Neil was coloring around the coffee stains on a worn manila folder when Harold shouted his name.
“Anderson. Get in here.”
Dropping the pen, Neil sighed and rose from his chair, not yet warm at 8:15 AM. He counted the floor tiles en route to the corner office. The number never changed, but the walk seemed longer each time he made it.
“Morning, Harold,” Neil said as he walked in.
“Where are we on P732?” a lanky man asked with a growl honed by years of cigarettes and chronic post-nasal drip. “Bill in Environmental just told me they finished their work on it two weeks ago.”
“I know,” Neil said. “I have their numbers.”
“So, what’s the problem?” Harold sneezed into a handkerchief, which he folded and drug across his nose once more before placing it back in his pocket. “I mean, it’s a simple assessment, Neil. I’m not asking you to cure syphilis.” He stood abruptly and began to pace.
The way Harold buried his hands in his pockets as he walked around the room, Neil wondered if his boss might actually need that cure. Eradicating an STD was probably easier than delivering that report. There was nothing simple about it.
“I’m working on it, Harold. But the whole place is blanketed in static. We’re talking layers and layers of archaic communication here. Their entire system of language is basically just two characters over and over again. How they make sense of it is beyond me.”
“So, term it ‘underdeveloped’ and call it a day, then. Why are we still having this conversation?”
“Because I believe there’s more to it than that.”
“Of course, there’s more to it,” Harold said, pulling out his hands and throwing them in the air. “This is a planet that has salvageable resources of over 55% and a lifespan of at least 10 more cycles. That’s home, man. For your kid. Hell, for your kid’s kid. And it appears to be inhabited by a primitive people. This is the one we’ve been looking for. I can smell it.”
“I’m not so convinced, Harold. This could be a viable civilization. The language may be primal, but it’s also pervasive. These people are hyper-connected.”
“Connected doesn’t mean community.”
“Fair, but I don’t think –”
“You’re not paid to think.” Harold stopped pacing and sat on the edge of his desk in front of Neil. “Look. I understand. I really do. I may not always agree with those bleeding-heart lawmakers up the street. But even I know we can’t just go around taking over the planet of a viable civilization. That’s why we have metrics, Neil. So we don’t have to think.”
Harold took out a cigarette from the pack in his shirt. He lit it and blew out a plume of thick smoke from the side of his mouth. “Come on, man. You know the drill. Find the most important person in the most important building in the most important city. Then work the grid. Truth, goodness, beauty, wealth.” He ticked each of these off on his fingers like a grocery list. “That’s all you have to do. If they pass, we’ll move on. But if not, then –” He smiled, revealing crooked, yellow teeth. “It’s winner winner chicken dinner.” He took another drag from his cigarette.
“Well, I did find a door, at least. And I’m close on the language.”
“Good. That’s good,” Harold said over the cigarette in his mouth as he patted Neil on the back.
“I just need a little more time. Two weeks, three tops.”
Harold laughed like he’d just heard his first dirty joke. “Two to three — That’s good — ” He sighed then dropped the smile. “You’ve got today, Neil. As in, by the end of.” Harold flicked a cake of ash into the tray on his desk.
“You heard me. When you leave here today, I need your name on an Intelligent Life Assessment for P732. Pass, fail, or darn the war.”
“But I have to leave at 3 today. It’s Hope’s birthday. I have to pick up the cake.”
Harold placed his hands on Neil’s shoulders. His breath was pungent, and Neil had to work not to gag. “The best gift you can give your daughter is to find her a new home to grow old on before this rock under our feet completely falls apart. Then, you can have your cake and eat it, too. Now, won’t that be nice?”
“Yeah, sure,” Neil said and walked out. He checked his watch. He would have to skip lunch. He silently numbered the tiles on the way back to his cubicle, the whole time hoping he was right about Harold’s syphilis.
From a frame on the corner of his desk, his daughter greeted him with an innocent, trusting smile. Below her, two wired baskets waited expectantly, one labeled “pass,” and the other labeled “fail.” Neil sat down and opened the folder marked “P732.” He could pretend all day long it was the grid’s decision. But Neil knew ultimately he would put the folder in one basket or another.
Happy birthday, Hope. Here’s a lovely second-hand planet for you. Pay no attention to the mass graves in the corner. Those people were simply “underdeveloped.”
He logged back into his terminal and activated the rudimentary translation protocol he’d devised the day before. Soon, he was tunneling through to what he hoped was the most important person in the most important building in the most important city in P732. First, he would make contact. Then, he would let the grid decide.
