by Sergio Suarez - Fiction Vortex September 2014

Computer Girl

By Jon Arthur Kitson

The first thing Mr. Bradley did when he took over as manager eight months before was turn the desks in the bullpen so they faced away from his office. Now, looking out his window, Sheila understood why.

Every few minutes, one of the Center’s two dozen women would stand, stretch away the strain of hours of running calculations, and fully display her rear-end. There appeared to be a hierarchy. The most shapely bottoms inhabited the closest rows. By the last row, the look was more pumpkin than apple.

Apparently, Sheila wasn’t the first to notice.

Suzanne, desk front and center of the first row, stood, arms reaching for the ceiling. She peeked a sly, painted smile over her shoulder. When she saw only Sheila looking, she quickly sat down.

Sheila grinned until she noticed her own desk next to Suzanne’s.

“Have you had a good look?” she said, then turned, hiding her rear against the glass.

“Excuse me?” Mr. Bradley turned red. His reading glasses pointed at the open folder in his hands, but his eyeballs leered over the top of the frames.

“The equations?” Sheila, without turning her back, lowered into a chair. That morning’s Tribune sat unfolded across the desk. She had already read the headlines while waiting for the L: Trio of lights over Lake Michigan last week NOT Nazi spy planes; only weather balloons. And less prominently: Charred Remains of Unidentified Man found on Eastside, Police Have No Leads. “Did you go over them? I’m right, aren’t I, they’re off?”

Mr. Bradley closed the folder and picked up a slide rule. He ran the cursor up and down the scale. “Sheila … I don’t get why you care.” He eyed the cover of the folder, ran a finger across the word stamped in red. “Verify. If it doesn’t work out, mark it and send it on its way.”

“I know the procedure.” She pulled up the folder. Mr. Bradley’s finger stuttered against the cover. “The problem is…” She leafed through to the third page. “The calculations do work out.”

“Then what’s the prob—”

Sheila’s hand shot up. She pointed to the fourth equation down the page. Smudged notes and a question mark circled it. “The calculations work out, they’re just too big.” She pointed at the second number in the lengthy equation. “This is the catalyst material. Critical Mass could be achieved if it was, about, a quarter of that amount. The larger number — the greater material — works, of course, but seems unnecessary for a proof of theory test.”

Mr. Bradley took the folder, closed it, and set it on the desk. He laid his glasses on the cover and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Catalyst Material, Critical Mass, Proof of theory… What on earth are you talking about?”

“Well, they’re trying to create a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, aren’t they?”

Mr. Bradley’s eyes grew. “Nuclear chain reaction? How could you know that? The particulars of the project are nowhere in the folder. It’s nothing but numbers and long equations.” He grinned. “Frankly, I almost sent it back. Even I can’t make heads or tails of most of it.”

“Some of the equations, at least primitive versions of them, have appeared in the scientific journals for the last few years.” She leaned back. “And it’s obviously not actuary tables or soil erosion predictions. Or even torpedo trajectories, explosion spread patterns, or wind speed compensations, our usual fare since the war started.” Now Sheila grinned. “You at least knew that.”

Mr. Bradley’s face wrinkled. “You’re the educated girl, aren’t you?”

“All of us Computers are educated.” Sheila wondered why she bothered. They were always girls, not Computers — their actual job title — to Mr. Bradley and the other men at the center. Frustratingly, to most of the other women, as well. “We all have degrees.”

“Yes, yes, in mathematics, I know. And thanks to the war, you’ve all been given a reprieve from becoming school teachers. You, however, weren’t satisfied with a mere Bachelor’s degree.”

Sheila held her eyes back from rolling. Even after over a year at the computing center, working with supposedly intelligent people, she still managed to be different. A creep, according to Suzanne and her court when they thought Sheila couldn’t hear them. “I was working towards a PhD, if that’s what you mean.”

“In what?”

“Physics.”

“An odd choice for a woman. Why did you stop?”

