You're too whipped. Live a little. Man, there was this one hottie there, dark hair and those stern academic glasses you love so much. You'd've been perfect. I mean, I was hitting on her hot red-head friend, but she was so hot to trot – couldn't keep her hands off me. Even though I wasn't that interested, I ended up with both. They did this thing where…" Bryce's eyes twinkled with mirth.

"Bryce. Bryce! That's enough! I don't need to hear about your exploits every morning." He hadn't married for looks – he'd married for the person on the inside. Well, at least mostly for the person he had thought was on the inside. The fact that things at home had been less than hopping in the bedroom made the last thing he wanted to hear about was how his almost-partner and friend continued to be such a huge hit with all the ladies. Especially not today. Normally, he replied with teasing of his own, but he just didn't have it in him.

"Sorry." The word dripped with sarcasm. "What's with the grumpy attitude?"

"Nothing. Just … This computer AI is so close to what we need/want. It will revolutionize the gaming industry. But there's just something missing." That wasn't all that was bothering Charles, but the rest was not something he was going to talk about, not even to Bryce Larkin.

"I know. I'm pitching it again today. Some mysterious angel investors. I'm trying not to promise too much. But I know you. You never get close without finishing something." Bryce's conviction in Charles's abilities was matched only by Charles's faith in Bryce.

"Ain't that the truth," said Morgan, intruding on the conversation. "He has this killer instinct that is scary. Never let him near you with any weapon." Having commented, Morgan then wandered over to the desk. In addition to being one of their best playtesters, the short, bearded man watched the front and directed calls during the day. Mostly, it meant he played other games.

Responding to Bryce's raised eyebrow, Charles explained, "We needed a couple breaks last night and Halo 3 was right there. You know how sore a loser Morgan is." Bryce nodded and the two executives went to their offices for their workday.

Charles's day was one headache after another. He'd made progress on getting his code to do what he wanted. It was performing beautifully, in fact, but it was just too slow. For the game to work, it needed to be faster and work with more variables. And/or run on a supercomputer well beyond what most people had in their homes, he reflected ruefully.

Charles ate lunch in his office, working on the program, only occasionally leaving to check the progress of the other employees. As expected, Bryce was mostly working, Anna was working, Morgan was playing and Jeff and Lester were involved in setting up something that looked suspiciously like a party. Charles hoped so, so he didn't disturb them.

As 5:00 came and went, so did most of the people. Bryce, Morgan, and Charles were the only ones there. Surprisingly, though, Charles was ready to leave before the others. He poked his head into Bryce's office. "Lock up before you go, will you?"

"Leaving already? What's the occasion?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing." Charles replied a bit too quickly. Since the party Jeff and Lester were planning hadn't been here, he hoped it was back home. The defeated attitude from the code carried over, though, and he doubted it would be. Sighing softly, to himself, he continued, "Just feeling the need to get out early today, I guess."

"OK, buddy. Give that hot wife of yours one for me, too, OK?"

"Will you please stop talking about her that way? You know I don't like that."

"It's true. I'm surprised you're not home more often. All that tail and not needing to chase it? That's the life, man."

"Just … just … stay out of it, OK?" Charles thought about how little his friend really understood. Being married did not mean 'tail' all the time. And certainly not without chasing. Not wanting to let his frustration show to his friend, Charles turned to leave. He only took two steps, however, before turning back.

"How'd the meeting with the investor go?"

Bryce looked back up from his computer, becoming serious. "Really well, I think. They asked a lot of good questions. I almost think they might send someone out to see a demo."

"More money?" Charles wasn't happy thinking about money, but the company needed more, if they were going to keep going. Bryce understood that, too. They didn't need to talk about it.

"They seemed interested. I'm not sure they're fully on the line yet, though. They're really hard to read, though, so I don't know."

"Someone you can't read? Gotta be a guy, then." Bryce's skill at understanding people and being able to guide them where he wanted was one of the reasons for their early success. He still had the art, Charles knew, but he too often directed it towards nubile females instead of potential business partners.

