excerpt from Conservation of Luck
For every good fortune, there's an equal and opposite misfortune.
As a brilliant young computer scientist working on her master's degree, Ella Hote doesn't believe in luck. But when bizarre accidents, insane coincidences, and weird encounters with improbably handsome strangers start to happen all around her, even hardheaded Ella has to change her mind.
Ultimately, when lives are on the line, how far will she go?
Lesley L. Smith
I gave Wei my most intimidating beady-eyed stare. Poker just calls for a beady-eyed stare, doesn't it? It was working, too, because there were only three of us left in the game.
We were all sitting around a table in the family room of Wei's apartment. It had all the bachelor accoutrements, complete with a side-of-the-road couch, an empty-beer-can pyramid, and the latest cutting-edge flat screen TV and gaming system.
"Give me a minute, Ella." He glanced down at his cards and gulped. Wei was a wiry little guy, a grad student in computer engineering, aka a nerd. He did not do well under pressure. Was that a drop of sweat rolling down his cheek?
Ha. I smiled ever so slightly.
The window air conditioner chugga-chugged in the background.
I didn't need to look down at my cards. Full house, kings over fives.
"Come on, Wei!" Malik, Wei's roommate, said. "Bet or get off the pot, dude." Malik was an engineering physics grad student, so also a nerd.
I flashed a real smile at him. He was pretty hot for a nerd, with a football player's physique. I was figuring we might hook up later. After I won, of course.
Wei and I were the only ones left with any money and this hand was winner take all. We had an informal game once a week. Lately, the guys had been bitching about me winning too much. What can I say? I rock. And as a physics grad student myself I needed the money--so, what was I gonna do? Go easy on them? I don't think so.
Wei glanced at the time on his phone and said, "You can give me a minute. This is the last hand."
"Yeah, this is the last hand. Get on with it, already." Malik grinned at me. He must be thinking the same thing I was, namely, impending possible hookup. I grinned back. I was very hot for a nerd.
Pounding on the front door interrupted us. "Ella," a woman's voice said. "I know you're in there! Open this door!" I knew that voice.
Wei breathed a sigh of relief and carefully placed cards face down on the table. "I better go get that. It sounds super important." His tone of voice said it didn't sound super important. His tone of voice said he was avoiding losing a lot of money.
"It's not," I said. "Come back and finish the hand." I knew who it was, my best friend Crystal. She was in grad school for nursing and worked as a nurse's aide. Technically, I had asked her, begged her, to give me a ride into work tonight. I needed to get back to work at the lab.
He ignored me and answered the door. "Crystal? What's the emergency? Do you need Ella for something? I bet you do. Something important."
Crystal ignored him and stalked into the room, right over to me. "There you are!" She was short, with dark blonde hair and a cute upturned nose. When she'd been younger, she reminded me of an elf, but starting when we were about seventeen, she'd been steadily gaining weight. Now, she reminded me more of a soccer mom. She said between the two of us--her small and blonde, and me tall and dark--we covered all the bases.
"Can't this wait?" I said. "I'm about to win over two hundred dollars."
"No!" she said. "It can't wait. You made me swear, swear, to make sure you made it to the lab tonight by ten o'clock at the latest." She grabbed my cards out of my hand and threw them on the floor. Some of them landed face down, luckily. "You made me swear. Tomorrow is your master's defense. May 31, 2030. You said it was your deadline!"
Ugh. She was right. That pressure on my chest wasn't the excitement of winning, it was dread about not being in the lab. I did need to finish my project. I only had like twenty-four hours to finish or I was screwed.
I looked down at the cards on the carpet. But I was about to win. Three kings. And two fives. There was no way Wei could beat that.
Crystal grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the door. "Come on."
"Sounds like you better go, Ella," Wei said. "Gosh, too bad."
"No," Malik said. "If she leaves, she forfeits. That's not fair."
Crystal grabbed for something in her purse. "Don't make me tase you."
I stared at her. "Seriously?"
"You're the one who gave me the taser," she said.
Technically, that was also true. Well, damn. She pulled on me again.
I let her lead me through the room, out the door, and into the hall. Outside the heat hit us like a ball-peen hammer.
"Bye, Ella. Good luck tomorrow, " Malik was saying when Wei slammed the door after us.
The cards and the money were calling to me, 'Ella, come back!'
But I made myself take a step away from the door. And then a second step.