“Family issues.” She tried to leave it at that, but Mr. Bradley’s eyebrows raised for an explanation. “My mother passed away. I came home to look after my younger brother.”

“How traditional of you.” Mr. Bradley grinned. “And how is the little lad?”

“Dead. He turned eighteen right after Pearl Harbor and enlisted.”

“I’m sorry.” Actual sympathy played on Mr. Bradley’s face. “How did it happen?”

“U-Boat. On his way to England.” She picked up the folder. “As I said, the scientific journals have been speculating on nuclear chain reactions for years, it’s only a matter of time before someone creates one. My calculations show it already should have happened. Unless I’m missing something. If that’s the case, to properly verify the results, I need to speak with Dr. Fermi. If I could just head over to the University of Chicago—”

“Dr. Fermi? University of Chicago?” He snatched away the folder and squinted at the tracking number penciled on its side. He matched it to one of the index cards lining his bottom desk drawer. “How did you know where this originated from?”

“The messenger boys. They talk.”

The poor peach-fuzzed, pimple faced messenger boys; after the girls in the bullpen, nearly all single, finished flirting and teasing, the young fellows’ tongues wagged like excited puppies. “Keeping in practice,” the girls called it, for when the men, boys themselves only a year or two before, came home from war.

“Really?” Mr. Bradley said. Sheila could see him filing that away for later action. “Regardless, you going down there would be highly inappropriate.” Another grin. “And besides, what makes you think a world-renowned scientist wants to be bothered by you?”

“He sent the work for verification, didn’t he?” Now Sheila pointed at the word on the cover. “Sometimes even world-renowned scientists need a fresh set of eyes.” She met Mr. Bradley’s stare. “Even if they are a woman’s. Especially now, with the stakes so high—”

“The stakes? It sounds to me like a bunch of scientists, yet again, wasting time on something with no practical purpose.”

“The potential of nuclear energy is limitless. And now, with the war, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction is only the first step … to creating an atomic bomb.”

Mr. Bradley said nothing for two minutes. The first sixty seconds he stared at Sheila; the second sixty out the office’s exterior window. Finally: “I want you to switch projects with the big girl.”

“Excuse me?”

“You know,” he said, touching his upper lip, “with the hairlip.”

“Loraine?” Her desk was the furthest from Mr. Bradley’s office. “But why? I’ve already done the work—”

“Just do it.” When Sheila didn’t get up, he added, “And I want to remind you, you are not to discuss anything about your projects with anyone. Anyone. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

Mr. Bradley smiled. “Good. Remember, there’s a war on. The last thing the Center needs is one of you girls arrested for treason.

“Of course, sir.”

Sheila did as directed, trading folders with a confused Loraine.

“From big brain to big butt,” Sheila heard when she sat at her desk; Suzanne’s whisper was a little too loud to stay contained by the woman whose ear she spoke into.

Sheila spun.

“Excuse me.” Suzanne’s eyes grew, cracking the ring of makeup around them. Sheila smiled. “Could I borrow your slide rule? I’ve misplaced mine.”

“Um, of course.” Suzanne handed over the instrument. Before letting go: “Don’t let Mr. Bradley get you down. He’s just an old pervert.”

