‘Lacuna’, Anne E. Johnson

Illustrations © 2012 Rebecca Whitaker



 [ There's One Missing, © 2012 Rebecca Whitaker ] “There’s one missing.” Jen was certain of that. She wrinkled a printout of Monday’s IdCat chart in her sweaty hand.

“Count ’em again,” said her boss, Roger.

This week Jen and her crew had identified 4270 discrete idea categories. And now one of those IdCats was missing.

“Counting them again will take forever.”

Roger showed no sympathy in his doughy face. “For-EVER?” He buzzed his lips. “It’s just counting.”

Well, no, it wasn’t just counting. Ideas weren’t basketballs or backpacks or cars. Deciding what constituted a new, separate, unique idea required skill and delicacy. Now Jen had to do it all over. Thankfully, she’d taken notes the first time through. Still, just counting the IdCats wouldn’t explain how the file corruption had occurred, or even whether it was contained. They would have to check the individual ideas within each category to be sure of the damage. It was going to be a tedious job.

In the two years Jen had worked at Inkling Brokerage Corporation, she’d streamlined the process of categorizing. It was steady employment with benefits, and she tried not to think about the moral implications. IBC’s website collected ideas. Or, as its slogan promised, “We pass your ideas on to the people who can make them reality.”

The money-maker for IBC was to collect these ideas and grow them into something, combine them, add to them, and sell them at a massive profit. Ideas were submitted via an online form that had been pored over by legal. Contributors by the hundreds of thousands signed a waiver giving the company unlimited rights to their ideas. They wanted to feel like they were participating in something. In the advancement of society, perhaps. They wanted to believe that their ideas mattered and that somebody was listening. Never mind that they were getting screwed.

It was a fool-proof business model, taking advantage of the average person’s lack of organization, drive, knowledge, and confidence. It fed on the way people were brainwashed into spewing everything in their heads onto the Internet in pointless fragments. IBC gathered up those fragments and was building an empire with them.

Jen’s IdCat department slogged through hundreds of thousands of submitted ideas weekly and bunched them into discrete groups. Nothing got thrown away, no matter how crazy. “Kill the President” would be categorized with “Demand more accountability from our elected officials.” “Make the space aliens do all the mining work as slaves” joined “Increase legal protection for labor unions.” It was difficult, subtle work, but satisfying to Jen’s intellect. She was what some people called “over-educated,” with a BA in philosophy. It was not the best background for work at IBC. Buried deep in her was a sense of ethics that sometimes caused her twinges of conscience in her job. But she could usually fight those down with workaholism.

She had to admit that the missing category put her off her stride. By evening her team was groggy, with pizza-stained fingers. The pizza had been a bribe to keep them at their terminals until the categories and subcategories were thoroughly reviewed and recounted.

“What did we decide about sizes, Jen?” the very bright, very young Dee Dee asked from behind her monitor.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s the category for standardizing American women’s pants sizes.”

“And?”

“And there’s this entry about sizes changing over time, submitted by MallGrrrrl…”

“Hey!” Jen shouted, not believing her ears. “You know better than that. No user names.”

“I know, I know, but it’s not her real name, obviously.”

“Obviously, huh? Listen to yourself. You said ‘her.’ These are ideas, not attached to individual people. How many times must I explain? Once ideas are entered into our site, they’re just items in our warehouse, not someone’s thoughts. Right?”

“They once were, though,” said Dee Dee sheepishly.

That comment would be the end of Dee Dee’s career at IBC. Jen was sorry to let such a bright employee go, but Dee Dee just didn’t seem a hundred percent behind the IBC business model.

“We’re at 4269.” Vin, Jen’s assistant, read out the numbers just before midnight. They were definitely one short.

Jen sent her team home. They’d be spending all day tomorrow on this nightmare anyway. Might as well get some sleep. As Jen was about to turn off her computer, a message flashed on the screen in a green-bordered window. “Hello Jen. The IdCat you lost contained the unique, priceless ideas of many thousands of people. Were they really IBC’s in the first place?”