Once we started walking down the hall, I felt a little better. I did need to finish my project tonight. If I didn't finish it, I would flunk out of grad school. That would be almost three years down the drain. There was that chest pressure again.
Crystal's mouth pressed into a thin line as we exited the apartment building and tramped across the parking lot. "You have a problem, Ella," she said as she unlocked her car.
Why had I blown off work when I needed to do it so badly?
"Did you investigate Gamblers Anonymous like I told you to?" she said as we pulled out.
"I love you, Crystal." We'd been friends since we were little kids. She was like a sister to me. "But you're wrong. I don't need Gamblers Anonymous. I'm not addicted to gambling." Frankly, I didn't think anyone could be addicted to gambling. The idea didn't even make any sense. It wasn't like it was a drug; it was nothing like coke or meth.
"So, it's totally normal that a twenty-five-year-old woman doesn't have money for a car or rent." She drove us towards my lab on campus.
"I have a lot of debt from student loans. Lots of people do," I said. "And Mom needs me. She'd be lost without me." I still lived with my mom; it had just been the two of us from the beginning.
Crystal flashed me a look that said she didn't believe me.
My stomach rumbled. My dinner had consisted of chips at Wei and Malik's place. We approached campus. "You can drop me here," I said, pointing at the convenience store on the corner. "I want to get a snack."
She pulled into a parking place.
I opened the door and hopped out.
"You are going into the lab now, right?" she asked.
"Yes. Thank you," I said. "Have I told you lately how awesome you are?"
"No." She may have thawed a degree or two.
"Well, you're very awesome," I said. "I totally owe you one." I'd have to put on my thinking cap to come up with an appropriate thank you. But later, after I'd successfully earned my master's degree.
"Yeah, I am, and yeah, you do." She put the car in gear. "And stay away from those scratch tickets!" she called back as she drove away.
It was do or die time and so far, it looked like I might die. I sighed, examining my supposed quantum computer on the lab table.
My advisor Professor Smithson's lab was a fifty-foot by thirty-foot high-ceilinged room filled with bolted down old-school black lab tables. Over the last few years I'd piled a few of them pretty high with electronic components and computers and such.
Maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. There were a few other q-computers in the world but they'd been created by large groups of experts.
Professor Smithson had warned me the project might be too big for a student. He said most master's students got teaching jobs at the university rather than doing research, but I'd convinced him I could do it. I thought I could do it. I'd bet I could do it.
The machine should be working.
Why wasn't the damn thing working?
My cell rang. It was Mom. I stepped over and stood in front of one of the windows. "Unless you know why my qubits aren't working, I don't have time to talk to you right now," I said.
"I just called to see how things are going, Ella," she said. "I'm guessing not good."
She meant well but she didn't understand the pressure I was under. "No."
"So, will you be home at all tonight?"
"I'm not sure."
"What did you do for dinner?" she asked. "Should I leave something out for you?"
"No," I said. "I'll just grab something out of the vending machine here if I need it." I'd already eaten a questionable convenience store burrito and gotten a thirty-two-ounce cup of soda on my way into the lab. The soda sat here on my desk, next to my purse. It should last me all night if necessary.
"Okay, honey. I'm sure you'll figure it out."
"Thanks." Usually, I would share her confidence. But I was getting uncomfortably close to the wire--even for me.
"You're a brilliant young woman. I don't know where you get it from, you're nothing like me."
How many times had we had this conversation? She was a nurturing artist and my mysterious MIA dad was supposedly the good-with-numbers one. She was brilliant in her own way. But I was sick of telling her that."Thanks, but, Mom, I'm busy."
Of course, I didn't know my dad so everything about him was a mystery. Mom said she updated him periodically about me and yet I never heard anything from him and we certainly never got any child support from him. Or birthday presents. Or Christmas presents. Or anything. So, basically, what I knew about him was he was an asshole.
"Okay," she said. "Good luck, not that you need it--"
"Thanks. Bye." I hung up and put my phone back in my purse. Geez. It was hot in here. You wouldn't think it would be almost a hundred degrees at 10:00 p.m. but there it was: Hello, global warming.
I took a drink and then opened the window over my desk and strode over to my equipment.
A breeze wafted across the room as I stared at my computer. It should be working. I'd used a scanning tunneling microscope to selectively remove hydrogen atoms on the surface of the silicon. Then, I'd added the doping gas. I peered at the small machine through the microscope. The acceptor atoms were at high density, in several layers. Bottom line: it was still silicon and it was superconducting.
