A short story I wrote for a contest a while ago (I lost), inspired by an experience I had a while ago doing research into a topic that employed some complex technical language.
Jason caught his reflection in the glass door at the front of National Executive Tech, a monument in stone and glass to retro urban industrial architecture. He wondered if he was ready. It was an unmissable opportunity, considering the prestige of the up-and-coming technology corporation: a six month, unpaid internship, but with a possible job at the other end. He took a breath and was about to enter when a skinny figure with a cheap tie slipped in ahead of him, commenting, “You snooze, you lose, JJ!” It was Ronnie, the other intern starting today—his competitor for the job.
Jason went inside where he and Ronnie both tried to get their bearings in the imposing lobby. Ronnie said, “This is it, right? National Executive Technologies. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.” He was right – the company was only seven years old and already leading the race in every important way.
“No it does not,” said Jason. “Except it’s not ‘Executive Technologies’ – it’s just ‘Tech’ Look.” He pointed to the embossed lettering on the marble walls: National EXecutive TECH – Opening the Door to a Better Reality. “Funny, don’t you think?”
“I think it’s actually an acronym,” said a new voice. “This place is crazy about them.” An average looking executive, just a fraction older than they, extended his hand. “Jason, Ronald, I’m Richard Arden-Haskell, your SIC.”
Jason shook the hand, but was confused.
“Your Senior Intern Coordinator,” Richard explained with an easy expression. “See what I mean? Now, come with me, and we’ll get started.”
Ronnie and Jason followed him past reception into the heart of a truly awe-inspiring atrium. Richard paused at an unusual wall display built into the dark marble that covered the walls and floor. He pulled a coin out of his pocket and smiled. “I always do this, for luck.” He dropped the coin into a slot in the middle of the display. As it disappeared, Jason saw that the display was really an elaborate machine, embedded into the wall, a translucent maze of tubes, coils and tracks. The coin slid down the slot, but then became caught in a spiral track, spinning along a tightly controlled pathway, seeming to increase in speed with each time around, until is suddenly shot up a ramp and continued a journey in a way that seemed to defy physics. “What on earth…?” asked Jason, mystified.
“It’s MADD – The Mandated Auto-Dynamic Device,” said Richard. “Just between you and me, I call it the miracle machine.”
“What happened to the coin?” asked Jason. He had been following it, tracking its progress. But it had disappeared in front of him, in one of the coils.
“Nobody knows. Impressive, isn’t it?” said Richard, smiling.
“I don’t think he actually knows much more than we do,” said Ronnie, the next day, while he and Jason ate their lunch on a bench outdoors. “I can’t imagine that ‘Senior Intern Coordinator’ is the job you give to your best and brightest.
Jason agreed. “So, what sort of stuff do they have you doing?”
Ronnie sighed, exasperated. “I spent half the morning running around trying to deliver some data to a Dr. Kelsey, and then the other half making up excuses for why it took me so long.” He wiped some mayonnaise off his mouth. “This place is a lot bigger than it looks. It’s like it goes on for miles inside there.”
Jason glanced up at their building. “Well that can’t be true. It doesn’t even take up half the block.”
“Still, it’s easy to get lost. Especially when they label everything so strangely.”
Jason couldn’t disagree with that. His work was mostly in an area called QUAD. It was something to do with quality analysis, and he still wasn’t sure what the “U” stood for.
“Excuse me, can you tell me which way to QUAD?”
It had been two weeks, and Jason had to admit that Ronnie was right – the building was confusing, and he still didn’t know his away around. Finally he resorted to asking a janitor for directions, but he regretted it immediately. Unshaven, unkempt, and wild-eyed, the man replied, “Oh yeah, you’re new aren’t you? Getting lost? Oh so easy,” and then punctuated the comment with a kind of odd cackle.
Jason stared back for a moment. “Excuse me, you do…work here, do you?”
The man turned and this time, Jason could saw nametag on his shirt. ‘Matthew’ it said, under the National EXecutive Tech logo, and next to the term ‘ACE,’ which apparently stood for ‘Associated Custodial Enterprises’. “That’s right,” Matthew said. “Twenty-seven years now. I know my way around. I’ll last longer than you, if you’re not careful.”
