Not even the normally cathartic influence of death metal pouring directly into his brain from the cybernetic MP3 player implanted behind his ear could calm Peter Carragher today. The driving beats, the wall of guitars, the thundering bass, shrieking vocals, none of it drowned out the angry thoughts buzzing around his cranium. One of the programmers under his charge, Josh, had worn down his last nerve. Peter hadn't hired Josh. Given the choice, Peter never would have.

When Peter's small cybernetic firmware outfit had been bought by the global megacorporation and local government licensee Chronosoft, he had brought his own team of twelve over with him, personally ensuring every one of them received a generous benefits packages, lucrative stock conversions and ample salaries. The money had been too good to pass up. Cfirm, Inc. LLC had been a fantastic bit of fun as a startup, successful enough to turn a decent profit in their second year of existence. Peter could have afforded a couple of years off with the takeover money, but he'd never been one for fuck off time. Better to be working, be productive, and take what vacation the wife forced on him than live an idle life. He'd agreed to head the new CFirm Division in Chronosoft R&D's Los Angeles division, complete with swanky new digs at the recently completed downtown complex across the street from Chronosoft's LGL City Hall. Peter wasn't quite sure how he felt about corporate ownership of local government, but it hadn't seemed to have much effect on his day to day life. He took the dirigible into work from the suburbs every day instead of driving the choked L.A. freeways. But other than mode of transportation, he ate like he used to, he watched his TV like he used to, he made love to his wife every few days like always. His life was that of a typical middle management schmuck with a thinning hairline and expanding paunch.

Peter rubbed that paunch now, the first acidic rumblings of heartburn stirring up his esophagus. That fucker Josh was burning a hole in Peter's gut. Even in the old days, CFirm lived in a constant state of deadline crunch time. New owners didn't change the timelines, only the stakes. Firmware had to be written according to the marketing milestones, which usually meant seat-of-the-pants coding. It had to be tested as meticulously as possible by the army of Bangladeshi children the company had contracted for Q&A. And then it had to be uploaded to the servers for GlobalNet deployment by a certain date or there would be "hell to pay." In CFirm Inc., LLC terms, "hell to pay" meant bowing and scraping to the bank for a bridge loan to keep the lights on and make payroll. In Chronosoft lingo, it meant the stock price took a shit until the product got a firm ship date, all the executives just above and just below Peter's pay grade saw the value of their golden parachutes dip and got very, very antsy. Their anxiety turned into a load of scrutiny that would land directly on Peter's balls. The next project might be awarded to a different firmware department or worse, be outsourced to some shit-encrusted backwater software house in Africa or some Slavic state whose idea of labor laws originated in the Middle Ages.

Josh's task was a simple one. Get a 3% increase in response time on that cyberarm code he'd been working on for a week longer than he should have been, and do it without acting like a massive, whiny douche. Massive, whiny douche was Josh's default state of being, of course. The slovenly beanpole looked perpetually pissed off. He would spend whole workdays including overtime ensconced in his crèche, coding away or fucking off on the GlobalNet depending on the hour of the day and whether or not he was under observation. When he did manage to crawl into the cold fluorescent light of the cube farm, he reeked of old sweat and sneered at everyone. Josh had a vocal opinion on everything, a cocky assurance that everything he thought, believed or said had to be absolutely 100% correct, and a vast storehouse of personal experience that could never be topped. If Peter had climbed Mount Everest, Josh would claim to have done that AND to have climbed Olympus Mons on the surface of Mars by himself. His work, if one could call it that, had flashes of brilliance. Those flashes were all too often lost in the mountain of sloppy mediocrity that only a three-star talent with delusions of five-star skill could produce.