“Oh, I won’t.” Sheila opened her desk drawer. The notes she had made on the Fermi project, sitting beneath her slide rule, filled five sheets. She slipped them into her purse and looked at the wall clock. Half past two. The work day ended at four and, if she remembered correctly, an L for the University of Chicago left at 4:15.

~~~~~

Sheila followed the first soldier she found on campus. She stayed back, blending with the crowd of students coming from their last classes, but it was still the closest she’d been to a serviceman since…

Since seeing her brother off.

When the soldier descended the steps to the racquet courts beneath Stagg Field she waited ten minutes, then followed.

Two soldiers sat at a desk pulled into the hall. They stood, displaying pistols strapped to their sides.

“The courts are closed, miss. I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” the soldier she had followed said.

“I’m just here to see Dr. Fermi. I’ve brought some paperwork he asked for. Is he still in?”

The second soldier pulled a clipboard off the desk. “Your name?”

“You won’t find me on your list. I’m new.”

He looked up from the board. “I’m sorry, then, I can’t let you in.”

“If you could just call Dr. Fermi.” She pointed to the telephone on the corner of the desk. Its long cord snaked down the hall, disappearing under a side door. “He really needs these papers.”

The soldier hitched himself up. His free hand hovered over the holstered gun. “This is a restricted area. Please leave.”

“Oh well.” Sheila shrugged. “I guess the doctor will have to wait until tomorrow.” She turned to leave, went a few steps then stopped. “Could you fellows help me,” she said over her shoulder. “I think I may have sat on something on the L; they’re so dirty. Is there anything on me?”

She pushed out her rear.

Both soldiers came around the desk. They looked at each other and at the presented posterior.

“Um…”

Sheila peered down her back. “I think it’s here.” She patted her bottom. “But I can’t tell.”

The soldier with the clipboard advanced. “Um … um, I’m not sure.” He gave a sly smile to his partner. “Could you lift your coat a bit?”

“If you think it will help.” Sheila looked forward and raised the hem of her already short jacket. “Those trains are so nasty. I know there’s a war going on, but if we let the country get filthy—”

She spun. The soldier stuttered to a stop, almost falling against her. She rested her hands against his uniformed chest.

“—then the Germans may as well win.” She looked into the soldier’s eyes. “Well, is there anything on my … behind.”

The soldier’s eyes darted around. “Um, no, nothing at all, miss.”

“Thank you so much.” Sheila stepped back. The soldier slumped a bit as her hands lifted off his lapels.

“Just doing my duty, miss.” Behind him, his partner snickered. “All in the service of Uncle Sam.”

Sheila grinned. “About that.” She removed the notes from her purse. “Are you sure I can’t just pop back and give these to Dr. Fermi?” Her fingernail found one of his shirt buttons. His chest puffed. “It really is so important.”

“Um.” His eyes darted to her finger. It moved down a button. “Sure. Dr. Fermi is still in. If it really is important—”

“Oh, it is.” Sheila slipped by the soldier and breezed passed the desk. She would have to thank Mr. Bradley, maybe, for making her aware of an asset she hadn’t known she had. “Just down here?” she asked the second soldier. He nodded, slack jawed. Sheila hurried down the hall, heading for the first corner before either could change their minds.

The sound of a toilet flushing came from the last door in the hall. A third soldier stepped out, drying his hands against his pants. He was older than the first two, still in his twenties, probably, but heading up. His collar displayed three chevrons, as opposed to the others’ one.

“Who are you?” the sergeant asked, stepping in front of Sheila. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Who is this woman? I don’t recognize her,” he barked at the privates. “Is she on the list?”

“Um,” Private Clipboard stuttered. He looked at his partner, who studied the ground. “No, but—”

“No? Then what is she doing here?” He looked at Sheila. “Where are you going?”

“I … I have something for Dr. Fermi.” She held up the sheaf of notes like a shield.

The sergeant’s eyes pierced through them. “How do you know…” He looked at the privates. “Did you ask her how she knows Dr. Fermi’s here, if she’s not on the list?” They didn’t respond. His eyes rolled back to Sheila. “I’m going to need to see some identification.”

“Is that the time?” Sheila looked at her wristwatch, stuffing the notes into her purse as she did. “I’ve got to catch the L.” The sergeant started to protest, reaching out a hand. Sheila ducked under his grasp and rushed past the desk, up the stairs and onto campus.

She went five blocks, well off campus, before stopping.

The sun was a yellow smudge barely peeking through the tall buildings. Wind bit from the direction of the lake. The light sheen of sweat under her coat started to evaporate. Shivering, Sheila ducked into a diner. A young blonde girl took her order of coffee and, why not, chocolate pie.

She watched the street through a plume of steam.

Two soldiers, neither from the racquet courts, rounded the corner. A forkful of pastry hung halfway to Sheila’s mouth.

The two uniformed boys — and that’s what they were, boys, no different than her brother had been, maybe younger — paused at the diner door.

Sheila scanned the back of the room; swinging kitchen doors and a hall to the restrooms. At least one would have an exit to the back alley. She slipped her purse over her shoulder.

One of the soldiers, a freckled redhead with cheeks still retaining a bit of baby fat, opened the door.

Sheila slid to the end of the booth.

A civilian, bald with waxy skin, stepped in. He gave a thankful nod to the soldier holding the door and took a seat at the counter. Sheila watched him pick up a menu in the reflection off the mirrored back of the pie cooler.

The soldier closed the door, moved half a step down the street, and continued an animated conversation with his partner. Sheila took a bite of pie and relaxed into the booth, dropping her purse on the seat. She pulled out the notes and leafed through them while sipping coffee.

I am right, she thought, while tracing the offending equation with a nail. But was Mr. Bradley right, too? Would Dr. Fermi care to hear it from her, regardless of how important it might be? They certainly weren’t inviting just anyone in off the street.

When she glanced up, her eyes met those of the waxy-skinned man.

He turned away, quickly swiveling the stool back to the lunch counter. His eyes, gray and peering from sunken pits, met Sheila’s in the pie-mirror before burying into the menu.

An involuntary tremor traveled Sheila’s spine. She stuffed the notes in her purse, pulling a dollar out in the processes and dropping it on the table.

It didn’t take much effort to not look at the Waxy-Man on her way out the door.

