Joey listened for a minute to the sound of tapping keys on the other side of the cubicle wall. He was trying to figure out if Smith was actually working, or just trying to break the thick silence filling the game development studio.

After the four-hour meeting this afternoon, nobody wanted to hear another human voice. Most of the programmers and systems guys had their headphones on and their eyes glued to their monitors. Occasionally a mouse click would echo around the room. The only person typing was Smith, and the more Joey listened, the more he was convinced no real words were being formed.

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Joey found an expendable sticky note and ripped it in half. On the bottom half he wrote, "Bagel run?" Then he balled it up and tossed it over the cubicle wall. He heard the typing stop. Soon the crumpled piece of yellow paper came back. Joey flattened it out and saw his own words crossed out, and a new phrase written beneath it. "Help. Chained to desk. Send caffeine and salty carbs."

Joey snickered. He felt half the eyes in the room turn on him. He pulled up his headphones and clicked his mouse once. The accusatory gazes slid away. Joey found his pen. He realized none of the flurry of yellow sticky notes covering his desk and monitor were relevant anymore. Not after this meeting. He grabbed one with some old weapon balancing calculations on it. "Beer run?" he wrote.

He tossed it over the wall and heard some shuffling of feet under the desk.

Before he got a response, Anton walked in.

"Hey, why all the long faces?" Everyone flinched. Anton grinned around the room. "It's just another challenge, guys. Like, you know, we walked in and found the big boss for this level. We just have to figure out how to take him down!" He pumped his fists.

Easy for the lead producer to say. He's supposed to be managing people and schedules and budgets. He's one of the reasons they were in this mess, being asked to trash all the cool features in the game and make it "edgier." Whatever that means.

Anton's pep talk was met with more stony silence, and the glares didn't get any friendlier.

"Come on everybody," Anton kept going. "You know we're all counting on you. Nobody would be asking you to take on this challenge if we didn't think you could do it." He paused. "And you know what will happen if we fail."

All eyes turned to the two empty desks next to Joey and Smith. They were part of one cubicle pod, and until a few days ago all the desks had occupants. Nobody ever talked about what happened to Leon and Uri. They just didn't show up the day after the last missed deadline. Anton packed up their stuff later that day and took it out in boxes. The long stretches of silence started then. By now, everyone had a lot of practice keeping their mouths shut.

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