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Day Thirteen: Star-Crossed

Tod Piskel looked up from his spreadsheets as the door opened. The specs on the new power distribution system were dancing in front of his eyes, nearly obscuring the woman who had just walked in.

“Good morning, Justine,” he said, standing up hastily. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Justine Sekigawa was the one woman everyone at Cerbecorp could identify on sight. Not just because she was gorgeous. They were all gorgeous over there in Sales and Marketing, which did wonders for their yearly performance bonuses. Justine was tall and fine-boned, with deep brown eyes that could flash from wide-eyed innocence to razor sharpness in an instant. She had the long, black hair of her Japanese heritage, which was sexier pulled back into a ponytail than the most elaborate hairdo of any other woman in the office. She wore tailored suits, managed to glide while wearing high heels, and was the single most interesting person on the payroll.

She left the door open when she entered. “We need to know more about this power system,” she said, dropping a folder full of diagrams and technical specs. “The customer is starting to ask questions that we can’t answer.”

Tod started flipping through the file. “I can get you more up-to-date stuff, but we’re still working out the kinks.” His glances jumped between the files and her, and he kept a running monologue in his head: Look at her face. Her face. Her face. “If you want, I could go over these and give you some notes.”

She nodded, riffed through the pictures, and pulled out one displaying a complex series of graphs. “Now, on the internal regulator unit, what’s the power ratio of the secondary slip-box?”

Tod stood behind her. She smelled like vanilla. “It’s on a 3 to 4 ratio, if everything’s working right. It can still operate as low as 2 to 5, but anything lower than that and you’re asking for trouble.”

“Why?” She turned around and they both realized that they were closer to each other than they were really comfortable with. She stepped back. So did he. He grinned, ran his hand through his thinning hair. She flashed a quick smile. “What’s the problem with a 2 to 5?” she asked, carefully inspecting the diagram.

“Well,” he started. He took a step towards her, then a step back. “It’s like this: if the power ratio goes too low, then you run the risk of overclocking the slip-box. Do that, and the power feed to the main coupler becomes inconsistent. If that happens, then…”

The pause hung in the air for a moment. “Then what?” she asked.

He fidgeted for a moment, then dug out another diagram and stood next to her. “Do you see the primary piston shaft here, and the secondary one over here?” He pointed with his finger, and was acutely aware that he really should stop biting his nails. He moved his hand when she nodded. “These pistons have to be kept in sync. One goes up, the other goes down. One goes in, the other goes… um…” He swallowed hard. That perfume was amazing. “Anyway, if the power feed isn’t consistent, then the pistons go out of sync, and the whole system gets thrown into chaos.” He cleared his throat and stepped away again. Any more time next to her and he would have to go back behind his desk and sit down until she left.

“Okay,” she said. She seemed completely oblivious, but that couldn’t be. Not Justine. “One more thing and I’ll get out of your hair.”

He mussed the thinning patch that he had left. “Too late,” he said, chuckling.

She put a hand to her mouth, and managed to actually look ashamed. “Oh, I’m sorry, Tod. You know I didn’t mean -”

“I know, I know,” he said. He nearly reached out to touch her arm, but his hand wouldn’t move. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I – Okay. I am sorry, though.” She looked genuinely upset. This was Justine talking to him. Justine, who made a customer cry and then place the biggest order of the quarter. Justine, who argued with accounting about her expenses and won. And if the rumors were true, she once sent the CEO to get her a cup of coffee at a shareholder’s meeting. If anyone should be apologizing, he thought, it should be me.

“Forget about it.”

She took a moment to recompose. Tod shut the door with a soft click.

“In figure five, I -” Justine looked up at the door, then at Tod. “What’s going on?” she asked.

Tod stood a few feet away. He had gone to the Cerbecorp Mandatory Sexual Harassment Seminar with everyone else after that little incident back in February with Leon and Patrice. The threat of public shame was almost as bad as losing his job, and neither of them were things he wanted to have to being up next time his parents called. “I know this is a little out of the ordinary,” he said, “and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.”

“What?” she asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, I was wondering if you might want to…” He shrugged. “Go out for dinner sometime. You know, just you and me.”

The words hung in the air. He regretted them the moment they left his mouth, and even though Justine’s face hadn’t changed – he would have spotted a change if there had been one – he knew that underneath her face she was already laughing. A gorgeous woman like her wouldn’t be seen dead with a skinny bald man like him. Dinner sometime. Right. She probably wouldn’t even walk out to the sandwich truck with him. That moment of confidence evaporated utterly, leaving only shame. He braced himself for the laughter. Or screaming. Screaming was a definite possibility.

Justine put the folder carefully down on his desk and clasped her hands together in front of her. “Tod,” she said quietly. “I know you mean well…”

“Okay,” he said. “I get it, I’ll go to HR tomorrow….”

She held up a hand. “Let me finish.” She took a deep breath, and blinked a few times. “I know you mean well, and that sounds like a wonderful idea….”

“A what?”

She stepped up to him and put a hand on his chest. “Believe me, Tod. I would be happy to go out with you. I think you’re certainly very sweet. You’re the only guy in R&D – one of the only guys in the company who doesn’t talk to me like I’m an idiot, or like you’re terrified I’ll break you in half.”

“Well, I was -”

“And I think you would be a really interesting person to know.” She held his eyes with hers, and then looked down. She took her hand away. Her voice shook slightly. “But I can’t.”

They stood like that for a moment. He reached out and, after a couple of false starts, took her hand. She was shaking. “Is it… is it someone else?” he asked. “I mean, I’m not asking you to marry me, Justine. It’s only dinner, right?” He looked up at her. “As friends, right?”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Tod. It just can’t be.” To his wonder, a tear actually slid from her eye and made its way down her cheek. Before he could make the supremely romantic move of wiping it away, she took a deep breath and did it herself. She stepped back from him and recomposed herself. When she spoke again, the tremor in her voice was gone. “I’m in Marketing, Tod. You’re an engineer.” She picked up her folder from the desk and tucked it under her arm. With her usual briskness, she walked to the door, opened it, and then stopped.

Justine didn’t turn around, not completely, but he could tell that she wanted to. “It would never work,” she said. And then she was gone.

Tod stood in his doorway and watched her glide through the cube farm.

“What the hell just happened?” he asked himself.

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