~~~~~

The apartment always felt emptier at night. The doors of the other two bedrooms, formally her mother’s and brother’s, gaped like sinkholes in the streetlight shadows, threatening to suck her in. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to close them.

It seemed too final.

Sheila heated the last of her milk ration and carried the steaming mug to the window. She sat on the frame and looked down at the street. Four in the morning and already active.

People, mostly women, shuffled toward the L station, bent against the wind. A few carried or pulled bundled children behind them. To the east, the Radio Flyer factory huffed smoke over Grand Avenue. Instead of red wagons, it now churned out fuel canisters.

All for the War Effort.

Sheila fogged the window and traced out equations from the University of Chicago project. Even with condensation dripping off the numbers, she knew she was right: Critical mass could be achieved with far less catalyst material.

“Oh, well.” She wiped away the equation and looked down at the street.

The waxy-skinned man from the diner looked up at her.

His stillness amongst the rushing and shivering workers made him stand out as much as the sheen of the streetlights off his odd skin. He leaned against a fire hydrant, sunken eyes staring at her window. Sheila stepped back, out of the rectangle of streaming light.

She double checked the window locks and the door before going back to bed.

~~~~~

The man was gone when Sheila left her apartment later that morning. She moved quickly to the L station and paced the platform until the train arrived. She flooded into the car with the rest of the morning crowd.

Waxy-Man emerged up the platform stairs just as the station attendant closed the car door. Sheila watched his eyes follow the train as it pulled out.

~~~~~

She wasn’t late, but she hurried to her building, not slowing until she reached the lobby doors. She stopped at the top of the wide stone steps and scanned the courtyard.

Waxy-Man stood across the street, watching her from behind passing cars.

“That’s impossible,” she said under her breath. “Even if he took a cab…”

