It didn’t take Dara long to learn that, though he was far subtler, Javier could also be ruthless. Thankfully, most of his ruthlessness seemed to be directed at Ryan, but she couldn’t help but be disappointed nonetheless. Though she knew it was unlikely they could be friends, she would have liked a more cordial relationship with her competitors. The backbiting was almost more wearying than the work itself.
“There’s a lot of aggression between Ryan and Javier,” Dara told her master. She and Letizia had gone to their hiding place for another lunchtime debriefing.
“There is, and you’re lucky to have such an advantage.”
“What do you mean?”
“If those two want to engage, let them. The more they make it a battle between the two of them, the easier things will be for you.”
“I don’t want it to be like that,” Dara said, frowning. “I want to get this on my own merits.”
“Merits aren’t any good if you can’t produce.”
“Well, of course not,” Dara snapped. Her frustration with the other woman mounted to the point that she was tempted to stop speaking altogether.
“Look, Dara, I’m not trying to be nasty here. I’m trying to help you grow a thicker skin. You’re going to need it if you want to hack it here.”
“Fine, maybe I am too sensitive,” Dara mumbled.
“There’s no maybe about it, it’s a fact.”
“Then what should I do? You’re good at telling me what I shouldn’t do, but not so good at telling me what I should do.” Horrified, Dara clapped a hand over her mouth.
“First of all, you need to get better at controlling your emotions.” Letizia’s expression was so placid, her voice so even, that she gave the impression Dara had done nothing more than comment on the state of the weather. It proved just how right Letizia was, and the sudden flash of defiance Dara had felt crumbled away.
“Like you,” Dara sighed.
“Yes, like me. There’s no place for your outbursts here. You are here to work and to work hard. You need to remember that if you ever want to have any hope of being successful.”
Dara couldn’t even meet the other woman’s eyes anymore. She felt certain that Letizia despised her and that Letizia resented being stuck with the weakest of the candidates. Though Letizia did seem to find Ryan distasteful, she’d probably have been happier had she been Javier’s master. In fact, the more Dara thought about it, the more certain she felt that Javier and Letizia would be perfectly matched—but maybe that was also part of the plan. Maybe Andersen wanted to pair his engineers with the least compatible candidates, as a test of their skills.
“What else would you suggest?” Dara asked grudgingly.
“Learn everything you can. Use every minute of your spare time to read up on every project Magnum has ever been involved in, as well as viewing every history vid you can find. From now on, Magnum should be your life.”
“Magnum is my life,” Dara insisted.
“No, Dara. What you’re talking about, that’s your childhood fantasy version of life. This is reality.” Letizia gestured around them. “You need to let go of the conviction that you don’t need to change a thing about how you think and act. You need to learn to adapt, to do whatever is necessary to survive.”
Aghast, Dara raised her eyes to meet Letizia’s level gaze. Everything Letizia had said sounded so harsh and yet, at twenty-four, she was already one of the senior engineers. Letizia had brains in spades, but Dara now understood that Letizia’s artful, calculated manner of handling things was the key to her success.
Her master would always come out on top. Despite Chen’s almost unprecedented genius and Walters’s intelligence and capability, only Letizia could plot like a mastermind, and she had youth on her side to boot. When Andersen hit his mandatory retirement age, Letizia would be the one to take over, of that Dara had not the slightest doubt.
“Are there any specific works you would recommend?” Dara asked.
Letizia studied her for a moment before gracing Dara with a brief, satisfied nod. “I can see you’re serious now. Good. And yes, I do have some works to recommend. I’ll give you a chip with some links and, once you’ve absorbed the material, we’ll discuss it and you’ll tell me what you can draw from it that will make you a more competitive Contributor.”
“I’m not going to go easy on you, so you may want to save your thanks,” Letizia warned. “I also have another, more practical suggestion for you.”
“What is it?”
“Have you ever looked at the work Gutierrez and LeTour are doing?”
“No. Why would I do that? We aren’t always working on the same projects.”
“And that’s relevant how?” Letizia stared sharply at Dara.
Turning these words over in her mind, Dara tried to figure out Letizia’s angle with this latest tactic. Slowly, she began to reason aloud. “If I look at what Ryan and Javier are doing, I might get a better picture of their styles, of their thought processes.”
Letizia nodded. “Keep going.”
“If I understand how they work...I can use that to help me think of what they might come up with when we’re assigned to common projects. And that would give me an advantage.”
“I can find their weaknesses and avoid them myself. I can look at their strengths and figure out how I can improve on them.”
“Now you’re starting to think,” Letizia said approvingly, a rare smile crossing her face.
“Why didn’t I ever think of that before?” It seemed so simple, now that Letizia had shed light on it for her.
“Because you’ve always been focused on what you can do.”
“And I need to also think about what everyone else can do.”
Taking a bite of her sandwich, Dara chewed it thoughtfully. A flash of insight struck her. “I wouldn’t be the only one doing this, would I?”
“No,” Letizia confirmed.
“Both Ryan and Javier are doing this already?”
“Yes, though they don’t take the same approach to the information they gain. LeTour looks to sabotage while Gutierrez looks to conquer.”
“I’ve been worrying about the wrong person, haven’t I?”
“Yes, you have. LeTour is nothing more than an annoyance. You need to learn to ignore him. He’ll spend so much time trying to take shots at you that he’ll fail to see his own shortcomings.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve seen it before, Dara. I worked with his father for a while.”
“You did?” Dara asked, with a start.
“Yes, I did. And I can tell you that LeTour is just like his father. They’ll always resort to brute force rather than brains.”
“So I need to stop providing Ryan with opportunities.”
“Precisely. You won’t be able to stop him from making you a target, but you can make yourself a much harder target to hit.”
“And what about Javier?”
“Gutierrez intends to make this a battle of the wits right to the bitter end. Don’t ever underestimate his ambition. He may be a nicer, more amenable person than LeTour, but don’t ever let that lull you into thinking he’s your friend.”
“How does that make him any different?”
“The difference is that LeTour is vicious. He wants to cause damage and inflict pain. Gutierrez, on the other hand, has no interest in that because he neither needs nor wants to score points by destroying others. What he wants, more than anything, is to survive.”
Letting the words sink in for a moment before responding, Dara finally said, “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
“Yes, I have. And I trust that you’ll not only think about these things, you’ll find a way to make this information useful to you.”
“Prove it to me.” With that, Letizia swiftly packed up her things and stood, leaving Dara to scurry after her.