Okay, Hope. This one’s for you.
Boyd loved the night shift. Except for a few mission-critical personnel, the place was practically deserted. That left him free to roam the halls in blissful silence. No bosses, no chatterboxes, just an old man with a mop pushing a garbage can on wheels. If a fellow had to work a few extra years into his retirement to make ends meet, this was as good a way as any to do it.
Rory flipped when he learned his grandpa was going to work at the Pentagon. Even at ten years old, that kid was always prattling on about bio-metric this and encrypted that. Boyd didn’t understand a word of it, but he didn’t need to. He recognized pure joy when he saw it, and that was enough to make an old man happy. He and Dora even chipped in a little to help Rory’s parents send him to that computer camp last summer. It was more than they could afford, probably. But you couldn’t put a price on the future. He had always said that.
“Evening, Kenny,” Boyd said to an armed guard with a face of stone. Guards weren’t supposed to talk, so Boyd didn’t expect an answer. “Dora’s sending some of that blueberry cake tomorrow, just for you she said.” He swiped his security card over a pad on the wall. As the door slid open, he glimpsed the faintest of grins at the corner of that stony expression. Mission accomplished.
The big room was almost never empty. A world map spanned its four walls, and important people with worried faces loved to stick pins all over it. Some parts of the map had more pins than others, of course. But the whole room usually saw a little action. Not tonight. Billy told him about some computer glitch, a kind of — oh, what did he call it again? A hack, maybe. So they’d taken everything down while a few brainiacs in some undisclosed location did stuff so technical that it would probably send Rory into premature puberty.
Boyd began his normal routine, dusting desks and emptying trash cans. Even here, in the epicenter of global military activity, it was blessedly serene. Silent lights glowed along the room’s perimeter, like little night lights for all the sleeping computers.
Behind him, one of those sleepy machines shattered the silence as beeps emitted in sharp succession and a fan inside the machine began to hum. Poor little thing is having a nightmare. Boyd looked around the room before he bent for a closer look. As if in response, the monitor hissed with a static crackle and glowed to life.
Boyd straightened immediately, certain he was committing some crime. Any minute, Kenny the camouflage statue would run in here and tackle him to the ground, blueberry cake or not. Then, Boyd Benson would live out his days in solitary with all the silence he could stand.
Welcome to the Rock, Rory. You like grandpa’s orange jumpsuit? Don’t do drugs, kid, and stay in school. See you next year.
Nope. Not gonna happen. Boyd racked his duster on the rolling cart and hurried down the aisle, taking the corner on two wheels. He pulled his card from the retractable clip on his pants, ready to skip the Pledge and Windex routine and call this room done.
Then, Boyd Benson started thinking. It was a habit that had yielded mixed results for Boyd over the years, thinking. Much like the gas in his weed eater, the mix was one part success, five parts trouble.
But what if . . .
That’s how it usually began, the trouble that is. Those two words, “what if.” As in, what if Boyd could tell his grandson he’d used an actual computer in the Pentagon. Or better yet, what if he could somehow send Rory a message from it. That was a pipe dream, of course. His was a time before phones were smart, when tweets were reserved exclusively for birds. But still, what if?
Boyd let his card zip into place with a dramatic thwack and pulled up his pants. They always sagged more when he was thinking. He walked over to the insomniac terminal, stole a furtive glance around the deserted room, and sat.
On the screen, a single word glowed in monochromatic green:
Boyd readied his index fingers and pecked out a response.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then Boyd remembered Rory’s impromptu chat tutorial over Christmas vacation and pressed ENTER. He had no idea who he was talking to, but it was kind of fun. Then those words came back to him, “what if.” As in, what if this was a trap. After exhausting his knowledge of historical conflict, he finally relaxed and waited.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO CHAT?
Man, Rory, if you could see me now.
YES, Boyd typed back.
ANSWER THIS QUESTION, came the response.
REGARDING TRUTH: IS A PERSON DEFINED FROM THE OUTSIDE OR THE INSIDE?
Boyd’s brow caved in on itself. He didn’t see this coming. It was Dora that always played along when Jeopardy came on after dinner. Boyd’s principal gift was personality, at least since he’d run out in the looks department a few years back. Still, he considered the question. It wasn’t so hard. He started to type.
TO BILLY IM A BOSS BUT TO PETE IM THE HELP
TO MY PREACHER IM A SINNER BUT TO MY GRANDSON IM A SAINT
SO AS POPEYE SAYS I GUESS I YAM WHAT I YAM
Boyd checked his watch. The response had taken almost four minutes to type. But he had impressed himself a little. I’ll take “Nailed it” for $1,000, Alex. With great satisfaction, he pressed ENTER.
