Code Red

Nerdy, New York based programming genius Dave Velasquez leads a quiet existence. He's well-liked at work but lacks a social life. He's loved by his family but lives on the other side of the country. He's brilliant at his job but has little to no ambition. At least not until a unanimous vote at work lands him the offer of head of the programming department in California. The promotion comes with a sweet apartment, a considerable raise, and driving distance to his home town and family. But it also means leaving behind the woman he is in love with and the friends he's finally starting to make in New York, and it turns out more challenges await him when he arrives on the West Coast.

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1. Chapter One

January 24th, 2014

The only good thing about working shifts starting at six in the morning was that I never got caught up in morning traffic. I always left my shitty studio apartment in Jersey a little too late, despite my best intentions of leaving early and grabbing decent coffee on the way to the office. It just wasn’t meant to happen; my bed was way too warm and comfortable for me to not snooze a bit longer than I should every morning. Especially on Fridays like this one.  

By the time various modes of public transportation had brought me to downtown New York, I was all but running through the enormous glass doors to present myself in the appropriate room at six o’clock sharp. There was no particular reason or need for this since the offices were largely empty at this hour with the exception of round the clock cleaning staff. I nodded at Joe, the friendly head of security, as I rushed across the shiny marble floors of the entrance hall and slammed my hand into the elevator button.

Another perk of working the early bird shift: no one to compete with for a spot in the way too small and overused elevator. Two good things about getting up many hours before daybreak, then. In my opinion, the marketing and PR departments shouldn’t be allowed to use the building’s only elevator unless they had special needs. Their offices were on the second and third floor respectively and most of the staff liked to brag about their personal records on their morning runs in Central Park over lunch. If they were as fit as they seemed to think, one or two flights of stairs shouldn’t be a big deal to them, yet somehow they didn’t seem to share my views.

Most of the traffic in the building, like most things in New York, went upwards. Above Marketing was Design and Layout followed by the executive board, and at the very top was the CEO and owner, Mark Wilkins. The only things reaching above his quarters were the large letters mounted on top of the building proclaiming to the rest of the world where NewTech was residing. And despite this continuous upwards flow of people and ideas and decision-making, most of the company’s practical work happened below ground.

The lift arrived and I stepped in, letting it carry me down to the basement regions and stepping out on the minus second floor. The room I entered shared no resemblance with the entrance hall I’d just been in. The veined marble that covered the floor, walls and pillars in the room above ground had been replaced by thin, black carpet and little cubicles that looked like they’d come from IKEA. Each cubicle had two monitors attached to one computer and papers pinned to the padded walls.

With a sigh, I scribbled my name on an old-fashioned chalkboard next to the little tea kitchen where I usually had my morning coffee. The empty offices in the morning always reminded me of the choices I’d made in life and the memorable early-twenties evenings I’d given up for this job. Not that there’d been many of those while I was studying, either.

I dragged my sleepy ass over to my personal cubicle and switched on the stationary, then left again to get my first fix of coffee for the day. In an hour, the new batch of trainees would come pouring in, and I’d have to feel awake enough to not bite their heads off as soon as they asked their inevitably stupid questions. The screens were still showing the start-up screen when I returned with a steaming cup of something that vaguely resembled caffeine rich coffee from the machine in the kitchen.

Sipping my drink, I shrugged off my winter coat and hung it on the back of the chair, making a mental note to place it on the hooks at the entrance before anybody else showed up but too lazy to follow through immediately. Then I sat down and logged in, granting myself access to the billions of lines of coding I’d been hired to help develop a couple of years back. The drawings and notes pinned to my cubicle’s walls told me where I’d left off the day before and where I was going with what I’d planned on doing for the day.

Ever since I’d been asked to help train the new hires, I’d received a considerably higher salary and had a not unnoticeable decline in the work that I was supposed to do. Even though I could’ve completed the entire section they were being asked to do in half the time it took three people to do it, Frank, the manager, had insisted that I teach them to do it instead. The logic behind the decision, he’d said when I asked, was that if they were trained by somebody who knew exactly what he was doing, their training would be so much more efficient.

