One in a Hundred

Kel brought up the map of the office building on his phone, then compared his location again to the floor plan. The printer should have been here. But instead of finding it, he found a vending machine full of candy and other snacks. He hadn’t made any wrong turns – or so he thought – but when he stepped back out of the storage room and turned the corner, all four directions looked the same to him. Just uniform hallways lined with drab carpeting, the doors to one office after another lining the hall.

He cursed whoever had designed the building. They probably owned their own eclectic studio. No one who worked in an actual office would have designed it like this.

He made his way back to where he had started, the bathrooms near the center of the building, which were in the only asymmetrical part of the entire floor – men’s bathroom on one side, women’s bathroom on the other side. On the off chance that he had gone the wrong direction the first time, he deliberately took the opposite way this time. He walked the halls, checking his map at each turn.

He found himself at another storage room with a vending machine. It could have been the same room, but this machine was missing a few items. He muttered to himself and waved his badge in front of the pay reader and grabbed an overpriced bag of chips to rage eat later. He knew both his wallet and his waistline would pay for it but he didn’t care.

Kel returned to his office. On the way, he ran into Brynn. Technically, Brynn was his peer – they both reported to the same boss – but as the project lead, she was his de facto manager. He said hello in greeting but was met with a frosty glare.

So she was still annoyed at him about their argument this morning, he thought. Still, he’d been obligated to call out the issues with the project.

He decided to be the bigger person and extend an olive branch. “This building sucks.” The small talk sounded lame, even he knew that, but it was the latest thing on his mind and the first thing he’d come up with.

“What?” Brynn said.

“I was looking for a printer and this office map is just completely wrong.”

“Printer? Are you going to go looking for a fax machine next?”

“Never mind.” Kel realized his mistake. He ducked into his office, hoping Brynn would go off to whatever meeting she probably had next. But Brynn followed him in.

“Why do you need a printer?” Then she saw the web page that was currently open on his computer. “No. No, you won’t.”

Of all the days for him to forget to lock his screen, Kel thought.

“This will delay my experiment by weeks,” she said. “With no data, we’ll miss the funding cycle. And for what, some numbers you pulled out of your ass?”

“I’m sorry about that, but–” 

“No.” Brynn stalked off before he could respond more.

Well. His first full time job was going just great. He returned back to the page he had been looking at – “Submit a safety violation” – but all it contained were general platitudes, ending with “safety being all our jobs.” He could find no way to submit anything electronically. The only thing on the page was a form to print out and send using interoffice mail and he had no printer.

He even tried to find the destination office, thinking he could speak in person, but it wasn’t in the office directory.

He wondered if that office even existed. And if it did, if anyone even monitored that mailbox.

Kel tried to convince his boss, but as expected, his boss sided with Brynn. Kel tried his way up the chain. The lab hierarchy wasn’t very deep, and within just a couple of level of managers – who had both ignored him – he was emailing Adam, the head of the lab.

The auto reply said he was out camping or something, and wouldn’t be back until next week.

Brynn’s experiment was scheduled for Friday.

Kel needed to go lateral. He needed to find Arden, the head of security in Selunia Falls.

Arden. Adam. Arden. Adam. That was really confusing, Kel thought. Maybe he should change his name to something that started with A too. Maybe that was the secret to getting ahead in Selunia Falls. He chuckled to himself. Not that he cared about getting ahead. He was moving out of here after his rotation was done.

It was common knowledge that Arden was a regular at Anna’s Cafe, and today Kel’s luck held up. He found Arden drinking a coffee at the counter. Kel dropped down onto the seat next to him and introduced himself and explained the situation.

The entire time, Arden seemed more interested in finishing his drink.

When Kel was done, Arden responded immediately. “I usually leave the science to the scientists.”

Kel wasn’t sure if the insult was accidental or intentional. “But I am a scientist.”

“You’ve been here, what, less than a year? There’s a way we do things around here. If you have a problem with the experiment, you talk to your project group.”

Kel was surprised that Arden knew how long he had been at Selunia Falls. Maybe his careless act had been just that – an act. “I talked to our project lead. She wouldn’t listen to me. Neither would my boss. I’ve even emailed the head of the lab but he was out on vacation. He was camping or something.”

“The man does like to go camping,” Arden said, as if the absence of the head of the lab wasn’t unusual. He appraised Kel steadily. “You know there are consequences to jumping the chain of command like this.”

“Yes.” Kel knew he might be permanently in the doghouse. Good thing I don’t plan to stay here, he thought, it makes doing the right thing a lot easier.