Even after she entered the warm building, Sheila couldn’t stop shivering.

~~~~~

Sheila skipped lunch, opting instead for the chocolate bar she kept in her desk and uninterrupted progress on the new project from Lorraine. It took her three tries to get the torpedo tidal swell compensations right. An hour before quitting time she looked out the bullpen window, down the three stories to the courtyard in front of the building.

Waxy-Man sat on a bench, newspaper folded across his lap. His eyes, dark pearls from this height, scanned the building.

For a moment, she considered talking to Mr. Bradley, admitting to him she had disobeyed and now needed his help. His eyes, leering through his office window at the backside of one of the Computers, changed her mind.

At the end of the day, she broke her normal routine of hanging back until the building cleared out and slipped out of the office with the rest of the women. She squeezed into the elevator and watched the arrow above the door arc down.

“The recruits at Great Lakes have liberty this weekend,” Suzanne said from the middle of her usual crew. “What do you girls say about a trip to the Pier on Saturday?”

The women giggled like school girls.

When the elevator doors opened, Sheila let herself be engulfed by the exiting women.

Waxy-Man, still on the bench, watched the lobby doors. He didn’t look away as Sheila passed, surrounded by the tittering women. She relaxed, letting the tide carry her toward the L station. Half a block away, she looked over the shoulders and around the bobbing heads of her walking companions.

Waxy-Man leaned against the platform stairs.

“How?”

Sheila didn’t wait to find out. She fell back and darted toward the street. At the curb, she raised a hand. A cab pulled up almost immediately.

As soon as she hopped in, the street-side door opened. The sound of traffic, and the Waxy-Man, slipped in. Sheila pushed at her door.

It didn’t budge.

“Sir,” she said to the driver while flattening herself against the door. “Help me. I don’t know this man.”

The driver turned. He and Waxy-Man looked identical, right down to the blank expression on their smooth faces.

“Who are—”

A pinch at her side cut her off. Her eyelids became heavy. She fought to keep them up. The version of Waxy-Man in the back seat held a slick-looking hypodermic needle in his hand.

The cab pulled into traffic as Sheila slumped over.

~~~~~

A gentle hand shook her shoulder.

“Miss Cosgrove?” asked someone with a thick Italian accent.

Sheila’s eyes struggled open. She was in an office, propped in a chair across from a cluttered desk. Racquetball racquets sat neatly stacked in the corner.

“Miss Cosgrove?”

Sheila tilted her already clearing head toward the voice: Dr. Enrico Fermi. He looked just like the magazine and newspaper clippings she kept in the scrapbook on her coffee table.

“How … how do you know my name?” Sheila mumbled.

Dr. Fermi took a seat on the other side of the desk. Sheila’s purse sat open on the blotter. The doctor reached in and pulled out her Great Lakes Computing Center ID card.

“This is you, no?” He pointed to her name across the top.

“Yes,” Sheila nodded. “What’s going on?” Her eyes scanned the office. “Who were those strange men?”

Dr. Fermi ignored her question. “And you attempted to see me, yesterday?”

Sheila nodded.

“Why?” He smiled. His face became inviting. “Please. I suspect it is important.”

Sheila eyed the Nobel Prize-winning physicist; one of the smartest men in the world. And one of her idols. She reached into her purse, pulled out the notes and, coming around the desk, spread them in front of the scientist.

Dr. Fermi listened intently, whispering the odd Italian expletive as Sheila went over her findings. When she finished he picked up the notes and leafed through them for five minutes, redoing a few calculations in the margins.

“I believe you are correct.” He pointed out one of the equations. “My problem was right here. I suspected I was missing something, but you’ve worked it out correctly.” His eyes met Sheila’s. “Congratulations, Miss Cosgrove, you’ve discovered the key to nuclear fission. Very impressive.”

Sheila felt her cheeks turn red. “I just ran your numbers.”

“No, don’t sell yourself short. This is brilliant work. Especially considering the lack of information you had to work with.” Another inviting smile. “The most regarded scientific minds in the world have been working on this problem for years. Even the ones speaking German.”

“So your work is just a step,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “toward an atomic bomb.”

“Yes.”

“Yes,” Sheila repeated, still whispering. “The potential energy would be enormous. If it were unleashed, the destruction…” Her eyes met Dr. Fermi’s; a man with the intelligence and resources to make it happen. “Is it worth it, doctor? So many people will die.”

“They are already dying. In great numbers.”

“I know.”

