Carol leaned against the wall, watching her little brother play with the family’s big golden retriever. The boy had learned to walk only a few weeks ago, but he was already determined to walk everywhere and see everything he could. Now he was toddling towards the kitchen, where Carol could hear the sizzle of sausage from her mother cooking dinner.
She heard the car pull up outside and glanced out the window. A man in a tailored gray suit and tie was getting out of the car. She felt a thrill of fear and excitement. It was finally happening.
She hurried to the front door and peered expectantly through the window. The man had a leathery face and his hair was graying at the temples, but his walk had the bounce of a much younger man. After she opened the door to his knock, he held out his calloused hand and announced, “Hello, Carol. I’m James. We spoke on the phone.”
“Of course! Come in.” She led him into the house. Her mother was standing in the kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta.
“Mom, this is James. He’s the man from the agency.”
Her mother looked at James and her face lit up. “Hello! It’s nice to meet you, sir.” She wiped her hands on her apron and extended one towards James. “I’m Linda Hargrove, Carol’s mother.”
James shook her hand firmly. “Hello, Linda. I’m glad to meet you, too.” He turned back to Carol. “Can we go somewhere and talk?”
“Sure. Let’s go to my room.” She led him upstairs, to the small bedroom that she had been using since she was a teenager.
James sat down in Carol’s desk chair, and Carol sat down across from him on her bed. “So, you’re Carol. The famous Carol. We meet at last.”
She felt herself blushing nervously. “I don’t know about that. I’m just an ordinary person.”
“You’re anything but ordinary. I’ve read your file. I know you’ve got a PhD in theoretical physics and a string of papers in journals that are way over my head. And you’re twenty-four years old. You’re a prodigy.”
She shrugged. “If you put it that way, I guess. But I’m not sure what to do with all that. I’m back at home and between jobs right now.”
“Someone like you could do a lot of things,” the man said with a million-dollar smile. “You could go into academia. You could go into industry. You could start your own business. Hell, you could probably just consult and live a cushy life. The world is your oyster.”
“I don’t know if I want to do any of those things, though.” Carol trailed off, realizing her tone wasn’t proper for what she hoped was a casual job interview.
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to make things better. I want to do something that will change the world. You know, have an impact. Not just live and die, leaving the world how I found it.”
“And that’s why you contacted me,” the man finished, smiling. “Well, you’ve certainly come to the right place. As you may or may not know, I might work for a certain organization that is dedicated to improving the world. It’s all about practical applications on my team. We’re not concerned with theory, or even beauty. We just want to solve problems — hard problems.”
“That’s what I want to do. Solve problems.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Because I happened to bring along a problem I think you might be well-equipped to solve.” He reached into his pocket and took out a small black case. He opened it and showed her the contents. “Do you know what this is?”
“Some kind of circuitboard?”
“It’s a computer. It’s probably the most advanced computer ever built. It’s the size of a matchbox and it’s got more power than every other computer on the planet combined.”
“That sounds amazing.”
“It is amazing. And it’s the only one of its kind. It’s our best hope for understanding the universe and making the world a better place. Imagine the simulations we could run on this — or better yet, a networked cluster of these! But, of course, there’s a problem.”
“What is it?”
“We can’t turn it on and we don’t understand how it works. And we can’t make any more of them, either. We don’t know how to manufacture them and, to make matters worse, this one is starting to break down physically. We need to understand how it works, and quickly, if we’re going to save it.”
Carol raised an eyebrow; this all sounded way too good to be true. “How do you know what it can do if you don’t know how it works?”
“We saw it in action. By it’s, er, original owners.” The man maintained a stone-cold gaze but shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Unfortunately, they’re no longer around.”
“What happened to them?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. But we have the computer now, and if we can just figure out how to work it, we could do great things. World-changing things.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“We want you to work on the computer. First, find out how it works and how to fix it. After that we can start on the fun stuff: end world hunger, put a stop to wars forever, usher in a utopia, a new Golden Age. Does that sound like something you’re interested in?”
“What would I have to do?”
“It’s going to take a lot of time. Years, probably. And it’s going to be hard work. But if you’re up to it, we’ll set you up in a lab somewhere and you can work on it. You can do anything you want, anything at all, but we need you to stay within the lab, of course. We can’t risk the machine getting out. If it does, well, it’s hard to predict the consequences. We know it’s powerful enough to change the world, which also means it could also just as easily change the world for the worse. We’ll get you a team, as well. People you can rely on; scientists at the forefront of their fields. We’ll give you all the resources you need. And when you’re ready, we’ll turn it on. And you can show us what it can do.”
Carol felt a thrill of excitement. She’d researched James and his agency online, but never found any concrete evidence of what exactly they worked on, so she wasn’t sure what they’d be talking about today. The job was magnitudes better than she expected.
“When can I start?”
“As soon as you want. Tomorrow. The day after. Whenever. You can make the decisions now, Carol.”
“I want to start right away.”
“Then you’re hired.” He handed her a manila folder from his briefcase. “Here’s your contract. Sign it and we’ll get you set up. We can have a moving crew out here as early as tonight. You’ve already said your goodbyes to the family, I assume?”
“Of course,” Carol said, turning a sympathetic ear to listen to her new brother’s cries of joy from downstairs. “I figured there’d be a pretty good chance I’d be leaving here with you today. Your reputation precedes you, you know.”
“I’ll have to fix that.” He smiled. “I’ll go call the crew and I’ll let the rest of the team know you’re coming. You’re going to be a very busy lady, I suspect.”
Carol stood up. “I’m ready for that.” She extended her hand, and he took it, shaking it firmly.
“Good luck,” he said. “I’ll be in touch.”
He left and Carol sat back down on the bed. She took a deep breath and looked around her room as all the memories of growing up here came flooding back all at once. It was a good room. She’d been happy here and shel’d been sad, and experienced everything in-between between these walls.
She turned her eyes to the far wall where her science club trophies used to stand proud. There was a small framed picture there now. It was a picture of her, standing with her mother and newborn brother. They were at a zoo and the three of them were smiling. She looked at it and felt love well up in her heart for her new brother. She wouldn’t be around to see him grow up, but at least she would be working hard to make the world a better place for him when he did.
She walked over to the picture and took it down from the wall. She slipped it into her purse and then walked out of the room. She paused at the top of the stairs, looking down at her mother, who was still in the kitchen finishing up tonight’s dinner. She felt a stab of sadness to leave her all alone, but she ignored it. She would have time for sadness later. Right now, she had important work to do.