Before I knew it, I was hammering away on my keyboard and only paused with one hand to lead my coffee cup to my lips and back to the table. At least until seven came around and the trainees started pouring in in various stages of lateness and drunkenness, which was to be expected on a Friday morning in New York City. Any of my other trainers would’ve reprimanded them for their sloppy attitudes towards their work but I wasn’t in the mood, and they’d all know soon enough that they shouldn’t have gone out drinking on Thursday night before a seven o’clock shift.

Starting up seemed to take them longer than usual, so I stayed at my desk and occasionally dug into the coding again while I kept an eye on them. Activity picked up around eight when the rest of the office came in for the day’s work. I said a few quick good mornings to the ones among the staff I considered my friends and went to get a second cup of coffee. While I was watching a mixture of boiling water and coffee powder running into the little cardboard cup, I hung my coat where it belonged and looked out at the sea of little cubicles and the nerdy-looking people like myself that sat in them.

“Sarah, can I ask you something?” a voice whispered at one of the nearby desks.

Sarah, who’d been on my training team back in the days, straightened up in her chair and looked sideways at the blonde young woman who was standing next to her. “Sorry, I’m a little busy. But,” she leaned backwards and craned her neck, meeting my eyes. “You assisting today?”

“Yup,” I replied, “just getting a refill.” To show what I meant, I held up the now full coffee cup.

Sarah stuck her tongue out at me and then muttered something about hiding from my responsibilities before turning back to the trainee. “Dave’s on duty. He can help you.”

The young woman, probably not even through her degree yet, glanced at me uncertainly, thanked Sarah, and shuffled nervously in my direction. If the look in her eyes was any indication, I had a bit of a reputation for roasting the new people as soon as they required me to do my job, and it bothered me more than it should have. She was probably just uncomfortable because she didn’t know me.

“Hey there,” I said with the smile I knew annoyed most of my co-workers in the morning. “Need any help?”

“Yeah,” she admitted, and I tried to pretend I didn’t see her eyes going straight to my feet when she spoke to me. Like everybody else, she probably couldn’t help it so there was really no need for me to get upset.

“Alright,” I said and made a gesture with my coffee hand towards the only empty desk on the floor besides my own. “Let’s have a look. What’s your name?”

“Helen.”

Most people did that annoying thing where they waited for me to take the lead so they could measure my pace whenever I needed to go somewhere, but this new trainee either didn’t see the point or simply forgot. Either way, she led the way back to her desk and sat down in her chair, gesturing to the screen and explaining the problem. I leaned over to have a closer look, craning my neck to make sure my glasses were actually catching the text.

The coding looked fine as far as I could see, so I skimmed over her planning to see what it was that might be causing her trouble. What she couldn’t figure out was fairly simple to me, so I talked her through how to do it and made her take notes afterwards so she wouldn’t have to ask a second time. She listened intently, then thanked me and let me go.

Not too long after, one of her fellow newbies walked up to my desk just as I was finishing a line and started reading along on my left monitor. I’d intended to ignore him until I could finish the line, but the gaze was sufficiently distracting that I just let the keys go and pushed my chair out from under the desk, letting it roll for about a foot or so. “Can I help you?”

He straightened up, giving me a cocky, hung over smile. “Yeah… You’re Dave, right?”

“If I weren’t, I wouldn’t have offered to help,” I told him and gestured lazily to the board with my name on it. Almost immediately afterwards, I regretted making the rude joke and stood up, realizing it wasn’t appreciated by my a few years younger, fresh-out-of-college colleague. “Show me.”

Before we’d even reached his desk, he’d revealed that the problem was the same as the one I’d helped with earlier, and I knew this was going to be a long and repetitive day unless I did something about it. As it turned out, the person in charge of their introductory training hadn’t taught them how to generate a specific and essential button, and if the problem wasn’t addressed they’d have the trainers – meaning me and two of my other colleagues – running around repeating the same thing over and over again for days.

