Packet Trade – Sample (Full)

Chapter One: Pirates vs. Ninjas

“One final question, Ms. Jones, and I want you to give us your gut reaction. Don’t think about it, just say the first thing that comes to mind.”

So far the internship interview had been tough, but more or less what I’d expected. I’d done the research. I watched the YouTube videos. I knew about Google’s unanswerable questions and the lose-lose scenarios. I thought I was prepared.

The board of three interviewers were professional and they obviously knew the technical minutia of running a database cluster. It reminded me more of a final exam designed to fail half the class than anything else. That was fine. I knew my way around a database better than anywhere else, and I could talk tech until I ran out of breath. And it wasn’t terribly strange that none of us knew who the company was that was running the interviews. This could be a secretive industry.

The Computer Science department vouched for them, and Anwar, my semantic web TA, had a total gleam in his eye when I told him I’d been chosen to interview. He’d had this internship himself a few years back and all he’d say about it was that it was “the best thing ever.” It was the most desirable interview of them all; maybe the secrecy was part of the allure. Even so, I should have known something was up after that final question.

The interviewer, a forty-something Native American woman in a power suit, leaned in toward me and I forgot to breathe.

“Pirates or ninjas?”

What? I still don’t know why I said what I did. I wonder what would have happened if I’d gone the other way. Would I be sitting in some hotel lounge in Tokyo instead of a beach bar in Nicaragua?

I wasn’t looking for adventure; I certainly wasn’t trying to change my life. Sometimes when things happen it all feels random and it’s only later that you say, “That was it — that was the thing that made all the difference.” But then sometimes it’s obvious from the start that you’ve entered an entirely different world.

This was one of the obvious times. Condensation pooled on the plastic tablecloth at the base of the unfamiliar beer bottle. I watched as a droplet formed out of nowhere, growing until gravity took it and it rolled down the Toña label to become part of the puddle. There was a drop of sweat following the same pattern down my back. I didn’t want to think about where it was ending up.

It felt like I’d been sweaty forever. It didn’t seem to matter how many lukewarm showers I took, I never felt clean. I knew it was mostly humidity but it was gross. I hadn’t been this hot since we’d gone to India to visit my grandparents’ old village, but I’d only been seven. No soggy bra making me feel like I was wearing a wet rag around my chest.

I picked up my beer, enjoying the cool of the bottle in my hand. I don’t even like beer, but cerveza is one of the four Spanish words I know, and doing the exchange between córdobas and dollars in my head told me the beer was cheap. I’d been here a couple of days — they told me to make some room in my itinerary for missed connections, so I had.

I was only in Managua long enough to find my way from the airport to the bus station, where I’d boarded what must be the fanciest bus ever made. There were attendants wearing what looked like 1970s stewardess uniforms. If I hadn’t been so groggy, I might have wondered if I was hallucinating. The reckless driving of the conductor was real enough, though. I nodded off for a while in the plush seats, then after what seemed like no time I was disgorged in the bustling metropolis of San Juan del Sur.

I don’t know what I expected, but the few tidy blocks of bars, restaurants, hostels and surf gear stores that made up the town wasn’t it. A loud laugh from the next table startled me, and I looked over at a group of surfers — probably Americans. I looked down at the skinny legs sticking out of my khaki shorts, the battered paperback soaking up the condensation on the tablecloth, the hand-me-down duffel bag at my feet.

What the hell was I doing here? I slugged on the beer and tried to ignore its lemonade-gone-bad taste.

A shadow fell over me and I looked up. It was much brighter outside than it was in the bar and I couldn’t make out the person blocking the light.

“Are you Jones? Uh, Duh-vie Jones?” It wasn’t the worst attempt at my first name I’d ever heard, and at least he tried.

“That’s me,” I said, “and it’s Devi. Like the boy’s name.”

“Davy?” he echoed and I thought I caught a smile forming on his face.

“Yeah. Are you the captain?”

“No.” The smile fully blossomed. He moved out of the sun and I got a look at him. Late twenties, maybe. Blond hair, deep tan, but he somehow didn’t look anything like the surfer dudes that filled the beaches and hostels here. “I’m the mate, Isaac. Skipper’s talking to the Capitanía getting your paperwork settled.” Was I supposed to know what that meant? Was I supposed to have done something? He didn’t say anything else about it, instead he looked down at my bag. “That’s all your stuff?”

