Friday, April 1, 2016

Entire First Chapter of HARDWIRED FOR ECSTASY


Chapter One

Emma Sawyer frowned as she sized up the building that housed Yates Industries. After living in Central for the past seven years, the buildings in CentralEast seemed small and squat in comparison. It was too quiet here, as well.

She already missed the hustle and bustle of the capital city, though she did not miss her old job. She hoped she hadn’t made a terrible mistake moving here to take this new job, but staying in Central had no longer been an option. The Central Police Headquarters captain had seen to that.

Emma mentally shook away thoughts of Leland. He couldn’t hurt her any longer, and he wasn’t the only reason she’d left Central. She really had not enjoyed her former job at all. She had only taken it because IT degrees were too common now, and there weren’t enough opportunities to go with them. She knew people with advanced IT degrees who were waiting tables.

The position she was about to start today was more suited to her career goals, and she was excited to begin. This was a chance to start over completely. New job, new city, and maybe one day, a new love life. Maybe.

When she no longer believed that all men lied and cheated. Like Leland.

Emma shook off the memories again and walked into the lobby, grinning at the life-sized models of prototypes depicting the company’s latest gadgets. They were the focal points of the space, in which everything was chrome and steel, with just enough subtle blues and silvers to give the d├ęcor some color.

She’d landed this job after a video interview with an HR rep, and wondered whether the CEO, Atticus Yates, was as austere as the lobby of his building. She hoped not. Emma preferred working for warm people, but this was her dream job and she’d make the best of it either way.

Atticus was, after all, one of the infamous Weathermen. Most women she knew would give their eye teeth to work for one of them, or at least to date one. But Emma wanted no part of that. The three Weathermen who weren’t engaged or married were still all over the tabloids online, changing girlfriends as often as they likely changed socks. That wasn’t her cup of tea, thank you very much. Especially not after what she’d gone through with Leland.

The receptionist told her Atticus was waiting for her on the top floor. She handed Emma a temporary badge and gave her the code to key into the elevator. She explained Atticus wanted to speak with her first and would then walk her to HR where she would complete the process of becoming an official employee of Yates Industries. And she said all this with perfect hair, flawless makeup, and very white teeth. Emma felt shoddy and underdressed compared to this woman, even though she wore a suit and her shoes were new.

She’d obviously made a horrible mistake. She wasn’t chic enough to work here. So much for the theory that Central was the only city with culture and taste.

Once she stepped off the elevator, another impeccably dressed woman met her, showing Emma a smile filled with warmth as well as great teeth. Emma was momentarily reminded of an old movie from the mid-twentieth century titled The Stepford Wives. In it, all the wives of a small New England town seemed perfect on the surface, but underneath they weren’t even human.

The woman knocked on a set of doors, and a deep masculine voice called for her to come in. She opened one of the doors and ushered Emma inside with a wave of her hand—her perfectly manicured hand.

Emma gave her a quick smile then went inside, wishing she’d stayed in Central and taken a job at one of the restaurants, like everyone else had done.

She’d seen pictures of Atticus online, of course, but wasn’t prepared for the sight of him in person. Dressed in a dark blue suit, red plaid tie, and crisp white shirt, he looked like an American flag gone rogue. But it wasn’t his clothes that held her spellbound. It was those dark eyes, boring into her soul.

He advanced toward her, his hand extended and the corners of his mouth turned up. Full lips, a five o’clock shadow at eight in the morning, and bone structure that had been chiseled by the Greek gods, she stared at him, unable to think clearly. The pictures online did not do him justice.

“Emma Sawyer. At last we meet. I’m Atticus Yates. Welcome to my company.”

She shook his hand, nearly pulling away as a tiny jolt of electricity shot up her arm. Did that actually happen in real life? Apparently so. “Nice to meet you, too. Thank you for this opportunity.” Good lord. Her voice sounded like a robot’s. Get a grip. He’s only a man.

“Please have a seat.”

She thought he was going to sit behind his desk again, but instead he pulled a chair over and sat facing her. She caught the whiff of expensive cologne and could feel the heat from his body. Emma was surprised by the visceral reaction. This man was now her boss, and he was a player. She needed to get her hormones under control.

“Let me explain what you’ll be doing here for me.”

“The HR rep told me it was a position on your design team.” Hardware and software design and modification had been her pet projects in grad school.