Arden said nothing for a while. Several times, Kel wanted to jump in and repeat again the importance of delaying the experiment. But he forced himself to wait. Best not to give Arden a reason to ignore him.

Finally, Arden made up his mind. “Ok then. Explain to me again what you think is going to happen.”

“I’ve gone over the numbers, and there’s a one percent chance that one of the experimental cores overloads and causes an explosion.”

“That’s it?”

It wasn’t the response Kel had expected. “That’s… a lot?” He sensed the subtle shift in Arden’s tone, sensed that the moment had turned. If Arden had ever taken him seriously, that thread was gone now, and the rest of the conversation was just a professional courtesy.

“I know that might sound a lot to you, Kel,” Arden said gently, “but as far as projects here go, that might as well be no risk at all. How big would the explosion be?”

“According to my calculations, about a mile wide,” Kel said. Maybe Arden would take that seriously.

“Aren’t you doing this experiment in the woods? Just use some remote controls, and make sure you stand far enough away.” Arden patted Kel on the shoulder, and then he put his finished coffee on the counter and left the cafe.

When Kel had been pursuing his doctorate at the university, one of the required classes had been an ethics in engineering class. There had been a case study from the last century: a space shuttle exploded shortly after launch. The scientists had warned of the possibility of such an accident, but they had been ignored. Seven people had died.

That story stuck with him as he sat in his office. It was early evening and everyone else had gone home for the day.

If only Adam were back from his vacation, Kel thought. Then he could convince him to delay the experiment until more risk analysis could be done. Maybe. The meeting with security hadn’t gone as planned. But at least he would have a chance.

Adam didn’t come back until next week though. And there was no way Brynn was going to delay her experiment. Unless…

Kel clicked around on the laboratory website until he found it – the internal page for equipment requisitions. Unlike the page for reporting a safety hazard, this page was working perfectly. He checked, and yes, the positron emitter was still in storage. It wasn’t a commonly used piece of hardware and so there was only one available.

He knew it was a critical component of Brynn’s experiment.

The requisitions system was fully online, and he didn’t need to deal with any printers or other nonsense. It was a clear sign of the priorities of the lab. Kel successfully reserved it and got the confirmation notice. He checked the hours. They were already closed for the day, meaning he would have to go in and pick it up tomorrow morning.

Today was Tuesday, and Brynn’s experiment was scheduled for Friday. If he held onto the emitter, then Brynn probably wouldn’t be able to run her experiment until next week.

By then Adam would be back.

Kel sat in one of the chairs in the waiting area of the requisitions building. The room was smaller than he’d expected. It reminded him of a doctor’s office. No one would ever guess that this place stored an endless array of high tech equipment, he thought.

The lab technician had been gone for almost fifteen minutes. Kel was starting to get antsy and was about to go into the employees area to go look for the technician when he returned.

“It’s not here,” the technician said.

Kel had been at the requisitions building for an hour before it opened, and he had been the only one in line. There was no way that anyone else had gotten to the positron emitter before he did.

“What do you mean it’s not here? I requisitioned it yesterday.” Kel brought up the form and showed it to the technician.

“Like I said, it’s not here.”

“Can you check it again?” He tried not to be too pushy – he was starting to sound like one of those people at the department stores that asked for the manager when things didn’t go their way – the kind of people he detested.

“Do you want to search for it yourself?”

Kel nodded. The technician led him through an unmarked door in the back which opened into a connected hallway. They walked for a minute or two, and at the other end the technician tapped his badge at the reader. He opened the door and Kel was blasted by a wave of air conditioning.

Despite Kel’s current predicament, he couldn’t help but be awed by the warehouse. It was filled with aisle after aisle of racks of scientific equipment. It was a monument worthy of the most important research center in the world, he thought. His mind started racing with ideas of all the research he could do with this equipment… all the mysteries of the universe he could investigate…

“What was the part number again?” the technician said.

Kel was shaken from his reverie. “2J4-9-2.”

“Ok. Second floor, aisle J, fourth rack, ninth section, second shelf.”

Kel followed the technician up the stairs where a big sign with the letter A hung overhead. Across the floor they walked, until they reached the designated aisle, and into the aisle they went, passing rack after rack of equipment. When the technician stopped in front of a rack of shelves, Kel still couldn’t see the other side of the warehouse.

“Here we are,” the technician said.

There was a gap where the positron emitter should have been. Kel searched the area around the shelves but everything else seemed accounted for.

“See?” The technician’s voice reminded him of a parent patiently placating a child.

“I don’t understand,” Kel said. “How do you just lose track of a piece of equipment?”

“I’m sure we didn’t lose it. Someone probably just borrowed it, that’s all.”