Dr. Fermi caught the look in her eyes. “We all do.” His hand rested on hers. “So many loved ones, on both sides, have been lost.”

“And an atomic bomb?”

“Will stop that. We hope. If we can beat the Nazis to the creation of the bomb, then maybe, when faced with the possibility of overwhelming destruction, they will lose their appetite for war.”

“And if we can’t?”

Dr. Fermi looked into the distance. “I hate to think about that. I’m afraid many more people will die.” He looked back at Sheila. “But thanks to you, we just may beat Mr. Hitler to the punch. You posses a truly singular mind, Miss Cosgrove.”

“Sheila, please.” And she went from red to crimson. “I’m assuming you’ll be using purified uranium as the catalyst material? It makes the most sense. Using the lesser amount, and using current enrichment procedures, you should have enough uranium in, what, two years, to run the critical mass test? Is that enough time to beat the Germans?”

“Actually, we already have enough yellow-cake uranium. Plus a little more.”

“But the processes were only just discovered a few years ago. Nobody could have produced enough suitable uranium yet. Even at the lesser amount. How is that possible?”

“We’ve recently … encountered … a unique supplier.”

The office door opened, cutting off Sheila’s next question.

“All I’m saying is, could you have at least turned off your damn headlights?”

Sheila and Dr. Fermi looked up. A soldier — a general, judging by the constellations on his collar — pushed into the office. A second man followed. Sheila tensed.

Waxy-Man.

“We did not have our headlights on,” Waxy-Man said. His voice came out muffled and, even though his chin moved, his mouth didn’t open. “The glowing is an uncontrollable byproduct of the electromagnetic process used to separate the uranium isotopes. Your scientists requested more uranium.”

“Yes.” The general shook his head. “But next time, try to glow someplace where half of Chicago won’t see you.” He shook his head, again. “And take off the damn mask. I don’t know who you and your crew modeled them after, but he’s ugly as sin.”

Waxy-Man put a hand on the top of his bald head.

The general turned to Dr. Fermi. “And you, Fermi, what the hell is this about you sending data to a civilian computing center? Now some computer girl is knocking on the door.” His eyes fell on Sheila, noticing her for the first time. “Is that her? She was supposed to be taken to the naval base.” He spun at the Waxy-Man. “Aw-Raq,” he held up a hand. “Wait.”

It was too late.

Sheila’s knees buckled. Dr. Fermi grabbed her shoulders and guided her into his chair. She stared at the scale-covered face revealed beneath the Waxy-Man mask.

The lizard-creature’s jaw worked and stretched, exposing a row of sharp yellow teeth. The scales, tight and shiny like a snakes, covering its hairless head faded from bright blue to beige, matching the wall behind it. Its eyes, still gray but brighter without the mask, turned to Sheila. “The doctor requested she be brought here.”

The general didn’t appear to hear. He watched Sheila eyeing the creature. “Great.” A vein popped on his forehead. “Why don’t I just change the name of the operation from the Manhattan Project to the Let’s-Tell-Everyone-Everything Project?”

Dr. Fermi ignored him. He held Sheila’s notes in the lizard-man’s face. “We already have enough uranium,” he said. “Don’t we?”

The lizard looked down at the scientist. “Yes, you do.”

This pulled the general’s eyes off Sheila. “What? Since when?”

“One month.” Dr. Fermi pointed at the corrected equation. “Since we had five short tons.”

“And you just figured this out now?”

“No, Miss Cosgrove did. That’s why I sent the work out to a civilian computing center.” He grinned. “I was, as you Americans say, playing a hunch.”

The general turned on Aw-Raq. “And why the hell didn’t you say anything? I’ve got every big brain in the country playing with themselves, waiting for us to get some positive results. Are you working for the Krauts now, or something?”