"For your information, Chuck, it was a woman and a man. Both very serious-looking."

"Must be, if you can't impress them. Anyway, keep up the good work. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Night, man."

CIA Headquarters at Langley

4:20 p.m.

Director Graham looked across his desk at the agent standing at attention before him. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Sir?" Her voice gave away no emotion, nor did her stance. Of all his agents, this one was one of the best at hiding herself. Heck, she was one of the best at almost everything, which is why he put up with all of the other things that went along with her.

"Another partner who refuses to return to work with you? What's going on?"

"At least this one is alive, sir. I believe that was your direct order. Alive and unharmed."

"Yes, damnit, but you have to learn to let someone help you. Every agent, even one as good as you are, needs dependable back-up."

The blonde seemed to consider these words for a moment. "Maybe if you found me a dependable partner, I would accept back-up."

Director Graham sighed. He'd already tried most of his most promising agents with her, of various ages, both genders, and with diverse skill sets. None of them seemed to have any effect. "I will look into that. For now, you have a new mission."


"Suzanne Winkleman. You are the agent of a group of potential angel investors interested in a particular product from the software company BarLar, Inc. in Los Angeles. They make computer games." The director handed across a half-inch thick manila folder containing the rest of the mission brief.

"A game company, sir?" Asking the question, her eyebrows raised the amount exactly calculated to keep the conversation going. Instructors at the academy weren't so precise with their movements.

"Yes. See their product, evaluate their people, for now."

"Sounds too easy, sir. What's the catch?"

"It should be routine. But it's extremely high priority, so I'm sending you. Depending on the initial recon, it could get very interesting, too."

"Very good. I'll be in touch."

"Oh, and Sarah? These people are civilians, not professionals. Play nice, OK?"

She looked back at him for a long moment before nodding.

Los Angeles

Charles's House
6:24 p.m.

Charles had finally banished all calculations and code from his mind. He was going to enjoy tonight, and that meant not thinking about work. However, as the garage door ratcheted upwards, his heart sank. No red Mustang waited for him. Despondently, he parked his Prius and got out.

His last hope was dashed as he opened the door into darkness that wasn't filled without expectant whispers or the smell of bake. "Happy birthday to me", he muttered as he tossed his keys to their basket near the door.

Sighing, he walked into the kitchen to find himself some food. The answering machine blinked at him. Pressing play, he heard Ellie's exuberant voice. "Happy birthday, Chuck! If you can spare some time from your glamorous life and parties, call me. I'll be at work tonight, but I always have time for my favorite brother. I love you." Somehow, her cheerfulness just added to his funk. She thought he had it all, but he didn't. Not anymore.

Grabbing a beer from the fridge, he walked upstairs to change, scrupulously avoiding the table in the kitchen. After changing into shorts and a very old ComicCon t-shirt (he'd missed the last four years, sadly), Charles retreated back downstairs, in quest of food. This time, he couldn't help himself and he looked at the kitchen table. A note greeted him, with words he'd seen too often. "I've got a late thing tonight. Don't wait up. Jill."

No cards. No cake. No party. Not even birthday love-making. Heck, if not for his sister's call, he would have thought nobody knew it was his birthday. Well, he knew. Sudden motivation seized him and he stood up. Searching through the pantry and cabinets, he found his targets – candles, matches, and cake – well, cheap snack rolls. Forcing in a couple candles nearly destroyed the small cakes, but Charles made the candles stay up. After turning out the lights, Charles struck a match and lit the candles, the disappointment on his face brought into stark reality by the flickering light. Closing his eyes, he made a wish and blew out the candles.

Light brought back the reality of the situation – alone with nearly destroyed chocolate. "Pathetic," Charles muttered, as he picked up the cakes and headed to his room. Climbing alone into a bed for two just reinforced his conclusion.

R&R, please. PLEASE?!?