“But the requisitions form said it was still here.”

“Well, sometimes when one of the scientists is in a hurry, we let them check out the equipment first, and they backfill the request form later.”

“Are you serious?” Kel tried to keep from shouting. “Was the positron emitter here yesterday?”

“I didn’t work yesterday, but I could try to call someone if you’d like.”

“No. Forget it.”

Kel had a good guess as to where the device was.

Kel drove along the gravel road into the woods. When the road ended Kel parked his car and jumped out. A set of tire tracks were carved into the dirt next to the road, and he hurried along the trail as it went deeper into the woods and the dirt gave way to grass.

He could hear a steady humming that grew louder the further along he went, and finally the trail ended with Brynn’s pickup sitting at the test site. She stood next to a refrigerator sized box that Kel recognized instantly – it was a control box for scientific measurements. He had used that exact model many times in school. Despite its size, he knew it was deceptively lightweight, its wheels barely digging into the grass underneath.

Brynn saw him approaching but ignored him. She continued to adjust some of the dials on the box. The lights were on and blinking steadily. She had started the experiment.

Kel shouted at Brynn. “The test was supposed to be the day after tomorrow!”

“And yet, somehow we’re both here,” Brynn said. The fans on the box whirred a bit louder, making it hard to hear.

“How did you know?”

“Arden told me.”

“Look, let’s go back to the lab and run the numbers some more. I think there’s a way we can lower the risk on this experiment.” When he saw that Brynn was ignoring him, he continued, “Why’s this so important anyway?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Fair? Fine, let’s talk about fair. You don’t care if this project succeeds. You’ve had everything handed to you. First a private high school, then a name brand university. Either way, this is just another line item on your CV. You’re going to finish your time here, and then you’re going to be out of this place.”

“How do you know? Maybe I’ll end up staying,” Kel said. He wasn’t ready to admit it, but parts of Selunia Falls were growing on him.

“Even if you did. You haven’t spent seven years, eight years, working on this theory. You’re not the one out there trying to keep this project from being cancelled.”

Their argument was interrupted as the lights on the control panel started blinking wildly and the humming grew louder.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to do that,” Kel said.

Brynn didn’t reply, but Kel could see the alarm on her face, as she turned some of the knobs. The blinking of the lights grew frenetic.

Kel rushed up next to her. “Let me help you.” He popped open a panel on the side, and found a familiar set of wires. This brings back memories, he thought. For a moment he forgot that he was trying to rescue a runaway experiment, and autopilot kicked in. He worked his way through the wires, reattaching them one by one to the reset positions.

He got to the end and found two wires unaccounted for. “Wait… These aren’t supposed to be here,” he said. The humming showed no signs of dying down, or even slowing.

“This isn’t school, Kel!” Brynn said. “We run all custom equipment here.”

“Give me a minute, I’m sure I can–”

But suddenly he was knocked off his feet and tumbling through the air. His last thought was that the box must have exploded, but then he realized it wasn’t the box, it was Brynn, she had knocked him over and they were tumbling and rolling and he ate a mouthful of dirt and his shoulder slammed into the ground a few meters away from the box. They were partially shielded now by Brynn’s pickup, and as Kel laid on the ground he felt a rumble through the earth and he instinctively curled up and guarded his face with his arms as an explosion crackled around him.

When he dared to open his eyes again, the control box was gone. In its place was a small crater.

Gone too was Brynn’s pickup.

Kel and Brynn crawled on their hands and knees, rooting around the debris scattered around the rim of the crater. Their clothes were caked in dust.

“Here’s another one,” Kel said. He fished out a microchip from the dirt, no larger than his fingernail. He limped over to Brynn and handed it to her, and she dropped it into her pocket and added it to the handful of microchips they’d already collected.

“I think this will be enough,” she said. They slowly followed the trail back to where Kel was parked.

Brynn patted her pocket, checking to make sure the microchips were still there. “If the data on these microchips is good there’s still hope for my project. Our project, I mean. I still can’t believe the experiment went critical like that. What were the chances?”

“One in a hundred,” Kel said. “One in a hundred.”

Brynn didn’t respond immediately. “It’s not like you were right either,” she finally said.

“Look at me,” Kel said. “Look at you!”

“Oh yes, it exploded. But you know what? You said the explosion would be a mile wide. But it was only a few meters. You were off by a hundred times there. So, I think we’ll just have to call it even.” Brynn playfully punched Kel on the arm. It was only a light tap, but he winced, having bruised that part when he fell.

Brynn didn’t notice. “Let’s head back to the lab,” she said. “You’re driving.”