As she entered the conference room, Dara held her breath. To her immense relief, she had arrived before the other candidates, a fact which seemed to please Letizia enormously. Her master didn’t even bother hiding the triumphant look on her face. Andersen sat at the head of the table and indicated chairs to his right.
A moment later, the door to the conference room opened, and Contributor Chen entered. Dara’s stomach sank as she saw who followed him.
“Ryan LeTour is one of the apprentices?” Dara whispered to Letizia, who quirked a brow at her.
Ryan looked at Dara with a rather sour expression, and she smiled sweetly at him in response. He glared at her for a second before turning his full attention to Andersen.
Before Dara could worry too much about Ryan, the door opened again. Contributor Walters entered with Javier Gutierrez, and Dara felt the slightest twinge of relief. Though she hadn’t expected the apprenticeship to be easy, her competition made her unhappier than she wanted to admit.
As surreptitiously as possible, Dara studied the other senior engineers. Tall and dark-skinned, with close-cropped dark hair that accentuated her lovely brown eyes and full mouth, Walters appeared to be in her mid-thirties. Dara envied the dignified, confident way the senior engineer carried herself.
Short and wiry, Chen also looked to be in his mid-thirties. His whole body vibrated, as if it couldn’t contain his energy. Even the tips of his short, spiky black hair seemed to crackle with electricity.
“Welcome, candidates, to Magnum’s most prestigious engineering apprenticeship,” Andersen said, rising from his seat. With a slight gesture of his hand, the lights dimmed, and the Magnum logo appeared behind him. “As you know, Magnum is a premier Job Creator, and we are all privileged to Contribute to Magnum’s success.
“Much is expected of Magnum’s apprentices, but this is especially true of the three of you. Your evaluation results suggest that you are the cream of the crop. You had best be prepared to work your hardest to prove it.”
Andersen fixed his gaze on each of them in turn. When he turned his attention on her, Dara ignored her fluttering stomach and tried to project an air of composure. She let out a nearly audible sigh of relief as he looked away from her.
“Understand this: your being here guarantees nothing,” Andersen informed them. “I have been known to reject all candidates when I’ve felt they had nothing to offer. It will be up to you to prove to me that this will not be one of those years.”
As he continued on in this vein, Dara’s throat tightened and her palms sweated. The palpable tension in the room didn’t ease until he finally moved on, explaining Magnum’s organizational structure. From there, he gave them an overview of each of the projects on which the engineering teams were working.
By the time Andersen began to wrap up, it was already well after two o’clock. Though fascinated, Dara struggled to ignore her rumbling stomach, and she couldn’t help but suspect Andersen had intentionally carried on for so long as a means of testing the apprentices’ stamina.
“We will reconvene in engineering in thirty minutes,” Andersen ordered.
“Come on, Dara,” Letizia said, standing up and gathering her things while Dara remained glued to her seat, dumbfounded.
“Uh, right.” Dara scrambled to her feet.
“I know a spot where we can sit and talk for a while, but we’ll need to walk quickly,” Letizia said, speaking in a low voice. Dara nodded and picked up her pace in an attempt to match Letizia’s much longer stride.
They wound their way through several corridors and, just as Dara became hopelessly lost, Letizia led her into a small alcove between two conference rooms.
“I hope you can talk and eat at the same time,” Letizia said. “If not, don’t eat. You need to tell me everything you know about your competition.”
A little taken aback, Dara nodded curtly and began yanking her lunch things out, talking all the while. “Ryan LeTour consistently scored near the top in my classes.” She paused for a second, taking a bite of her sandwich and chewing.
“Talk while you chew,” Letizia said brusquely, sighing exasperatedly at the expression on Dara’s face. “Get used to it. There’s no time for leisurely eating.”
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Dara asked, knowing she was getting off topic.
“I never eat during shift—and it would be a good idea for you to learn to do so as well.”
“Right.” Dara’s stomach clenched in protest.
“So LeTour got high scores, so what? That doesn’t tell me anything about him.”
“He’s ruthless,” Dara blurted, her face flaming from a mixture of embarrassment and bewilderment.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Letizia muttered. “Ruthless how?”
“Ruthless, ruthless: he’ll stop at nothing to succeed and he’ll get away with it. More than once he was suspected of sabotaging other students, but no one could ever prove it. He knows how to cover his tracks.”
“So no frontal assaults on him.” Letizia pulled her stylus and tablet out and began scribbling furiously. “He must have something to lose. We’ll have to ferret it out.”
Dara blanched. What Letizia proposed sounded every bit as ruthless as Ryan’s behavior, and Dara didn’t really know if she wanted to play that game. But before she could voice this thought, Letizia moved on.
“What about Gutierrez?”
“I don’t know,” Dara said honestly. “He wants to win, of course, and he’s brilliant. But it’s hard to tell exactly how he plays the game.”
“So he’s a much bigger threat than LeTour. Fortunately for you, I’m excellent at studying others.”
“Studying others?” Dara asked, mentally kicking herself for sounding like such an idiot.
“Yes, Dara. How do you think I got where I am? Surely you’ve noticed that both Jin and Maxine are quite a bit older than I am. Don’t take that to mean that I’m a better engineer. I’m not. I’m just very, very good at playing the game.”
“I see.” Dara suddenly didn’t have much appetite left. Sure, she was lucky to have Letizia as a master, but what would happen when her apprenticeship ended and she became Letizia’s colleague?
“You will. I’ll teach you,” Letizia said brusquely. “Now come on, we only have ten minutes to get back to engineering.
“I’m ready.” When Letizia turned away, Dara allowed herself the luxury of a frown as she studied the remnants of her lunch. She hastily shoved them into a trash chute, her stomach protesting loudly.
It occurred to her that Letizia and the other engineers might have much more to lose than the apprentices. She had been so focused on the competition between apprentices that she’d forgotten the competition between the engineers was every bit as fierce.