Jason almost became offended, but then remembered that this man was certainly being paid more than he was, so he said nothing. Matthew continued to mop, walking away he did so.
“Lots of folks come and go here. It’s a rare fellow who keep himself from getting lost.” At with that, he continued with his work, the conversation apparently over.
“Well, there is a lot of turnover,” commented Richard, when Jason had the chance to ask him about it later on. “Especially among interns. But no more than at any other big firm, I guess.”
Ronnie was there too. “But who is that guy? I can’t believe they let someone like him roam these hallways, this place is so clean cut.”
“Maybe he’s someone’s favorite uncle, I don’t know,” said Richard. Jason was used to this. Richard never seemed to know anything.
But still, it seemed that no one really knew much about Matthew the janitor.
As the weeks rolled on, Jason couldn’t help notice that Ronnie had started dressing more sharply. “You’ve got to know where to invest your resources,” he would say smugly. “And it’s worked. Dr. Broun is impressed. He’s got me helping with some of the analysis now. He’s recognizing talent.”
Jason was jealous. He wasn’t convinced that his lead researcher, Dr. Carpenter, actually knew his last name, and rarely even seemed thankful for the coffee Jason would make.
A couple of weeks later Jason overheard Carpenter talking to another colleague in the break room.
“Lost Doug Hawkins this week,” said the other man.
“Shame. He had potential, didn’t he?” replied Carpenter, not looking up from his newspaper.
“Seemed like it, but you never can tell, can you? One stupid mistake, and what can you do? I guess that’s the business.” Both men shook their heads. It was an old, familiar conversation.
Jason wondered what on earth had this guy Hawkins done to get him fired?
And then one day, Ronnie abruptly announced, “Richard’s gone.”
Jason stared at him. “What do you mean? Did he quit?”
“Nobody knows,” Ronnie replied. “At least no one I’ve spoken to. Maybe they finally realized he didn’t know what he was doing, and canned him.”
Jason shrugged. “Maybe,” he said out loud. But it made him feel nervous.
Later, Jason found himself face to face with Matthew again. The janitor had suddenly stepped out of the supply cupboard (or rather, the Custodial Accoutrements Vocational Entry, whatever that meant), stared at Jason portentously, and beckoned him to follow.
The CAVE turned out to actually be a staircase leading down to a whole sub-basement. “They’re everywhere,” Matthew said, as he led Jason down. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that. Some are just dead ends. That’s okay – you just turn around and go back. But others lead to each other. And that’s where you have to be careful.
Jason knew it wasn’t worth asking what Matthew was talking about, so he didn’t bother.
“When they start leading to each other, that’s when they get lost. And when they get lost, that’s where I come in.”
Matthew stopped at room that, refreshingly, was labeled Lost & Found. It was huge, with dozens of cubby holes on the walls. Jammed into each were all sorts of items – jackets, briefcases, paperweights, a few photographs. Jason asked, “What is all this?”
“Personal items,” said Matthew. “The things they leave behind.”
“How much stuff is in here?” asked Jason, trying to size it all up. Then his eye caught one item which looked as if it had been placed there recently – a briefcase with the initials RAH stitched into it. It gave him a chill.
“’Opening the Door to a Better Reality’, right?” Matthew said. “Well, they’ve opened them all right. Now we all gotta be careful which ones we walk through.”
Toward the end of the six months, Dr. Carpenter spoke to Jason in his normal unpersonable way. “Jason, are you still interested in this job?”
“Yes, I am.” He had thought long and hard about this, and debated leaving many times. But in the end Jason decided that his curiosity was too great to ever walk out voluntarily. His time with Dr. Carpenter had offered limited but tantalizing hints: quantum engineering, mutli-dimensional geometry, and the like. Far beyond his understanding.
“Then you are going to have to do something about it,” Carpenter said bluntly. “Dr. Broun is becoming quite enamored with Ronald Garrick. He’s going to push strongly to hire him. If you want the edge, you’re going to have to do something extraordinary to show us what you’re made of. And soon.”
The next day, Carpenter told Jason to deliver a report to a Dr. Henderson, who worked on the tenth floor, an area he had never been to before. Jason was surprised when the elevator paused on the way up to pick up Ronnie, who was carrying a document envelope similar to his.