Frantically, Jen dialed the extension of Marty, the tech security specialist. It went to voicemail. No surprise, considering how late it was. She should call his cell phone. He had an IBC-issued cell phone for just this reason. Yes, she should definitely try to reach Marty...

With the receiver still in her left hand and her right index finger hovering over the “phonebook” button, she read the message again. And she realized that she didn’t know the answer to the question on the screen. Did those ideas belong to IBC? She put the receiver back in its cradle, turned off her computer, and went home.


“Where’s the trail? The proof?” Jen’s boss asked the next morning. “I mean, it’s not like you’re counting this stuff on your fingers or with a…with one of those, what’s it called?” Roger mimed pushing beads across a wire.

“Abacus?” Jen guessed.

“Yeah, yeah.” Roger scratched his shiny scalp. “You must have an old version of the, of the…”

Jen jumped in again. “Stock chart.”

“Yeah, you know, showing the IdCat you’re missing. Proof that it was there before.”

“I showed you that. Monday’s stock chart,” she said flatly. “A few minutes ago I looked at that same chart in our system, and it should be identical to that printout I showed you. But it isn’t. The record of the missing IdCat has been removed.

“Where’s the printout now?”

“Well, I shredded it. Which is protocol, if you remember.” Jen pushed down an urge to strangle this idiot.

“So, there’s no proof. Well, then. There you go.” Roger drew in a triumphant breath and opened his knees in a masculine dismissal. He laced his fingers behind his head, speaking to the ceiling. “Guess you’re wrong, then. Guess there really wasn’t,” he suddenly looked straight at Jen, “a problem.”

“But there’s a lacuna.”

“A what?”

Jen cursed her liberal education, wishing she could talk to Everyman. “A gap. In the data. I can tell that it used to be there, but I can’t see it. A lacuna. I don’t care what the stock chart says now. It’s been tampered with.”

Roger laughed. “That’s nuts. That can’t happen. You’re just wrong.” He must have noticed the murderous look on her face because his smug grin faded and he said, “Hey, just use the back-up files on the external drive, if you really think there’s a problem with the active files. And double the back-up. Two copies. Okay? Solved? Moving on now?”

“Yeah,” sighed Jen, just wanting to get out of Roger’s office. “I’ll take it off the back-up.”

“And make another copy,” he said, waving her out while he looked at some papers.

In truth, she hadn’t checked the back-up yet. But it had to be the correct, original version, without the lacuna. Even if the network had a virus or had been hacked, the external system was completely separate, not accessible online by any route. Jen was sure she would find the missing IdCat there, but she didn’t want to reload the files into the network mainframe until she’d figured out the problem.

At lunch, slurping up her soba noodles with veg from Hijiki Health, Jen tried to imagine how an entire stock chart could be wiped from the IBC database without leaving at least a ghost of a trail.

“It couldn’t,” she assured the fibrous hunk of bok choi pinched between her chopsticks. “I’m just paranoid and overworked.”

All afternoon she poured a manic energy into the presentation for the Feds the next day. This was a sales pitch for automatic taxation software. It would track the financial transactions of every American, allowing the US government to reclaim billions of dollars in owed taxes. Sure, there were certain issues of constitutionality, but Jen figured that was for others to sort out.

Typically IBC acted as a broker for major idea sales. It sold to a person or company who could develop the idea and then sell the product, after which IBC got a cut of every sale. The upshot of this particular taxation contract was astounding. IBC would end up with a percentage of all federal tax payments in perpetuity.

The Feds had contracted a tech genius named Carrie Zimmer. Jen had pitched to her the year before, for the idea of personal traffic light reprogramming. That was a plaything only for the rich, of course, but Carrie’s user-friendly program had really pushed the market, and the residuals were nothing to sneeze at. Jen was glad to work with her again. An intriguing, mysterious woman, that Carrie Zimmer.


