by Antha Ann Adkins | 2,238 words
Hugh needed to ace this interview with the mysterious SM, Inc. He had looked for work for over a year, and soon he’d have to drop some of his journal subscriptions. That would be tragic.
He was ushered into a small, undecorated office where a woman wearing a clingy, leopard-print dress greeted him. She rose to greet him, giving him a glimpse of long, athletic legs. “Welcome to SM. I’m Veta Patrick.”
Hugh liked what he saw. He never expected a hiring manager to be gorgeous, but he’d be happy to work for one who was. He shook her hand and introduced himself.
She asked him questions about his undergraduate coursework, his graduate coursework, and his field expeditions.
Hugh enthusiastically answered, talking at length. He loved geophysics.
Veta leaned forward. “Your research project on geothermal energy was very unusual. Where did you get the idea?”
Hugh’s heart started to race. Here it was. The reason he was kicked out of grad school. The reason he was blackballed from every scientific position. A former friend claimed he stole her research. The department’s “Ethical Issues” seminar had made him an example faster than he could protest. He leaned forward and growled, “The idea was mine. Even if Dr. Patel and the rumors say it wasn’t, the idea was mine.”
Veta smiled. “We believe you, Hugh. And we believe in you. So we’d like to offer you this lab.”
Surprised, Hugh pulled back his head. He had assumed this discussion would lead to another rejection. “You’re offering me my own lab?”
“Do you like it, Hugh?”
Confused, Hugh looked around the small room. “This would be my lab?”
Veta waved to the large area outside the door. “That will be your lab. This will be your office.”
Hugh was too stunned to speak.
Veta asked, “Do you have any other questions for me, Hugh?”
Hugh couldn’t believe what he was hearing. There had to be a catch. “What would you expect me to do on a typical day?”
“Every morning you’d be asked to read a couple of papers. Every afternoon you’d be doing the research of your choice. You’d get a budget for your lab and a travel budget as well. Any other questions?”
Hugh stalled for time by asking, “What does SM stand for?”
Veta winked. “Some people think it has a secret meaning, but it’s really just a meaningless acronym.”
“It’s got to stand for something if it’s an acronym.”
“Then you’ll have to define it for yourself.”
* * *
After two months of reading “a couple of papers” a day, Hugh stopped reading them. He had found the catch. The papers were nonsense, a waste of his time. He needed to do some real research, to prove his brilliance. But, while the company provided plenty of nonsense papers for him to read and an excellent salary, they hadn’t granted him any budget to outfit his lab. So he read from the journals and ate the fruit he brought in for himself. Today it was the Transactions of the American Geophysical Union and apples.
Hugh just about bit into an apple when Veta sauntered in, wearing a tight red sweater and short yellow skirt.
Hugh always enjoyed his visits from Veta.
“Hi, Hugh, I’ve brought you some more papers to read.”
Hugh waved his hand towards a pile of papers. “Well, add them to the stack of manure. That’s what SM stands for today.”
He took a bite out of the apple and quickly spat it back out. There was a worm in it.
Veta put her hands on her hips. “Hugh, SM does not stand for stack of manure. And we’re not paying you to pile up papers, we’re paying you to read them.”
“Have you ever tried to read them?” He snatched a paper off the top of the stack. “Just listen to this: ‘Propulsion through Negative Friction’ – it’s nonsense, even high school students know the force of friction is opposite to the direction of motion.” He tossed the paper on the floor and grabbed another paper off the stack. “Or this — ‘Experiments show my book crumbles when sales accelerate’. It’s just a word salad — random nonsense. Really, it’s wasting my time. When do I get to do real science? You told me I’d get a budget, and equipment, and assistants, but all I seem to be getting is more stupid manuscripts. I’ve turned in two proposals, both of which have been ignored —”
Veta interrupted him. “Now, now, before you get too excited, I had another delivery for you as well.” She held an envelope out to him. “You’ve received your budget for your lab, and you’ll be able to spend it once you’ve worked your way through your stack of papers.”
Hugh grabbed the envelope, ripped it open, and unfolded the document inside. His eyes widened as he looked at the budget. It was larger than his former advisor’s. Hugh looked up at Veta. “If I read that,” he pointed to the stack of papers, “I’ll get this?”
Veta smiled, “That’s right.”
“Well, then, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to work. Today, SM stands for serious motivation.”
* * *
Two months later, Hugh still hadn’t received any equipment. He paced in his office. How could he prove his genius without the equipment he needed to do his research? He grabbed a grape out of his fruit bowl and popped it into his mouth.
He grimaced. It was a sour one. He had to find a better fruit stand.
A few minutes later, Veta strolled into his office, wearing a purple tunic over a pair of black tights.
Although her visits were usually the high point of his day, his frustration with the grape and the job spread to her, and he griped, “Veta, we need to talk. It’s been two months since you told me that if I read through the stack of papers, SM would buy the lab equipment I asked for. Well, I read through the papers. I even read all the papers you’ve brought me since then. But I still don’t have any lab equipment!”
“Now, Hugh, you know it takes time to get the equipment you requested.”
“Some of it, yes, but not all of it! We should have gotten at least the furniture quite quickly, but we haven’t. Has SM even ordered what I asked for?”
Veta sighed. “It’s all been ordered, Hugh.”
“Are you sure? Because I don’t believe it. I’m starting to think SM stands for suckers manipulated, although I can’t figure out why you’d want to pay me to read through worthless papers. Perhaps you’re just a bunch of sadists that want to punish me, but I’m no masochist. I’m done reading these sheets of misfortune.”
