Archie Hellshire © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The progress of the human race has not been pioneered by individuals overly preoccupied with safety. All the advancements of our people can be attributed to a ragtag assortment of gamblers with more courage than sense, diving headfirst into danger, compelled by the faintest chance of a payout, armed only with a devil-may-care attitude and maniacal laughter.
Somewhere in the world today, in a lab dimly lit by a pile of burning grant money, a madcap physicist is working into the wee hours of the morning, trying to turn a lump of coal into unlimited energy. Though we may scoff at his wishful thinking, it was not so long ago that our disdain was aimed at a pair of bike-shop owners who branched out into making the first aeroplane.
Before that, it was a hobbyist who decided to use new-fangled electricity to send messages across whole countries in the mere twinkling of an eye.
But it was before that, it was a sailor who tried to sail to the world’s edge and found North America instead.
But it was before even that, it was an apothecary who wondered if mucking about with a corpse might yield medical insight.
But it was far before even that, it was one of the nomads of old who decided to try planting crops instead of chasing mastodon across the continent to ward off starvation.
But it was before all of them, it was an ancient ancestor who made the controversial decision to play with fire.
Inspiring as their achievements are, for every success story, there are hundreds of gambles that met with total flaming failure. Understanding this, the bulk of humanity has, throughout history, chosen to build on the progress of others, well insulated from any risk to themselves. These people are comforted by the predictability of their lives. They benefit from the way things are and fear what they might lose if the rules of the game were to change. They have created for themselves a system of numerical precision, wherein all carefully selected actions lead inevitably to a foregone conclusion, and reaching your goal is only a matter of time and planning. These people are gamblers of a different kind; they have a system, but no matter how carefully they play the game, something can still come along to flip the board.
This story is about how the board was flipped, the gambler who played with fire, the orthodoxy who built their empire on the status quo, and the innocent people who got swept up in the tide and had to decide which side they were on.
Daniel Wyn opened his eyes at 6:30 a.m., mere seconds before his alarm went off. He had been getting up at the same time every morning for years and his biology had fallen into the steady rhythm.
He reached his hand out from under the covers and tapped the screen of his phone to silence his alarm as it started. While the thoughts of his waking mind were, as yet, unformed, he took in his bedroom around him. Sunlight filtered in through the sheer curtains illuminating four walls, bare of any pictures and with one flat-screen mounted opposite his bed. An orderly desk sat in one corner. On it lay his briefcase, packed and ready for work. A two-piece suit hung on the door of his closet, set out from the night before.
Comforted by the familiar surroundings of his bedroom, his mind gradually ramped into higher gear and queued up his morning tasks. He swung his legs out of bed to deal with the most pressing matter on the list.
After flushing the loo, he divested himself of his pajamas and stepped into his shower stall. The warm water cascading down his slim, toned body brought further clarity. As he worked the shampoo through his wavy brown hair, the different parts of his consciousness whirred into action after a night’s rest and began the work of assembling his schedule for today. Every duty, every task, every errand was carefully examined, tagged with a magnitude of importance, and weighed against all the other demands with each risk and reward noticed and noted. The steady dance of numbers that constituted Daniel’s worldview, a complex and harmonious rhythm, like the delicate inner workings of a clock, had fully powered up.
Wiping the layer of steam off his bathroom mirror, he shaved himself clean and appraised his appearance. Brown eyes stared back at him from his pale face. He reached up and gave a small swipe at a mole on his cheekbone with his fingertips, wondering, as he did every morning, if it looked like skin cancer.
Once back in his bedroom, he took his suit off the hook and dressed himself. This suit was one of three identical suits he had, indistinguishable right down to his underwear. He buttoned his top collar button, neglecting to put on his tie, since he didn’t own one; he felt that was inviting strangulation. He grabbed his briefcase, but before leaving his bedroom, straightened up his bed. He repositioned his pillow and pulled up the comforter on the side he slept. He cast a fleeting glance at the other side of his mattress, unmolested and empty, as it was every morning.
Once in the kitchen, he made himself breakfast, the exact contents of which he had decided at the beginning of the month as part of the regimen that insured he had all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients suggested by his dietician, who really wished that Daniel would stop calling him every month.
He turned on the morning news as he prepared his oatmeal and was greeted with validation of his constant paranoia.
“Late last evening,” the anchorwoman began to a backdrop of a smoking building, “an unknown number of assailants broke in to the Physics Building at the University of Northumberland. According to initial reports by the FBI, they planted and detonated a number of incendiary devices.