On the day of the tax software presentation, Jen was well prepared. She had assisted in countless idea roll-outs. Her function was to toss out some pretty statistics about how IBC’s ideas usually fared, and how ideas similar to the one for sale tended to perform once realized. She was well trained in skewing figures to seem rosy, but she presented in such a nerdy monotone and with such drily technical visual aids that clients rarely questioned her work. This skill was one of the few things Roger appreciated about her.

“How are you, Jen?” Carrie Zimmer shook her hand after Jen set a plate of sandwiches in the middle of the conference table. Jen was surprised to be greeted so warmly by the introvert. Carrie rarely made eye contact. She looked at Carrie’s wildly curly mop of black hair and her thoughtful face, shadowed in an olive hue. She appealed to both Jen’s maternal and her intellectual sides.

As he always did for high-end clients, Roger was handling most of the presentation himself. He certainly had no problem with eye contact, and the aggressive boorishness he displayed to his co-workers got focused into a veneer of supreme confidence in front of clients. Much as Jen hated to admit it, Roger was a terrific businessman.

“…shine a floodlight in every corner where the freeloading rats of American society might scurry and hide…,” he was saying to a fat government lawyer sitting next to Carrie. It was quite a speech, about the moral damage tax evasion caused America, but Carrie seemed unmoved. Jen watched the programmer pick sesame seeds from the top of a ham sandwich.

Then it was her turn. Jen’s voice shook at first, but she caught her stride.

“In the past quarter, the dividends for automatic payment programs have increased by 7.25 percent.” She droned on in this manner, relaxing into it. Roger smirked oh, so slightly. The lawyer was soon glassy-eyed, oversaturated, which was the desired effect. Only Carrie didn’t respond at all. She was now sliding the plucked sesame seeds across an inch of tabletop next to her computer tablet, from one pile to another. She seemed to be counting them.

Carrie looked up from her tablet for an instant, catching Jen’s eye with a forceful glance that burned through her. Jen finished her presentation in double-time, stringing phrases together through habit while most of her mind was rapt by Carrie.

She couldn’t quite read the subliminal message she knew Carrie had sent. And it wasn’t the sort of shallow subtext that she usually got from a man’s look. This had substance, a weight that could shake the world. But Jen wasn’t sure what it meant.

With her slightly crooked nose nearly touching the tablet screen, Carrie finally spoke. “The potential is…” And that was it. Jen had heard her do that before, start a thought and let it trail off, leaving listeners to infer the rest.

The Fed’s lawyer jumped in. “That’s right, lady. The potential is out of bounds.” He whipped his arms around as he spoke, nearly capsizing his water glass. “What a boon this will be. I mean to the American people. Patriotic.”

Jen put great effort into not rolling her eyes. Every last creep in that conference room, herself included, was there to make money and cut an advantageous deal. She found it offensive when people pretended otherwise. Somehow, Carrie didn’t seem in on the lawyer’s patriotic spin. She didn’t seem in on anything, just lost in her tablet.

Jen focused on Carrie’s nose while the lawyer continued his shtick.

“What we’d be acquiring here is a diamond, sure, but it’s strictly in the rough.” Here came the pitch for a better price, Jen knew. “This idea,” he continued, “this, this…potentiality…” The lawyer sucked in air and bit his lower lip, trying to make it all seem unrehearsed. “This potentiality is so rough that your average citizen would walk right by it if it lay in plain sight on the sidewalk. In fact, even those select few who knew to pick it up and put it in their pocket would just let it sit on their dresser once they got it home. Wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to turn this potentiality into greatness.”

On the last word, he sideswiped the water glass with his wedding ring, playing it like a dinner bell. Jen couldn’t suppress an audible sigh, and it pleased her to imagine that Carrie shuddered slightly.

“You can back me up with the numbers there, can’t you?” The lawyer swatted Carrie on the upper arm with the back of his hand in a classic atta-boy motion. Carrie did not react except to nod her head.

“Looks good, right? You can turn this into a mean little algorithm?”

Carrie nodded again. Then she moved her face in closer to her tablet, seeming to block out the world.