Jason had never told Ronnie about his encounter with Matthew, or the room in the basement, and the two had grown more distant as the competition between them increased. “Hey,” he said, “You heading up to 10?”
“Yup,” Ronnie replied with a self-assured smile. “Broun wants me to share these findings with Dr. Santana and his team. It’s key to their whole strategy. It’s been quite the six months, hasn’t it? You ever been up here before?”
“First time,” said Jason.
The elevator opened, revealing a bare corridor with a single door at the end. Stenciled on a glazed window were the words “Targeted Empirical Crib Headquarters.”
“TECH,” whispered Jason to himself.
Ronnie did not hesitate and opened the door. It looked like the normal combination of office and research lab that they’d become accustomed to. An attractive receptionist sat at a desk in front of them. Her nametag identified her as ‘Penny’.
“Hi Penny,” said Ronnie. “I have an appointment to see Dr. Santana. Can you tell me where I can find him?”
Jason piped in, “And I have a delivery for Dr. Henderson.”
“They are both down that way,” said Penny, pointing to a door labeled ‘CRIB – Committee for RNA Information Bonding.’
Even Ronnie paused at that one, and glanced at the door behind him. “CRIB is an acronym? An acronym inside of an acronym?”
Penny smiled patiently, but did not answer.
Jason and Ronnie walked through the CRIB door, finding themselves in a computer lab with banks of coolers working their hardest to keep some old looking terminals from overheating. Several workers puttered around in white suits, but no one seemed to notice them. After a moment, Jason asked, “Excuse me, is Dr. Henderson here? Or Dr. Santana?”
One of the lab workers pointed to a nearby staircase. “Downstairs, in the RNA room. First door on the left.”
“Downstairs?” asked Ronnie. “Why didn’t we just go to the 9th floor?”
“Downstairs is still the 10th floor,” said the worker, as if explaining the obvious.
Jason and Ronnie both walked down the cold, metal stairs, each holding their envelopes. Is this a test, Jason wondered. Is it a race? It seemed like too strange a coincidence.
At the bottom of the stairs was a sterile room with half a dozen closed doors. The first one on the left had a sign that read ‘RNA’. Jason beat Ronnie to the punch and stepped forward, holding his envelope in one hand and taking the doorknob in the other. He was about to open it when he noticed the sign on the door close up.
RNA: Regulated NEXT Aggregation
Jason blinked, and read it again. “Next” Aggregation?
Suddenly it all flashed through his mind. Acronyms. Initials on the briefcase. Multi-dimensional geometry. Matthew’s crazed warnings. And Richard’s miracle machine, twisting in on itself. A suspicion formed in his thoughts.
He turned to tell Ronnie, but it was too late. He had seen Jason’s hesitation, and pushed ahead of him to the door. Jason stumbled back, yelling out. But his warning was misunderstood as competition. “You snooze, you lose, JJ!” cried Ronnie, throwing the door open and running through…
In the end, it was how Jason had delivered his letter that won the committee’s respect: writing Henderson’s name on the envelope and slipping it under the door. When asked why, he had told the committee that it was because he hadn’t found a safe way into that office yet. It was too big of a chance to take. They admired his restraint and caution, and offered him the job on the spot. Of course, having no competition would have helped as well.
But Jason was grateful. It was a good opportunity. He was determined to do his best, because he wanted the challenge, and to grow, and frankly, to earn more money. But he also wanted to understand – not just what was going on, but why and how. And maybe, when he had learned enough, to do something about it. For Ronnie, and all the others like him. Richard. Even Doug Hawkins.
Matthew was his ally in all of this. The two of them would exchang meaningful glances when they passed each other in the corridor, and Jason found it encouraging that there was someone else who really understood. Even more importantly, he’d shown Matthew that he understood, and hoped that would eventually lead the janitor to sharing more openly whatever he had learned in his 27 years at the seven year old company.
Jason stopped by the Mandated Auto-Dynamic Device on his way into the office each morning, and slipped a coin in the slot. He did this twice each day – once for luck, and the second time on the way home, to remember to be grateful for what he’d learned so far. He watched the coin go through its dance in the coils and ramps, defying physics, increasing in speed as it got further along, until it finally disappeared, never to be seen again.
This part of his morning ritual complete, Jason got to work.