Last year I entered my short story, The Cave, and placed in the Quarterfinals. See all the winners here.
The regular deadline for the contest is in 10 days so I am going to dedicate myself to revising this piece with the judge’s comments and submitting it again as either a short story or a novella. Who knows, maybe I will self publish this at some point in the future!
Ian Carter placed his hand on the wall’s encrypted scanner, and deep within the cave, the metal door to the top-secret server room slid open. The scanner seemed operational, yet he still couldn’t explain the breach in security two months ago. How had Karen Long entered the room after placing her hand on the wall scanning pad? She never had the clearance. However, the door had opened, and Captain Peters, his boss in DC, was livid.
Karen had been such a mess as she’d staggered through the door, speech slurred but without a trace of alcohol in her system. The server room was a cool 53 degrees that day, as it was every day to prevent overheating the equipment. It was his responsibility to preserve the qubits’ fragile quantum state. With Leo’s help, he had just managed to maintain a 256-qubit processor named Quentin, the star of Project Q. It was a noteworthy achievement until Karen waltzed in uninvited, the thermostat rising to 66 degrees before she’d collapsed and cracked her head, leaving a pool of thick blood on the black-and-white checkered tiled floor. It was later revealed that she’d suffered a brain aneurism before her fall.
Albert Camus, his favorite French philosopher, would have blamed the absurd universe. Ian agreed with the assessment that the world was absurd. Humans labored hard to offset the chaos. Order was fleeting, and he reminded himself of the need to reset.
Obviously, the scanner’s encryption had failed, and the error disturbed Quentin and overheated the electrical system. Yes, Quentin didn’t respond well to errors. Captain Peters had warned one more mistake, and Ian would never return to DC. There was absolutely no way Ian wanted to be stuck working in Missouri, deep within a limestone cave. He had to figure it out. What had drawn Karen down into the basement? Her daytime position was one floor up in the Immigrations Department. Ian’s fingers fidgeted with his Pikachu lanyard badge holder that circled his neck in trademark fashion before he straightened his yellow bow tie.
The door swished open and shut as Leo Collins entered the room with a strained look on his face. “What’s wrong now?” Ian asked.
“I think I forgot…”
Ian slammed his hand down on the desk. “Leo, you better not tell me you forgot to measure the data from the last experiment again. We have to measure the way the qubits function! The superposition of data has to be perfect; it’s the only way the computer observes all possibilities and predicts every sequence, decrypts every code…”
“It’s finished!” Leo interrupted, “I did all that, and it worked just as you said.” Stretching his arms behind his head, he moved to a nearby desk and plopped down into his leather office chair.
“I want to see the data! Bring it here,” Ian demanded. “But first, what is it you forgot?”
He slid a hand up into his thick hair before letting it slide down the back of his head to cup his neck. “I think I forgot to lock my car.”
“Okay,” Ian said slowly, “after you bring me my report on the endless possibilities of this quantum computer, I’ll allow you to go lock your car.” He gave Leo a quick nod to spur him into action, but he only swiveled slightly in his chair.
“I saw Ella this morning,” Leo began. “She walked past my car on her way into the security lobby. I just stood there, in the underground parking lot, spying on her as she made her way through the glass screen doors. And I can’t for the life of me remember if I locked my car.”
Leo’s lips twitched and contorted into an odd position that Ian couldn’t pinpoint as a scowl or half-smile. Then he rose from the chair and began to pace. “They say she’s back to replace Karen in the Immigration Department.”
Ian grimaced. He would have to tread carefully here. He had only worked in the cave for a few months, but even he had heard about Leo’s ex-fiancé, Ella Williams. She’d left the cave one year prior for some secret position in DC. No one had heard from her since.
Ian took a deep breath then allowed Leo a short ten-minute break to pull himself together. This project couldn’t afford any distractions. They both needed to be on top of their game when Captain Peters returned to the cave on Friday.
Leo’s stomach was in knots as he followed Ian down a long corridor to the weekly department meeting. Ella would be in there.