I straightened and powered up the current again. On the monitoring computer, this time I noticed there was a blip of something that disappeared almost immediately. Ah ha. The info on the qubits was decaying too rapidly. My continuous measurements weren't correcting for this, as they should. I knew what the problem was: something was wrong with the readout resonator.
I got to work.
After I don't know how many hours, I fired everything up again and held my breath.
The monitoring computer registered eight qubits operating with no information decay. I jumped up. My lab stool clattered to the ground as it fell over. "Yes! It's working! It's working!"
I jumped up and down a little more. "Oh, yeah. Yay for me. I'm gonna graduate. Yeah, yeah. Hurray for me! I rock!" After a few minutes of this I felt a little sheepish. I righted my stool and sat down again.
"Okay, easy does it." I sent it a question: '1 + 1 = ?' Of course, q-computers were built for complicated calculations but they could do arithmetic too.
The quantum superpositions collapsed and I got back '2.'
"Yes!" I screamed and threw my fist into the air. "Yes, yes, yes! It works. It works. master's degree, here I come!"
Then, I heard a sound from the doorway.
When I turned to look that way, an older man wearing a security uniform was pointing a gun at me. "Freeze." I couldn't take my eyes off the gun. It looked ginormous.
I froze. "Uh, hi. Why are you pointing a gun at me?"
"What are you doing here?" he said. "Are you an intruder? Are you here to steal something from the lab?" The gun, still pointing at me, shook. I felt my pulse ratchet up.
"Please calm down. I'm Ella Hote. I'm not an intruder. This is my lab. I'm a graduate student."
"Yeah, right." A bead of sweat rolled down his face. "What are you, like, eighteen years old? This isn't your lab." His color didn't look so good. His skin was sort of gray.
Still frozen, I said, "I'm twenty-four. And a half. But, are you all right, buddy?" He looked like he might collapse any second. "Do you want to sit down? Maybe you should sit down."
"You're just trying to get the jump on me." He waved the gun around and I felt sweat break out on my own face. "If this is your lab," he said, "show me your ID."
"Yes, sir. I'd be happy to do that. Whatever you want." I paused. "Can I un-freeze?"
"Yeah. But slowly."
Slowly un-freeze? A hysterical giggle almost escaped. "My ID is over there on my desk." I very slowly walked over to my desk, opened my purse and took out my wallet. I opened my wallet.
I heard a very loud pop, like a big firecracker going off as something zinged by my head. The window behind me shattered.
By instinct I crouched down. My heart hammered in my chest. This guy was going to kill me. How could he kill me when I just got my quantum computer to work? How could he kill me when I was about to get my master's degree?
The glass stopped falling. I looked over at the guard.
He seemed confused. "Sorry," he said. His gun was still pointed my way. "I don't feel so good." He was having trouble catching his breath.
What was wrong with him? Clearly, something. "Are you sure you don't want to sit down?"
"ID!" he said.
Unfortunately, now, I had no idea where my wallet was. It wasn't in my purse. It wasn't on my desk. I looked around on the floor. Nope. "I can't find my wallet." I glanced out the broken window. Three stories down, I saw my purple wallet and assorted cards and IDs lying on the ground behind the bushes. "Uh, I think it's outside." Had I somehow thrown them out the window?
"That's it. I'm calling the cops." His shaky gun was still pointed at me.
I couldn't be arrested. I'd miss my master's defense. I pulled my phone out of my purse and checked the time. Oh, no. My defense was scheduled for 10:00 a.m.--a mere four hours away. "Let me call Professor Smithson. It's his lab. He'll verify I work for him."
Right as I was about to dial his number, I heard a loud thunk. Scared another bullet might be coming, I jerked down and dropped my phone. Splash. It went right into my soda. "Shit."
In the meantime, the security guard had dropped the gun and was slumped against the doorway. "My arm hurts." He clutched his left arm against his chest.
I ran to him. "Do you have a cell?"
He nodded and fumbled at his shirt pocket.
I grabbed his cell and dialed 911.
At somewhere around 9:00 a.m. I arrived home in a taxi. Of course, I didn't have my wallet. I prayed Mom was still home. Since she was almost always late for work, odds were in my favor. "Just a moment, sir," I said to the cabbie. "I have to get your money from inside."