“The terms of our involvement are very clear, General. We agreed to provide raw materials, limited security and transportation for your scientists between work sites. That is all.” He turned to Fermi. “I am sorry doctor, while we are committed to assisting you in defeating Hitler, something which not only benefits Earth, but eventually us as well, I could not tell you already had enough uranium to achieve critical mass. Given the destructive nature and potential for abuse of harnessing the power of the atom, it would be unethical for us to be directly responsible. The breakthroughs must be your own.” He laid a hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “I hope you understand.”

“Yes, Aw-Raq, I do.”

The general’s head shook. “Well isn’t that lovely; one big happy interstellar family. Now what about the other problem?” He looked at Sheila. “What do we do about her? She’s obviously seen too much.”

“General.” Aw-Raq stepped forward. “Is this situation similar to the lab assistant who turned out to be a German spy?” He reached into his coat and pulled out a gun; a slender device coated in green metal and streamlined chrome. A pinprick of light on the barrel turned from red to blue as it leveled on Sheila. “Is elimination appropriate here, as well?”

Sheila’s eyes darted from the gun to the general. His face was scrunched up in concentration. He was taking too long.

Sheila began to stand, not sure how or where to run, until a hand touched her shoulder. Dr. Fermi stepped between Sheila and the gun.

“No, Aw-Raq, elimination is not appropriate. She is not a spy.” Then to the general: “Miss Cosgrove has proven quite useful.”

Dr. Fermi turned to Sheila. “Miss Cosgrove … Sheila, I have a proposition for you.”

~~~~~

“Sheila!” Mr. Bradley followed her out of his office. “Miss Cosgrove! This is highly irregular. You can’t quit without giving your notice.”

“I am giving notice.” Sheila opened her desk drawer, picking out her few personal belongings and dropping them in her purse. “I’m giving it right now.”

“But the custom is two weeks. We need to hire a girl to replace you. You’re leaving us in the lurch.”

Sheila nodded toward his office window. “I’m sure you’ll find the right girl to fit my seat.”

“Is this about,” his voice dropped, “the University of Chicago thing? You can have it back. Frankly, I don’t think Loraine is bright enough to handle it.”

Loraine, like all the other computers, sat transfixed by the exchange. Her face wrinkled at Mr. Bradley. Sheila gave her an apologetic smile. “I’m sure Loraine can handle the project just fine.”

“Fine, have it your way. You were never a good fit here, anyhow.”

Sheila grinned. “I know.”

Mr. Bradley stormed into his office. “I hope you don’t expect a favorable reference,” he shouted. He fell into his chair and furiously leafed through random files.

“I don’t need one,” Sheila said, but Bradley pretended not to hear. To the other girls, sitting on the edge of their chairs, she said, “I’ve already got a new job.”

“Is it a good one?” Loraine asked.

“Yes, I think it is. I believe I’ll be … appreciated.”

“Good for you. Where is it?”

“New Mexico,” Sheila said before thinking, caught up in the attention. Oh, no harm, she thought. And she would need to give the Center’s pay clerk her forwarding address. “Los Alamos.” None of the girls would know where it was — she’d stopped at the campus library, herself, to consult a map — let alone suspect it as the location of the most ambitious scientific project of the century.

“New Mexico?”

Sheila turned to face Suzanne. She spoke to Sheila over a tube of red lipstick. The messenger boys, apparently, would be arriving soon.

“The desert. All that sand.” Her nose wrinkled. “And you’ll be on the train for days.”

“I’m not taking the train.” Sheila smiled. “I’ll be on a private flight.”

This sent the Center buzzing. Sheila finished collecting her belongs and gave Loraine, and a few of the other women, a quick goodbye.

“And Mr. Bradley,” she called from inside the elevator. He glared up from his desk. “Bottoms up,” she said, just as the doors closed.

~~~~~

~~~~~

Jon’s stories have appeared in T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, Toasted Cake Podcast and Lakeside Circus.  His story F.C.U. was recently included in the anthology Fae, published by World Weaver Press. Jon lives in Michigan and works for the state.  You can find links to Jon’s other work at http://jonarthurkitson.wordpress.com

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