“It is, but I have special project in mind for you. One that will utilize all you learned working for the Central police department.”

She hoped the disappointment didn’t show on her face. She’d just spent the past seven years hacking into sites to find IP addresses and machine IDs for people with arrest warrants, and suspects the police were having difficulty tracking down. If she’d known that was what he’d paid to move to her CentralEast to do, she wouldn’t have accepted the job offer.

“I need someone with your unique skills to do something special and confidential for me. We’re currently looking for the hackers who compromised The Madeline Project, but I want to design something that will streamline such an operation one day. Whether that’s a stick, an app, or something entirely new. I’ve come up with a few design ideas, but I haven’t built a prototype yet. I decided to put someone on this full time.”

She blinked a few times, struggling to gather her thoughts. Either he was a genius, or mad as a hatter. “Let me make sure I understand what you’re asking. You want something that customers can use to check machine IDs or IP addresses, without using what? The code?”

“No, they’d still use the code, but the device or app would do the work for them.”

“Apps are actually software, but of course you know that…” Her voice trailed off as heat rose to her face. She was talking to the king of gadgets here.

“Ideally, the device you design would have the applicable software built in. It would be self-contained, like the GPS systems we used to use in cars above the surface. People would be able to update them with new versions of the software. I know you have expertise in both hardware and software design. You also have experience tracking down people, which is why you were hired.”

She couldn’t help but smile. She not only loved his vision, she was flattered he thought so highly of her work. To know about her prior work in software and hardware design, he’d obviously looked into her background during grad school, which meant he’d done his homework. Being hired after only a cursory interview with an HR rep finally made sense. He’d already known he wanted her working for him.

Emma settled back against the leather chair. “Can you tell me more about the hackers? Or at least, what you’ve found so far and how you’ve tracked them down?”

There was very little online about that subject, but then she hadn’t expected to find much. It didn’t do any good to track down the people who had done this if you told them how you planned to do it.

The rumors, however, were rampant. Everything from the Weathermen had found them all and were holding them in an undisclosed location, trying to get them to confess the code that would stop The Madeline Project, to the opinion of some that they hadn’t found any of them, and the rumor they were looking was a ruse set up to mask criminal activity.

“I can tell you everything. You’re part of this now, but I assume I don’t have to emphasize this information can’t be made public.”

“You just met me. How is it you trust me already?”

He grinned. “Your work record is impeccable, and I do thorough background checks on all my employees. When you’re in my position you have to, although even with the background checks, we sometimes miss things at first.”

Emma swallowed hard at the angry tone in his voice. She knew he didn’t mean he’d found something on her, or they wouldn’t be having this conversation. Leland had promised he wouldn’t do anything to hurt her reputation if she in turn didn’t expose what he had done. Leland had backed her into a corner, but right now, Emma was grateful for that. If luck stayed on her side, Atticus would never have to know about that chapter in her life.

“So, here’s where we are to date.” He settled back, crossing one ankle over the opposite knee. The gesture was so informal it sent her mind wandering to what he looked like in casual clothes. The man was seriously gorgeous up close and personal. That suit fit him as if it had been made for him, which it likely had been.

Wonder what he looks like out of it?

Emma forced her attention back to the present.

“Harper Easton, when she first came to work for Ace, was an analyst for his PR websites. She transferred to his hacker team and noticed some of the same usernames she’d seen on the forums in PR and other areas were also on the forums the hacker team was monitoring.”

“What did they monitor?”

“Sites that cropped up after The Madeline Project had its first real time test, where weather geeks and conspiracy theorists still hang out, as well as sites where hackers are known to congregate. We each had a team, looking for any clues to who might have done this. But it wasn’t until Harper noticed the some of the same usernames that we had our first big break.”

“None of you had been cross-checking the names?”

He shook his head. “No. The hacker teams worked on a separate system. They still do. Now we each have a team that not only monitors the message boards, they’re also looking for the fifth hacker, as well as the real names of several people who used to work for NSSL. There’s a small group that we now know are involved with the hackers.”

She leaned forward, her attention finally on his words instead of his muscled body that those clothes could not hide. “So you’ve actually found four of them?”

“We have. We’re sitting on them for now until we find the fifth.”

She loved his voice. It was the kind that evoked images of candlelit rooms and naked, sweaty bodies.

Stop that!

“What will you do once you find the last one? Do you know there are rumors out there that say you have them all, and are holding them somewhere?”

