This, however, was no exercise. If she failed this evaluation, none of her years of hard work and dedication would matter. She would lose her position amongst the Ballasts and would have to take up one of the menial occupations of the Cores. If she did well, a prosperous future would be well within her grasp.
With one last deep breath, Dara looked at the screen. As she exhaled, she cleared her mind. To her immense relief, as soon as she started to pick apart the problem, she lost all sense of her surroundings, her mind completely focused on unraveling it and implementing a solution.
At first glance, the problem appeared to be simple, but Dara knew the engineers wouldn’t lob anything quite so easy at her. Because she had been first in her class, they would want to test the limits of her abilities, so she continued examining the schematics in front of her, her mind working rapidly to diagnose and analyze the problem. She ran through a couple of scenarios, rejecting several possible solutions until, finally, everything clicked into place. She broke into a wide grin as her fingers flew over the interface. It was tempting to pump her fist in the air when the machinery resumed its smooth operation, but she managed to restrain herself—barely.
Almost instantly, a door opened and a tall, imposing man entered, followed by two women and one other man.
“Ms. Morrow, I’m Head of Engineering Andersen, and these are my subordinates, Senior Engineers D’Angelo, Walters, and Chen,” the tall man said.
Stunned, Dara hoped she wasn’t gaping. She’d had no idea the Head of Engineering would be supervising her evaluation, which was a good thing. Had she known, she’d have been even sicker with apprehension.
“P-pleased to meet you,” Dara said, cringing internally at her stutter. She offered her hand first to Andersen, who shook it with a bruising grip. Each of the others shook her hand in turn, and Dara tried her best not to squirm as they studied her.
“Due to the high level of aptitude shown by your evaluation results, you have been selected for a specialized apprenticeship program. You and two other candidates will spend a year under the tutelage of the senior engineers. The highest performer may earn the opportunity to become my assistant,” Andersen announced. His eerie blue eyes were very keen, and it was clear to Dara that this was a man who missed nothing.
“Oh, thank you, Head of Engineering Andersen. This is truly an honor, and I’ll work very hard to prove myself worthy,” Dara said. She fought to remain composed as a giddy combination of relief and excitement washed over her.
“I will expect you tomorrow morning at six-thirty sharp, when you will begin your training with Senior Engineer D’Angelo. A word of caution to you, Ms. Morrow: you must operate at your peak each and every day. I expect nothing less than a stellar performance from you.” Andersen’s eyes met hers, and Dara had the disconcerting sensation that his gaze was boring straight through her, stripping away skin and bone, muscle and sinew until all that was left was her very essence, her innermost thoughts. She tried hard to suppress a shudder and thought she saw Andersen’s mouth quirk, as if he had noticed her discomfiture.
“I assure you, sir, I will not disappoint you,” Dara vowed. The thought of working with this towering, blond, imperious man was dismaying, but she wouldn’t allow this to show—she couldn’t. She knew full well that becoming the assistant to the Head of Engineering would mean big things for her. If she had to work herself half to death in order to impress him, so be it. Nothing mattered more than securing her future with Magnum.
“I will see you in the morning.” He examined her for one excruciating moment before turning smartly and leaving the room.
“Congratulations, Contributor Morrow,” Walters said, smiling warmly.
“We’ll see what you can do tomorrow,” Chen told her, a muscle in his cheek twitching. The two shook her hand and left the room.
“I’ll escort you to the exit,” D’Angelo offered. Her face betrayed nothing, and Dara’s stomach quaked. The Senior Engineer was taller than Dara, her dark hair pulled back in an immaculate twist. Her face would have been devastatingly beautiful were it not for the cold expression in her eyes. As D’Angelo turned, Dara shivered.
They wound their way through the corridors of headquarters, Dara peeking into every window as inconspicuously as possible. Though apprehensive about her severe master, she was barely able to contain the excitement that made her feel as if she wanted to fly apart. She couldn’t believe that she was actually here, in Magnum’s headquarters, and that she was going to become a part of its team. Her head spun as she thought about her acceptance into the elite apprenticeship. She couldn’t imagine a more perfect beginning to her career.
They finally reached the exit, which led into the thoroughfares ringing the dome. D’Angelo closed the door gently behind her.
“Be prompt tomorrow,” D’Angelo instructed, smiling and nodding at a man with a Magnum badge who was passing by, before turning back to Dara, all trace of the smile gone. It was disconcerting.
“I will,” Dara promised.
“Head of Engineering Andersen is a man of many talents and one of Magnum’s most valued Contributors. He has high expectations and misses little,” D’Angelo said, emphasizing the last two words. “You must be meticulous.” Each syllable was like a hammer blow, and Dara forced herself to stand up straighter.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”