Exercising the craft—June 16, 2014

By Ekta R. Garg

Prompt: A mind of its own—Your computer won’t shut down when you’re getting ready to leave work at five. Instead, it is looping a message and then attempts to tell you something.

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts/a-mind-of-its-own

Janie blew her bangs out of her face as she waited for the computer to shut down. She rotated her shoulders, trying to work the kinks out of her muscles. The project only had one more week to go, and for the first time since she’d started it she finally felt like she’d survive.

“Are you headed out?” Charlie asked from the other side of the cubicle wall.

She smiled at him. “Just waiting for the green light from the computer.”

He got up and smiled back as he collected a few papers. After dropping them into a messenger bag, he put the bag over his shoulder.

“You’re getting a chance to get out on time for once, Janie. Don’t waste it on the computer.”

She shrugged with one shoulder. “It’s been acting up a little bit for the last few days. I just want to make sure I don’t lose all the hard work we’ve all done.”

“Didn’t you save it on a USB?”

“I did, but I made a few changes at the last minute and I forgot to save those.”

Charlie shook his head good-naturedly. “It’s up to you. Me, I’m headed out for a drink. You’re welcome to join me.”

Janie hesitated. Charlie had asked her out several times in the last year, and she’d found several excuses. She liked him well enough, but she always turned him down. One failed office romance four years ago had provided enough uncomfortable conferences to make her swear off dating anyone from work.

But, really, what did she have to lose?

“Um, okay. I’ll catch up with you after the computer’s off. Are you headed to the usual spot?”

He grinned and nodded. “See you there in about a half-hour?”

She nodded back, trying to make it look casual so it didn’t feel like a “thing” but maintain just enough interest that he didn’t back off. She looked at her computer screen, wanting to do something that felt natural, that put a respectable amount of space between them. Instead of seeing the “Logging off” message on her screen, though, she saw something else.

You won’t get the job.

Janie’s heart began to hammer, and she felt the pressure of its drumbeat in her ears. What…?

“Janie?”

She shook her head and forced herself to look at Charlie. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Are you okay?”

Janie looked back at the computer and saw it scroll across the screen again. You won’t get the job.

Aware that Charlie wouldn’t leave without an answer, she forced herself to look at him. “Uh, yeah. Yeah. Sorry. Um, I’ll see you there.”

Charlie smiled again and left. Janie turned back to the computer just in time to see the message disappear into the right edge of the screen. You won’t—

But I didn’t even tell anyone that I’d applied for that position, Janie thought. Who put this on my computer?

You won’t get the job…and Charlie knows why.

The heart hammering began again, this time harder and louder. Not knowing what else to do, Janie rolled out her chair and sat in it. She rolled toward the desk and reached toward the keyboard. Her hand felt exceptionally light as it hovered for a second before hitting the spacebar.

The screen blinked once, twice before going to her home screen.

Crap. It’s not going to log off. What am I supposed to do now?

Just then a ping sounded, and an envelope icon appeared. The envelope opened and closed repeatedly. Janie moved the cursor and clicked on it.

The email opened in a new window.

“Janie: I can’t tell you who I am, but I think it’s important for you to know that Charlie has hacked into the system and screwed with your file. You won’t get the job. Charlie’s always wanted it, and in the last three performance reviews you’ve outperformed him enough that he’s determined to destroy you. He’s always had a chip on his shoulder about a woman taking the job that he’s wanted, because it’s happened before, in his old job. The fact that you turned Charlie down that first week you started here seven years ago probably didn’t help. Now he’s trying to fix the books against you. He’s done it slowly enough that it looks like someone really did something wrong. So you’re about to get booted. And I can’t let that happen. You’re a star at what you do, and you deserve better. Do something before you get hurt.”

The email had come from a sender listed as person123 from the internal email server, but Janie knew who had sent it. He’d used almost the same line toward the end of the last email he’d sent her. But why hadn’t he said anything before? And did he still want to get back in touch?

She hit “Reply.”

“James, I appreciate your note. If you really want to help me, then put your money where your mouth is. Call me on my cell, and we’ll figure it out.”

She clicked on “Send” and waited. If their relationship had meant enough to him that he’d gone out of his way to let her know what Charlie wanted to do, then she knew James wouldn’t hesitate to put his own hacking skills to use. She knew she should have trusted her gut about Charlie. And James.

She directed the computer to log off, and this time it did so within moments. Taking out her compact, Janie checked her face. She touched up her lipstick and practiced a smile. Then she left the office. If Charlie wanted to square off with her at work, she’d give him a fight he wouldn’t forget.

In the meantime, she figured, she could at least get a free drink out of the deal.

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