His laugh was soft, and the sound sent shivers down her spine, which did not help her raging hormones one bit. “I know. That’s one of my favorites, to be honest, because it’s very close to the truth of what we all want to do with them.”

That last sentence was filled with conviction and power. He and the other Weathermen were among the wealthiest people on the planet. Everyone knew who they were, and if even half the general rumors about them were true, they had connections that went all the way to certain key offices of the government in Central.

“For now, we’re waiting until we find the fifth. Then we’ll figure this out.” His expression grew serious. “This program has to be stopped, Emma. Do you know who Oliver Fairchild is?”

“Yes. His company runs the systems that keep us alive down here.”

“That’s right. He and others in the same field have data that show we only have approximately three years before the oxygen content on the surface falls to levels below those we need to manufacture breathable air underground. In other words, we will all suffocate in three years if we can’t find a way to shut this down.”

“The trees…”

“Exactly. The storms on the surface have destroyed almost every plant up there.”

Emma knew about the storms on the surface, and how they had drastically changed the landscape in seven years. Everyone did. But what Atticus had just told her wasn’t the type of news being spread around. It was close to a few of the rumors she’d read, but this wasn’t a theory on a message board. This was real.

She hugged herself.

“So you can imagine how desperate we are to put an end to this. After Harper found the same usernames, we got another break when a former member of Ace’s hacker team was discovered to be connected to the program hackers. We retrieved data from one of his laptops that helped lead us to two of the hackers, as well as several real names of people connected to them, and who used to work for NSSL.”

“The public information out there hints the hacking was an inside job at NSSL. Is that true?”

“Yes and no. We do know key people involved with the project had to have leaked information the hackers would have needed to access and take down the program. As far as we know, none of the hackers actually worked on the program itself. And what the public doesn’t know is that information was on separate servers. That fact was never leaked to the media.”

She nodded several times. “Very clever. Because the info came from those servers, all of you knew it had to be people with access to them.”

“Yes, except there were over fifteen hundred people working on the project in one form or another, and approximately one hundred and fifty with access to the key facts we know the hackers had.”

“I had no idea it was that massive.” There was a lot of information circulating that Emma now realized was flat out wrong.

“Our problem now is that we can’t simply hack into the program and change the code. The hackers, or one of them, screwed up. They put a string of code in the wrong place, and now the program is functioning on its own. It’s doing what it was designed to do. Feed off the earth’s magnetic fields. But instead of someone telling it when, where, and how much, it’s simply running continuously.”

“So to stop it you either need to figure out a way to hack back in, or shut down the fields. Which of course you can’t do.”

“We can’t shut them down, obviously, but we might be able to reverse them.”

“Excuse me?” Could that actually be done?

“It’s a long shot, but we have people working on the possibility.”

“I had no idea things were this dire. I suppose I assumed like everyone that we could simply survive like this for as long as we needed to.”

“That’s what we all thought at first.”

“So why the push for this app? I mean, wouldn’t my skills be better used looking for the final hacker?”

“I have a team of people on that. The other eleven Weathermen each also have a team on it. I’m a person who thinks ahead. I believe we will find a way to shut down the program. One day we will be able to live on the surface again. So in the meantime, I need to think of ways my company can stay in business and help people accomplish useful things at the same time.”

Once again, Emma hoped her disappointment didn’t show. While his plan for utilizing her skills was a challenging one, after hearing what he’d said about their progress so far, and how little time they all had, she now wanted to help them find this last hacker.

“What do you think?” he asked, uncrossing his legs. “Are you up to the challenge?” His gaze was so intense she almost started picturing him nude again. She wondered what it would be like to look into his eyes while making love, then realized he’d asked her a question she hadn’t yet answered.

“Absolutely.”

When he smiled, she hoped she’d been wrong about how much time had passed before she’d answered. He’d wonder if he hadn’t hired a fool.

Her new job had suddenly become even more interesting than she’d believed it was before meeting him. She’d be an idiot to return to Central now, knowing what she knew. Her entire life had changed, just as she’d dreamed it would. She only hoped she was up to the challenge of not only coming up with the gadget he envisioned, but managing not to fall under his spell.

Now she understood what all the fuss was about concerning these men. Atticus was hypnotic. Charisma and charm oozed from him. Keeping her wits about her would be a much bigger challenge than designing the device and its software.

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