Roger, however, was raring for the battle. His charming grin never wavered while he parried and thrust, one charlatan to another, and ended up with a decent price. It was remarkable to watch Roger in action, but Jen had seen it many times before, so today she kept her gaze locked on Carrie.

At the end of the match, as the bloodied lawyer laughed the awkward laugh of the defeated, Carrie finally spoke again. She looked directly at Jen. “I know these new numbers will be to everyone’s advantage,” she said.

Slipping her tablet into its case, she slipped from the room.

“What about new numbers?” Roger chugged his latte.

“She’s a little, you know, odd,” said the lawyer, adversary now turned conspirator.

Jen bolted out after Carrie, not knowing what she hoped to accomplish, but wanting to escape the morons. She found the programmer waiting for the elevator, and she fairly sprinted up to her in her sensible ballet flats.

“What did you mean by new numbers?” Jen said, trying to sound only slightly interested.

Carrie didn’t answer or look at Jen. When the elevator came, Carrie held the door for her, but they rode in silence. Jen got off on her floor, and looked back. As the doors glided closed, cutting her off from Carrie, she heard the enigmatic programmer speak. “How many IdCats do you have now?” The metal plates sealed shut. Jen wasn’t sure she hadn’t imagined those words.

A good IBC employee would have gone directly to Internal Security and reported Carrie Zimmer’s suspicious comment. How many IdCats were there? Why had she asked that? Jen was interested to see herself choose not to report Carrie. It was as if she were watching someone else make the decision. And although she couldn’t explain it, somehow Jen knew that complying with authority was the wrong way to go.

Her assistant, Van, was waiting at her desk, looking concerned. “Did you check the back-up yet? Want me to do it?”

It felt like a criticism, and Jen took offense. “I’ll check it. I said I’d do it, and I will. What’s the rush? Nothing could’ve happened to the back-up. It’s just sitting there. I’ll do it. You do your job, and I’ll do mine.” Without meeting Van’s gaze, Jen stormed off, her heart racing. She found herself back at the elevators, not sure where she was going. She should check the back-up system right away. She really should. But all she could think about was finding Carrie before she left the building.

“The parking garage!” Jen said aloud as she entered the elevator.

It had been a revelation―where Carrie was most likely to be―but the guy from accounting thought it was an order. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said, swinging his arm dramatically toward the button marked with a P. “Parking garage, coming right up.”

Jen tried to smile. It was a relief when the guy got off on the fourth floor.

Jen barely breathed during the thirty-second descent. The moment the doors opened she burst into the garage, sucking in the reek of exhaust. Her footfalls echoed.

“I thought you’d come after me.” It was Carrie, shadowed against a pillar.

“You messed with the IdCats.” There was no point in small talk.

Carrie just shrugged. That, thought Jen, was called not saying no. “How did you hack us? And why? The Feds must be paying you millions to design that tax software. Why would you sabotage a company that can hook you up with jobs like that?” She had spit all that out quickly, and it infuriated her that Carrie had not moved during her tirade.

With a few clicking steps Jen strode up to Carrie and pushed her against the concrete pillar. Passing headlights bleached out Carrie’s face for a few seconds. “What do you want?” Jen said.

Carrie looked so intensely into her eyes that Jen expected the other woman either to kiss her or hit her.

She merely said, “Freedom.”

“What are you talking about?” Jen could hear the anger and embarrassment―not to mention the disappointment―in her own voice. “Wait, you want to get out of your contract or something?”

Carrie’s laugh was derisive. “Have you ever had an idea? I mean something original. Even if it wasn’t practical.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Jen was unnerved to realize that she really had wanted a kiss.

“Think hard.”

Carrie’s voice was calming, so Jen did as she said. “Yeah, maybe as a kid. I wanted to breed a chocolate-sauce plant. I drew a picture of it. It wasn’t a real idea, you know, not something anybody could…”

Carrie interrupted. “What if tomorrow you find out I made a deal with a genetic engineer to develop a chocolate-sauce plant? How would you feel?”