I nodded. My heart started to bang, the sound of blood rushed in my head and I realized that this was it. I was really doing this. I was going to get on a boat with a stupid name and a bunch of strangers and sail away. I don’t know if panic showed in my face, but Isaac didn’t look fazed.

“Glad to see someone who actually follows the instructions. You wouldn’t believe the stuff some of the people we’ve had come through have tried to bring aboard. The Bucket ain’t a cruise ship.” He looked at the battered watch on his wrist. “We’ll be heading out next morning, but it’s good to have a night aboard before we get under way. You checked out of your hostel already?”

“Yeah,” I said, fighting the urge to run.

“Well,” he said, “we can get going any time you want. Though, if it’s okay with you, I’ve got a mad hankering for a cheeseburger and this place does a good one. You mind if I get a bite before we go?”

“Um, sure?”

“Great! Want anything?” My stomach wasn’t happy at all with the half a beer I’d drunk, and the thought of a burger did nothing to help, but I was really thirsty and there was no way I was finishing that beer.

“You think they have some kind of juice?”

He laughed and said, “Oh, yeah. They have all the juice. Any preference?”

“Anything but apple.”

“Gotcha.” He ambled off and I watched him talk to the woman behind the bar in easy Spanish.

This whole thing wasn’t like me at all. I wasn’t ever one of those kids who was scared of the roller coaster or jumping off the high diving board, but the thought of taking a year off to go backpacking around Europe never appealed. If someone had told me ten months ago that I’d be sitting in a bar in Nicaragua with a man I’d never met before, watching him devour a burger before getting on a sailboat where I was going to spend the next nine months… well. I probably would have rolled my eyes and walked away. And yet, here I was, watching Isaac eat while I drank the best tasting glass of juice I’d ever had.

“You’ve got an auspicious name,” he said, taking a breather from eating. “Sailors are a superstitious lot, but I think it bodes well.”

“My name?”

“Sure. Davy Jones — you know, like Pirates of the Caribbean?”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of it,” I said. You don’t get to be nearly twenty and have a name like mine without hearing it all. Usually it’s that guy from The Monkees, though. “Isn’t it kind of a bad thing, though?”

He shrugged. “Well, I’ve got not desire to be visiting Davy Jones’ Locker, but there’s more to it than that. Supposedly it’s named after this guy who was an incredible seaman—“ He grinned, waiting for me to giggle, which I kind of wanted to do, but stopped myself. “You spend much time on the water before?”

I shook my head. “They told me experience wasn’t necessary. For the sailing part.”

“Yeah, that’s what my people are for. You won’t be able to avoid learning a thing or two about boats, though. And with a name like yours, you should be nautical.” He wiped his fingers on a thin paper napkin, then balled it up and tossed it on to his spotless plate.

I had a moment of panic. Had I been offered this position just because of my name? Was it possible that the selection committee was as superstitious as Isaac seemed to be? I’d been sure it was because I aced the database tuning test — I’d been totally in the zone when I was working on it and I’d gotten it purring like a kitten. Anwar had been so impressed when I told him I’d been called back.

“It’s a real coup,” he’d said. “Half the guys in the program would kill for this spot. Don’t fuck it up.”

I don’t think I really believed it was for real, even when Anwar finally told me a bit about his placement. Who would put a commercial server on a sailboat? And then hire a student intern as an onsite administrator? It’s nonsense. But how could I say no?

“So, you ready to see the Bucket?” Isaac asked. I didn’t want to tell him the truth, that I was most certainly not ready, I’d never be ready, I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d thought I could handle it, that it would be make for a great story. But now that I was here, and the full force of how utterly and completely weird this was came over me… nope. Not ready at all.

But, what could I do? I wasn’t about to let everyone down — my parents, my teachers — just because I was freaked out. If I was expected to get on the boat, I’d get on the boat. That was me: always meeting or exceeding expectations. So, I forced a smile and nodded.

Isaac must have seen something in my face, because he picked up my duffel and threw his arm around my shoulder. “She’s a sturdy ship and she takes care of all aboard. You’re gonna be fine, kid.” Then he let me go and walked out the door into the heat and humidity of the afternoon.

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