“We’d be sorry to see you leave, Hugh.”
Hugh paused. He didn’t actually want to quit. He needed the salary. No one else was going to hire him, at least not until he did something brilliant here. He needed this job; he just didn’t need to be reading this silly material. “Why do I have to read these papers anyway? Where did they come from? They’re not nearly good enough to be professional journal articles. They’re not even good enough to be elementary school science fair papers. I could spend my time much more profitably reading real journal articles, like I do in the afternoon. Couldn’t I do that instead?”
“Reading the papers is simply mandatory, Hugh,” Veta said. “But I will work on expediting your equipment request if you decide to stay.”
Hugh bowed his head. He was trapped. “Thank you.”
* * *
One month later, one of the papers actually made sense. Or, at least, it made partial sense, but the equations weren’t right.
Hugh thought he saw how they could be fixed. He started scribbling on the white board. He worked through the morning, afternoon, and night.
He stopped only once to eat a peach. It was sweet and juicy.
He savored it with the thought that this discovery was far more important than his grad school one. Geothermal energy may save people’s money, but earthquake prediction would save people’s lives.
When morning came, Veta swept in, wearing the clingy leopard-print dress that was his personal favorite.
Hugh was delighted to see her. “I got the greatest idea yesterday!” he said. “I think I’ve figured out a method to predict earthquakes. I’ve made you a list of equipment I need — it’s on my side table.”
Veta clapped her hands with delight. The look on her face was worth the hours of reading stacks of manuscripts. “That’s wonderful, Hugh! And very exciting! Where’d you get this idea?”
Hugh went back to scribbling on the board. “It just came to me. Really, it seemed obvious once I saw it. Now I’ve just got to work through the details.”
“Are you sure you didn’t get it from these scientific manuscripts?”
Hugh snorted. “Those are a senseless mess. These,” he waved at his equations on the board, “are scientifically marvelous. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
* * *
Time flew as Hugh developed his idea. Over the next few months, he worked out the theory and got the equipment he asked for. The following year, he designed a device that could predict earthquakes and got assistants to help him develop it. He got to live the life of a brilliant scientist, eating and sleeping in his lab. He got a patent.
The best moment of all came three years later when his device successfully predicted an earthquake in Japan, saving thousands of lives. After that, he was interviewed by several popular science magazines. None of them asked about his graduate work.
He had achieved the recognition he was after. With this success, he thought he finally had built up enough ammunition to convince Veta that reading the daily stupid manuscripts was a waste of his time.
So, when Veta came with the next load of papers, Hugh said, “I have a question for you: do I still need to read these papers every day?”
Veta sighed. “Yes, Hugh, it’s still mandatory.”
“But why? My idea is making SM, Inc. a lot of money. Why would they want to spend my time on anything else?”
“Because they don’t see it as a waste of your time. It could be a source of new, valuable ideas.”
“The idea for predicting earthquakes was mine.”
“You developed it, yes. But you and I both know you got the idea from a paper in your stack of manuscripts. The paper was wrong in many aspects, of course, but enough of it was right to get you going in the right direction.”
“How did you know?”
“I reviewed the papers we gave you when you got the idea.”
“Is that where all the ideas at SM come from?”
“Now that you’ve publicly claimed this idea as your own and aren’t likely to reveal your source, I can tell you: yes. It’s our secret mechanism.”
“But how does it work? My idea is a totally new one.”
“I assume you’ve heard the saying if you let enough monkeys type on typewriters, eventually they’ll produce Hamlet?”
“We figured it would be easier, and more profitable, to try to generate scientific papers instead. But instead of monkeys, we use computers, which are a lot faster and can even filter their own work to remove the absolute nonsense. But we still need scientists to search the papers for valid ideas. After all, it’s highly unlikely the monkeys would generate a perfect version of Hamlet. It’s much more likely they’d generate one of the many possible versions containing a lot of typos. And any decent writer could fix it from there. It’s the same with our papers. You got one of the many possible versions with typos, but you were able to develop the idea from there.”
Hugh thought he had done a lot more work than just read the papers. In fact, he thought getting ideas – whether by sharing margaritas with old friends or searching mountains of stupid manuscripts or even studying masterworks – was the easy part. Anyone could come up with ideas – geothermal energy, earthquake prediction, time travel, faster than light travel. That was easy. The hard part was to turn those ideas into reality. And he had done that. Twice. That was the valuable thing. He wanted Veta to realize that, too. “But the equations in the paper you gave me were wrong. I had to develop the idea. And that’s the important part. That’s where the real work is. So why keep the source of the papers a secret?”
“We don’t want other companies stealing this idea.”
“So does SM stand for secret mechanism?”
Veta laughed. “No, it stands for Shakespeare’s monkeys.”
Hugh scratched his head. “So who are the monkeys, the computers or us?”
“Does it matter who the monkeys are as long as we are successful millionaires in the end?”
Hugh thought there would be nothing better than being a successful millionaire with Veta. And if he had to keep reading the stupid manuscripts, she had to keep bringing them to him. Perhaps they could go from single to married. He smiled and shook his head. “I’m happy to be a monkey.” He reached into his fruit bowl. “Want a banana?”
— — — — —
Antha Ann Adkins © 2013
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About the Author
Antha Ann Adkins lives in Friendswood, Texas with her husband, two children, and a small mountain of books. Another of her stories has been published at The Town Drunk, and she blogs about Space & Aliens, her favorite things to write about, at acubedsf.com.