How Jen felt was like she’d been transported back to Professor Lemner’s ethical principles seminar. She knew how to play this game. “I’d feel cheated. Like it was stolen from me. But I see where you’re going with this, Carrie, and it won’t work. That kind of naïve example doesn’t say anything about IBC.”

Carrie looked up, as if surprised to hear Jen challenging her. Jen went on, energized. “A chocolate-sauce plant is stupid and useless. The ideas IBC deals in are things that change the world, better the human race.”

“Wow, you’ve memorized all the training brochures, haven’t you?”

Stung by this sarcasm, Jen spoke pointedly. “The world is a lot more complicated than…”

“Jen, Jen.” Hearing Carrie repeat her name made Jen desperate to listen, hoping she’d say it again. “The people who submit ideas to IBC are uneducated. They don’t know that their ideas are valuable or practical. They assume, when they’re typing their silly, daydreamish concepts onto your site, that they’re suggesting the grown-up equivalent of chocolate-sauce plants. If they thought there was really something to be done with those ideas, don’t you suppose they’d act on them?”

“But they wouldn’t know how to act on them.”

“That’s exactly my point. They don’t know what they have. They’re just venting frustrations about the world.”

“So you’re saying we should pay for the ideas we collect?” A great sense of relief washed over Jen. She had wanted to say that for two years, but had never dared.

Carrie reacted with anger. “For God’s sake, this is not about money. Why can’t you get it? You know, I thought I’d found an ally in you. Somebody who would…”

She did that thing again, letting her listener imagine the end of her thought. After a deep sigh, Carrie continued. “A person’s identity is made up of his or her ideas, whether original or borrowed, lucid or mad. Ideas are power, and IBC is trying to take all the power. I just think Goliath needs to be reminded about David.”

Jen was scrolling through a mental list of ideas she’d read lately on the site. “You know, a lot of the ideas we get are about the level of a chocolate-sauce plant. Don’t you think you’re over-reacting?”

“What you think of as a trivial idea might well be the central point of existence for the person who thought of it.”

“Like standardizing the sizes for women’s clothing?” She thought of clever Dee Dee, whom she’d fired earlier that week. “But if you destroy the idea database, you’re destroying the ideas, which you said are power. Why destroy the power?”

“No. I’m just putting the power back where it belongs. The people who thought of those ideas still have them in their heads. Not a single one of them will really be lost. They’ll just become inaccessible to the exploiters.”

With as much experience as she’d had in philosophy seminars, Jen knew when she’d been licked. And she was glad about it. “Okay. Fine. But why drag me into this?”

Carrie widened her stance slightly, giving her a look of determination. She stared hard at Jen from beneath her shaggy brown bangs. “Get me into the back-up files.”

Jen didn’t breath. She couldn’t move. The sides of her face tingled.

“Interesting,” said Carrie. “You haven’t said ‘Hell, no.’ You haven’t run away. You haven’t called the cops or Big Brother.” She leaned forward and whispered with her lips nearly touching Jen’s. “I can take down IBC’s network. I tested the virus yesterday, and you saw it wipe out one IdCat. It will take about an hour for it to delete all of them. I’ll launch it tomorrow morning.”

A whimpering sound surprised Jen when it came out of her own nose. Carrie’s closeness, and her mad courage, thrilled her.

“Jen, you know there’s no point in deleting network files if there’s a back-up. You have to help me. I think my instinct was right: you do understand me.” Her breath smelled salty, maybe from the ham sandwich she’d eaten. “Come on, Jen, I need a key card. While the virus is hitting, I’ll show up here and physically disable the back-up system.”

“You’ll get caught!” Jen exclaimed. Again she surprised herself. So, she really was on Carrie’s side, it seemed.

“Yeah, probably. And I don’t care. What I’m doing is right, so it’s worth some sacrifice, wouldn’t you say?”

Feeling like a little child trying to understand a problem from the adult world, Jen said, “Will I get caught, too?” And she realized that she was reaching for her wallet, where she kept her access key card.