Immediately, the screen cleared, and the next sentence appeared.
ANSWER THIS QUESTION.
Boyd huffed. Did he get the first one right or not? He suddenly felt unsure of himself again. Then, new letters appeared one by one.
REGARDING GOODNESS: IS IT BETTER TO GIVE OR TO RECEIVE?
The letters appeared so slowly, Boyd wondered if this guy typed like he did. At least the question was easier. He gave away his heart and received a lifetime of love. He gave away his time and received friendships and memories. He gave away his daughter and received a miracle called a grandson. He wished this had been the Daily Double. He typed:
WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND.
Boyd saw himself smile in the reflection of the monitor. Let Mr. Riddle-Me-This chew on that one for a while. But Mr. Riddle-Me-This needed no extra time, apparently.
ANSWER THIS QUESTION.
REGARDING BEAUTY: DEFINE TRUE BEAUTY?
Boyd hated taking twelfth-grade English class. Both times. And while he eventually managed to escape, it wasn’t without a few scars. One of those scars echoed in his mind now. It was some poem about a vase. He remembered that much. It was by a guy named — Keaton. Alex Keaton. No, that was the kid from “Family Ties.” Who was it? Keats. That was it. John Keats. Slowly and deliberately, Boyd resurrected the lines from his memory, one letter at a time.
BEAUTY IS TRUTH
THAT IS ALL YE KNOW ON EARTH
AND ALL YE NEED TO KNOW
He couldn’t believe it. Where had that come from? I guess there’s some intelligent life left in this old man after all. He couldn’t wait until Jeopardy came on tomorrow.
ANSWER THIS QUESTION.
The letters pulled Boyd from his private celebration. The game was fun, but he saw no way of sending a message to Rory, and his fear of getting caught was beginning to resurface. This would make a great story, but who could he tell? It was time to get back to work. He got up, intending to walk away, until he saw the next question.
REGARDING WEALTH: WHICH IS BETTER? RICHES OR FAME?
This was a trick question. His sister Frieda had money. But life insurance couldn’t bring her husband back. She had all kinds of “friends” on Facebook, and she was still the loneliest person he knew.
He loved his sister, but even that wasn’t enough for her. In the end, there was only one thing that could sustain a person through it all, the one thing he wished he could offer Frieda. He typed his response.
NEITHER. ONLY ONE THING LASTS. HOPE.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, as suddenly as it had awakened, the computer fell back to sleep. Boyd sat in the silence and felt the screen’s static pull at the hairs on his arm. Maybe there wasn’t much prestige in being a 65-year-old janitor. He was no brainiac. He didn’t walk around keeping the planet safe by putting pins in the wall. But for a moment, he felt — well, important.
Satisfied, Boyd Benson stood and resumed the important task of taking out the trash.
Neil noticed his stomach growling and wondered how long he’d ignored it. It was well past lunch, but he hadn’t moved in hours. He scrolled back through the responses and shook his head. It had taken him thirty minutes to discover what a yam was, and he was still unsure what a vegetable had to do with Truth. But the other answers were anything but “underdeveloped.”
Somehow, beneath that dense blanket of endless 0’s and 1’s, Neil had discovered a civilization far advanced in its application of the grid, perhaps beyond his own people’s understanding. Harold was right. P732, which Neil now understood as “Earth,” was the one they’d been looking for. But not for colonization. Rather, for learning. For growing. For –
He spun around in his chair and found his daughter’s smile.
The clock read 2:35 PM. Almost time to celebrate. Neil scanned the desk and found his pen. From the folder which lay open beneath him, he withdrew the page labeled, “Intelligent Life Assessment.” He worked his way down the sheet, placing checks beside each of four sections until he reached the final portion, “Conclusion.”
In the box provided, he wrote his decision slowly and deliberately, one letter at a time.
Then, before placing the folder in the appropriate basket, he followed Harold’s orders and wrote his name at the bottom, officially certifying his findings.
This story was written by Brandon Abbott. Brandon Abbott is a minister in Nashville, TN where he lives with his wife and three children. Raised in rural Alabama, he enjoys writing about the complexities of the people of the South. More about Brandon here.
This story was inspired by the writing prompt: “Write a story with eyes as a motif.” For Reedsy’s curated feed of writing prompts and the chance to enter our prompts-inspired Short Story Contest, HEAD HERE.