“No one has, as yet, taken credit for this attack, which the FBI is hesitant to label as terrorism, and they have not yet released numbers for any injuries or fatalities. We could not reach Physics Chair, Professor Geim, for comment. Now for the weather…”
At 6:45 a.m., food successfully ingested and dishes cleaned, he left his apartment, locked the door behind him, and headed to the neighborhood subway station. On the subway car, he diligently avoided making eye contact with any of his fellow commuters and touching any surface more than was absolutely necessary.
By 7:30 a.m., he was at his desk at work, half an hour early, just as he had done every workday going back several years to when he had slid seamlessly out of college into his job doing risk analysis at an insurance company.
There, Daniel was completely in his element. The cogs of his mind wound through the numerical data related to all the ways things could go horribly wrong and indexed them appropriately. It was work that was, for Daniel, both rewarding and life affirming.
“Hey, Dan,” said his neighbor, as he poked his head over the cubicle wall.
Daniel looked up from the report he was reading on space debris.
“You won the office pool.” He reached over the wall to hand Daniel a small wad of bills. “The new intern lasted exactly four months. I don’t know how you do it.”
“I noticed he had specialized in game theory rather than economics…” started Daniel in a quiet baritone. But his coworker had already walked on. Daniel turned back to the report he was reading, relieved he wouldn’t have to carry on a conversation.
Daniel was making up a spreadsheet to display the relative risk of being hit by space debris as they fell out of orbit when he was interrupted by the department manager.
“Mr. Wyn,” said a lady carrying a thin file folder, “We’ve been given a high-priority case from upstairs.” She handed him the folder.
He opened it to find a single sheet with a heading and several bullets.
“We need you to document the risks of electric cars.” She summarized for him.
He looked up from the folder, brow furrowed in confusion.
“The risk wouldn’t be any different from standard gas-powered cars,” he said. “You could actually remove all the risk factors associated with combustible fuels.” It was something an intern could do…if they still had one.
She stared at him for a beat, then looked around to see if there was anyone within range. She leaned in and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial murmur.
“One of the directors on the board also sits on the board of Texas Petroleum,” she explained. “He wants the company to charge higher premiums for electric cars, so we have to make them seem dangerous to justify it.”
Daniel gave a nod of understanding, and she left. Shrugging off the feeling that he was prostituting himself, he looked up information on electric cars and electrocutions.
Two hours later, the scariest thing he could find about electric cars was that they were going to cost him his job. He was pouring over a report on the toxicity of lithium batteries when one of the cogs of his consciousness gave an unsettling vibration. He looked up from his monitor and focused on the sensation; the intuitive feeling that something disruptive had just entered his orderly existence. He peeked over the edge of his cubicle to find the source of his discomfort. A shock of white hair, just barely clearing the other cubicles, made its way over to him.
He sat back down and leaned close to his monitor, not reading the words on the screen but staring very deliberately.
“Tryin’ to look busy isn’t gonna fool me.” The voice was feminine but with rough edges from being used for a lifetime. “Even if I thought you were busy, it wouldn’t stop me.”
He stared resolutely at his screen, unblinking, holding his breath.
“Ignorin’ me won’t work either,” the voice continued. At the same time, a massive handbag was plopped down on his keyboard.
All his strategies thwarted, he finally looked up to see the woman with coiffed white hair. Wrinkles on her face spoke of a lifetime of grinning mischievously. Two dark eyes that had seen a lot of hardship and sorrow, mostly of her own making, looked him over.
“Hello, Mildred,” said Daniel in his low voice, which now had a hint of a smile.
“Hey, Danny Boy,” she said. “What are you doin’?”
“Researching the dangers of—”
“I was just at the mailroom.” She cut him off. “The guy says they don’t mail things any more. What’s the deal with that?”
“They farmed mailing service out to a third party,” said Daniel, reaching into one of his drawers and pulling out a business card. He gave it a cursory look and handed it to her. “We started a business account with a specialty courier service to save money.”
“Trans-Commute,” she said, reading the card. “So, I have to walk all the way to their office downtown. Why is it every time they save money I do more work? And get paid less?”
Daniel shrugged, hoping not to get too involved in the subject. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Mildred, but meeting her was always a bit jarring, even for an adventurous person.
Mildred was a resident investigator for the company. She had a long successful career tracking down information, stolen property, and people in hiding. Her continued employment was guaranteed by her high success rate and the mysterious disappearance of the HR manager who insisted that eighty-seven was well passed mandatory retirement age.
“Well, thanks for this,” she said, holding up the card before she slipped it in her handbag. “Now, take me to lunch.”
“It’s only eleven thirty,” he said, following her anyway as she made her way to the elevators. “Lunch is scheduled for twelve.”
“That’s a whole thirty minutes away,” she said. “At my age, you can’t be sure if you have that much time.”
“If you don’t have that much time, does it matter if you’re full?” asked Daniel.
“Yes,” she quipped, “it does.”