Carrie folded her hand over Jen’s, not taking the card. “I’ll do my best to protect you. I’ll just make a copy of this, and try to alter it enough that they can’t trace it back to yours. Okay?”

Jen nodded, helpless.

“And I’ll return the card, so you can pretend you had it all the time.” Carrie’s eyes darted back and forth as if she were searching for a plan. “Okay, got it. I’ll leave it in reception.” She rubbed her chin. “There’s magazines with plastic covers, right?”

“Yes.”

“Golf Digest. I’ll tuck it into the back cover of last month’s Golf Digest, then put the magazine at the back of the metal rack on the wall. Tonight I’ll call Roger the Dick and tell him that I need an emergency meeting tomorrow morning about the tax stuff. That project’s worth so much, he’ll squeeze me in for sure. While I’m in the waiting area, I’ll leave you your card.”

“Um.”

“In the back of Golf Digest, yeah?”

“Well...”

“Jen, you know this is right.”

Jen nodded. She did know.

“You’ll do this for me. And for everyone. Right?”

Jen nodded. “Golf Digest.” She relaxed her grip on her card, and Carrie took it, tucking it into her shirt pocket.

“You’re my hero. Jen.” She had added her name as a separate thought, and the echo of it thrilled Jen as she watched her walk away.


The next day, her brain ragged from a sleepless night, Jen showed up early. Even before filling her coffee mug, she looked at the IdCat database. Whatever virus Carrie had planted was in full swing, destroying IdCats like acid burning through paper. Jen watched as thousands of hours of work were eaten up. Superficially, she felt robbed of her product. More profoundly, she felt exaltation.

Roger was running around, panicking. “Be sure it’s not taxes. Be sure the tax categories are protected.”

“Okay,” said Jen, just to calm him. There was nothing she could do to protect the data. Nor did she intend to try. The great, morally satisfying power shift had begun.

“Look, deal with this, okay? I have to meet with that Carrie Zimmer, the programming geek. Don’t know what she wants, except it’s about the tax IdCats. She just arrived, so I gotta go.” He looked hard at Jen. “Deal with this.” And he stalked down the hallway to the elevator.

“Did you check the back-up?” Van called from his cubicle.

 [ The Parking Garage, © 2012 Rebecca Whitaker ] She lied forcefully. “Yes, yes, yes. Copied it, too. I want you guys working on the live files to see if you could save any. Or keep it from spreading to other types of data.” She had to keep Van busy. It wouldn’t do to have him bumping into Carrie at the external back-up system, which was on the floor below.

Jen’s assistants typed madly, trying to dig deeper into the software, to cut off the virus at its origins, or at least to reinforce the firewalls and protect what was left.

Jen didn’t help them. She didn’t pace. She just sat, the IdCat database spreadsheet open on her screen, and watched the category count in the lower right corner plummeting. 3950. 3276. 2113. 1005.

Somehow she could feel Carrie’s presence in the building. She imagined Carrie’s profound contact with the external drive like a saint performing a miracle at a preordained time and place. Knowing Carrie was there comforted Jen. But a flash of guilt told her that she had no right to be comforted. Carrie was taking care of the hard part, not so much in terms of her technical expertise as in the moral decision to act.

“But I acted too,” Jen argued back to her conscience, alarmed to hear those words come from her mouth. Now was not a good time to talk aloud to herself! But what she’d said was true. Sure, Carrie had made the decision first, but Jen had handed over her access card. She was part of history, too. The thought filled her with both horror and pride.

The categories were now disappearing so fast that the graphics lagged behind. Jen was riveted by the blocks of color and pixilated letters and numbers the hard drive spit out, trying to keep up. At last, the IdCat number was zero. The screen turned cobalt blue and flashed three messages in an exquisitely serifed font. First

IdCat System Failure,

followed by

Our ideas are integral to our selves,

and then

FREEDOM.


© 2012, Anne E. Johnson

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