Taylor was leaning back against the workbench, arms folded across his chest, considering Jan who was standing in the middle of the room, arms folded across her chest, gripping herself protectively.
“I don’t know what to do with you, Jan. There’s not enough work to keep Charley and me busy, much less the three of us.”
Jan’s eyes met his momentarily as they skittered around the room. “I know, but Mr. Arnold said I was supposed to be doing maintenance work.”
Taylor looked thoughtfully at her for a moment more. He reached for a clipboard that lay beside him on the workbench and flipped a few pages. He looked back up at Jan. “What is it you do? What experience have you had?”
Taylor considered the clipboard again. “Tell you what. We have this list of preventative maintenance jobs. Routine stuff. I’m sure we’ve got some project management software around here. How about you keep up with this schedule on the computer, keep Charley and me lined up. Work in all the other jobs fixing things that break. Use the computer to keep us on schedule and at the same time keep a record of what we’ve done. You could do that, couldn’t you?”
“Sure, but what about Mr. Arnold?”
“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Jan sat back and relaxed. Finally a win. She looked at the clock on the wall. She had been playing solitaire for three hours straight. Three hours to get a win. The cards had been running against her. She had found, as she had expected, that keeping up with the maintenance schedule didn’t take much time. She had lots of time on her hands. She was afraid to look at the incoming transmission reports. Mr. Arnold might fire her if he found out. Besides, what if she was delusional, seeing things that weren’t there? She had turned off every monitor except the one she used for scheduling and solitaire. She clicked an icon to start a different version of solitaire. The screen froze. She slid the mouse around. Nothing happened on the screen. The computer had crashed.
She got up and headed for the main network console. She would have to reboot the network to be able to get back to her job of winning every version of solitaire in her possession in one day. She turned on the monitor and headed for the small refrigerator in the corner to get a soft drink. She popped the tab top, turned and froze with the can halfway to her lips.
The message was in plain block letters, off white on a black background. They filled the screen.
Someone was playing a joke. And that was bad. That meant someone had seen her message. What a stupid thing to do. “Hi. My name’s Jan. What’s yours?” Sent to an alien intelligence that didn’t exist. Mr. Arnold would find out and she would be looking for a job. She shuddered at the prospect of job interviews.
The first thing to do was to find the source. Maybe she could get in touch with him and plead for her life. She walked to the console and entered a command. The screen filled with unintelligible lines of text that Jan understood perfectly. But what they told her could not be right. The message came from off planet, as they say in sci-fi. She opened another window and typed another command. The window filled with a star map with a set of cross hairs near the upper left corner. There were two numbers next to the cross hairs, separated by a comma.
Jan expanded the window to fill the screen and stepped back. Deep space. The cross hairs were situated in an area where there was nothing. No, not exactly nothing. There was no such thing, not even in deep space. But it was in a part of the sky that appeared empty because the stars there were so far away that they barely showed up. It would take many light years for her message to reach anything in that quadrant. She had sent her message two weeks ago. It had barely gotten started. It was like a worm crossing the Sahara. It would take thousands of years for her message to find anything except empty space.
So it had to be a joke. Hackers could do anything. They could fool any equipment, even equipment this sophisticated. Then it hit her. They would be in as much trouble as she would. They couldn’t turn her in. She could play with them, string them along. It would sure beat solitaire. Besides, it could be… No, it was not the real thing. She would not allow herself to think that.
She closed all the open windows and opened one with a graphic vertical slide bar. She clicked a button to power up the transmitter and the slide began to climb on the scale. When it reached the top she switched to another window and typed “Who are you?” One click of a button and the message was on its way, across that vastness of space or around the corner. She didn’t know which. She checked the calendar. Two weeks would be the twenty-seventh. She would check for another message then.
She thought of one more thing she could do to prove it was not an alien contact. Before she left for the day, she would shut down the internet connection. If it was a hacker, the only way for him to hack in was through the internet. Just to make sure, she got down on her hands and knees, crawled under the desk, and unplugged the network cable. Now if she got a contact, it was for real.
Copyright © 2011 by Angus B. Lewis
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