“We’re all Sisyphus,” Ian mused. Leo usually just rolled his eyes at Ian’s philosophical rants, but not today. Leo agreed, as he took one weary step in front of another, that he was Sisyphus, forever carrying a heavy load uphill just to watch it eventually slide back down again to flatten him. Ian insisted it was the act of reaching for the stars that gave life meaning. Leo sighed. Ever since Ella left, he couldn’t even see the stars. There was just darkness. He entered the large conference room and frowned as the glitchy fluorescent lights flickered.
Ian got started quickly. “I want to first thank everyone for their hard work in keeping our backlog of records down this month,” he began. “We have good news! The new system we just installed will allow everyone to populate data in record time! We’ll fly through these cases!”
Carl, an older man, who had seen many government contracts end in the cave, was displeased. “This better not take our jobs.”
Liz, the Human Resources Manager, answered him at once, “No, Carl, computers will never be able to fully replace the skills you’ve acquired. You’re a valued member of our team.”
Ian made a hand motion for Liz to allow him to continue. Then he straightened his bow tie and, with a short, dramatic pause, stated, “It’s not that new technology will ever completely replace you, Carl. But we will continue to develop technology that will change the way we work and the way we all interact. It’s not a matter of one or the other – human or machine. It’s a question of how well we will intermingle.”
Ian paused as if to allow for brief applause but received only cold stares.
“So, are there any more questions?”
No one raised a hand.
“You’re dismissed. Enjoy the extra thirty minutes at lunch.”
Leo stood with Liz in the doorway, handing out little bags of Skittles to everyone who walked out. It was Ian’s idea – give them candy after every training seminar. It felt silly to Leo, but at least he was happy he didn’t have to present today. Ella was sitting in the back of the room with her head down, taking notes. Then she rose. Leo couldn’t help himself. He stared.
He studied her walk. Still so graceful. She wore a deep green sweater that complemented the pink in her complexion. Her hair had grown. Ian was following two feet behind her.
“Ella, over here for a moment, please?” Liz called.
Ian’s feet slowed their pace just as Ella stopped in front of Liz. Ella shot Leo a quick glance before her eyes fell away. Then Leo stuck out his hand for her to shake. “Ella, it’s been a while; you look good!”
She didn’t shake his hand. Leo fidgeted and moved his hand away, rattled. Maybe shaking hands wasn’t the protocol after calling off a wedding. He stuck both of his hands into his jean pockets and looked to Ian for help.
“Ella! I’m Ian Carter,” he said, introducing himself with a friendly smile. “Nice to finally meet you.” He held his hand out for Ella to take, and she quickly shook it. “Liz says you were a gem around here before you were transferred to DC! That’s where I’m from!”
Liz was on her phone. “It’s Captain Peters,” she apologized. “I have to take this.”
Ella nodded and pushed a strand of black hair behind one ear. “We’ll catch up later, Liz.”
Leo wanted to leave as well, but Ella was now facing him, muddling his thoughts with her soft, blue eyes. He grappled for words. “Missed you around here,” he stuttered.
She laughed, amused, then smiled sweetly at Ian. “Do you mind if Leo and I have a few words alone? I think we need to get some things straight now that I’m working here again.”
Ian nodded, then spoke carefully, “I’m sure you both can put your differences in the past and move on. Leo has always spoken highly of you, Ella. He respects you.”
Her amusement wilted. “Leo broke off our engagement after I caught him at a bar with another woman,” she blurted out.
Ian’s face flushed, and he straightened his tie. “Well, he didn’t share all the details….”
Leo shook his head. “You know it wasn’t me who ended things,” he argued, “I just needed time. You were the one who decided to take off to DC for one year….”
“So it was my fault?” she interrupted. “Don’t worry,” she said and turned back to face Ian, “I’ve moved on, and the past will remain in the past.”
Then she swung around on her heels and headed for the door, apologizing to Ian for the scene on her way out.
“And there she goes again,” Leo’s voice rose sharply, “walking away from me, again.”
And she was gone.