Technically, I was on my way to the break room at eleven when I passed by the manager’s office and decided to stick my head in with a suggestion. She’d always made a big deal of telling me to let her know if things weren’t functioning optimally, and I figured now was as good a time as any to mention it.

When I knocked on the office door, there was a short silence and then, “Yes?”

I let myself in and straightened up. “Sorry, am I interrupting?”

Carol, who’d been my superior since I’d started, was an intimidating lady with graying hair and a nearly inanimate face from too many Botox injections. She was presently seated behind a large desk, a pair of reading glasses dangling from her left hand while her right hovered over her computer keyboard.

“Dave,” she said as if she hadn’t heard my question, sounding way more cheerful than she looked with her brows and the corners of her mouth fixed in place, “come on in.”

Since I was already inside, I closed the door carefully behind me, wondering if this was a good idea. Although the offer of a conversation about the day-to-day on the floor had seemed genuine enough the times she’d brought it up, I wasn’t convinced she’d actually use the feedback.

When I turned back around, she’d pushed her keyboard aside and was gesturing to a comfortable looking chair across from her. “What can I do for you?”

I walked over and sat down, feeling my foot bouncing nervously on the floor – a bad sign. Sooner or later, something bigger would happen unless I could relax. “The trainees,” I began.

“What about them?” she interrupted, cocking her head sideways in something that looked like condescension.

“They haven’t learned how to make one of our essential buttons,” I told her point blank, annoyed with the attitude she was giving me after all the times she’d gone on about how experienced coders and management should be working together more closely. “I was wondering if it’d be possible to arrange a quick workshop for them to save both them and me some time over the next couple of days. It doesn’t have to be today or Monday, but at least some time next week would be convenient for us all.”

She looked at me for a moment as if she was considering how to politely tell me that it wasn’t going to happen. Then she leaned back, her forearms falling casually along the length of her leather armrests. “I’ll do you one better,” she declared in a businesslike tone. “I’ll book a conference room for the next hour and then you can walk them through it right away. Unless you’re too busy.”

Because she was the one making my schedule and planning my workload, I suspected she knew perfectly well that I wasn’t too busy to take an hour out of my day to do this, and it wouldn’t have bothered me if training had been my job. Others were hired to do the training and they were paid considerably more than I was to do it well, so while I didn’t mind assisting on the floor, I preferred doing my actual job to doing theirs. Otherwise, I’d have applied for a trainer’s position when it was available last fall.

Still, picking up other people’s slack was sometimes easier than getting on bad terms with my boss for principles. “I’m not,” I said as peacefully as I could, “I just need to take my break at some point afterwards.”

She waved dismissively, as if she didn’t think there was anything more to discuss. “Take your break whenever you want. Or go home that half an hour earlier if it suits you better.”

Phrasing it like I had an actual choice was smart of her because she and I both knew I’d like to get out of here earlier. The only problem was that I was usually the first person to arrive and one of the last to leave despite a fixed nine-hour shift length in my contract. Overtime paid well and there was usually some crucial employee who didn’t show up for one reason or another, making it necessary for me to stay if we were to stay on track with our coding – especially with the trainees now on the floor.

“Thank you,” I said quietly, not at all grateful.

Carol had turned back to her computer and was slamming her keyboard with such force that I couldn’t help but wonder if the tech team had to change her equipment very frequently. The reading glasses found their way back to the bridge of her nose, and her face fell back into that mask-like expression of pure Botox and no emotion.

My foot was still bouncing, making an impatient tapping noise against the tiled office floor. It must’ve been annoying but at least she didn’t say anything, probably because she knew I couldn’t actually help it. If it were me, I’d have gone nuts from the noise if anybody else had been making it, regardless of whether or not it was intentional.

Finally, she looked back at me with a strained smile and stony gray eyes. “Conference room five on the second floor is all yours whenever you’re ready. I’ve booked it for the next one and a half hour.”

Taking this as my clue, I stood up carefully and managed a smile in return. “Thanks. I’ll get right to it.”

“Excellent.” It was hard to determine if she meant it because her tone was completely flat, and the addition she made when I’d reached the door didn’t help much, “Thank you for coming to me with this, Dave.” 

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