I ran up the stairs in front of our duplex and unlocked the front door. "Mom? Are you still home?" Our place was small and old, filled with furniture that was small and old--but it was our own.
"There you are, Ella," she said. "I was worried." Her concerned expression contrasted with her cheerful hand-made rainbow-colored teddy-bear scrubs. Even in her scrubs, Mom was beautiful with glossy dark hair, animated eyes, and luscious curves. She was proud of her appearance except for the fact that most people thought she was Mexican rather than Native American. People said I took after her.
"I'm sorry I worried you. I'll tell you what happened later. Can you pay the taxi driver?" I was already headed to the bathroom. I should have just enough time to shower, put on my suit and dash back to school in time for my defense.
"I don't think I have any cash," she said.
"I'm begging you, Mom," I called back to her. "I don't care what you use: credit card, beer, sexual favors, please just take care of him."
I reached the bathroom, turned on the shower, and started stripping.
I came back out of the house about fifteen minutes later. Mom stood in front, still talking to the swarthy taxi driver. He looked like he'd just arrived from Iran or Turkey, all brown skin and black whiskers, with plenty of wavy black hair.
She giggled and tossed her hair. Correction, still flirting with the taxi driver. Her flirting abilities were legendary. Who do you think I learned from? I grinned, seeing her in her element.
"Actually, this is great," I said to the driver. "Can I get a ride to campus?"
The taxi driver inclined his head at Mom and said, "I already have a fare."
Mom smiled. "He offered to take me to the hospital. Such a nice man."
"I'm sure he is a nice man," I said. "But aren't you late for work, Mom?"
"Mom?" the driver said, smiling broadly. "Impossible. You must be her sister. You couldn't be old enough to be her mother." The cabbie clearly had flirting skills of his own.
Mom smiled some more and looked into his eyes.
I got into the taxi. "Can we please go? Please." I was already starting to sweat into my fresh clothes. It was going to be another scorcher.
The driver shrugged. "Whatever the lady desires." He stared at Mom.
"The lady desires to go." She gestured me to move over and scooted into the back seat next to me.
As we drove away, she asked, "Why didn't you come home last night?"
In the rear-view mirror, I could see the driver's eyebrows rise as he looked at me.
"Unfortunately, the security guard on duty last night in the building had a heart attack."
Mom raised her hand to her mouth. "Oh, no."
"I had to call an ambulance and I rode with him to the hospital. And then I called his wife and waited until she got there. I guess he's going to be okay." I yawned. My lost sleep hadn't been for nothing.
"It sounds like he was very lucky you were there," Mom said. "Quick treatment makes a huge difference with heart attacks. We see it all the time in the ER."
"Do you usually work so late?" the driver asked me.
"No, not usually," I said, mind whirling. It was lucky for the guard that I was there. Probably any other night he would have collapsed and not been discovered for hours. Probably any other night he would have died. It was a sobering and sad thought.
When I came out of my reverie, traffic had crawled to a stop. What time was it? I didn't have my phone to check. Ugh. I needed to get a new phone. "What time is it?"
Mom glanced at her watch. "Nine forty-five. You're cutting it close, Ella."
"I see that." I craned my neck. No traffic was moving. We were already across the street from campus, a couple blocks from my building.
I opened the door and stood on the pavement. Traffic was at an absolute standstill. I leaned down and said into the taxi, "I'm gonna hoof it."
"Okay," Mom said as I closed the door. "Good luck!"
I started speedwalking towards campus.
Behind me I could faintly hear the taxi driver ask, "Good luck with what?"
Moving quickly but trying not to sweat too much on my suit, I passed several parked cars. And then I passed several crunched cars.
Moaning, bleeding people lay on the pavement. It was horrible. "Oh, God."
As I approached, an older woman whispered, "Help me, please." She was bleeding from her head and her leg twisted unnaturally underneath her.
"I will. My mom's a nurse. She's just back there. I'll go get her." I turned and started running.
I helped Mom triage. We enlisted some of the other commuters to apply pressure to bleeding wounds and to keep the less-wounded but still scared people company until the ambulances arrived. Thank goodness none of the injuries were life-threatening.
For more info, see Lesley's web page: www.lesleylsmith.com
And then I ran to my defense.
I got there, panting, at 10:40 a.m. The room was surprisingly empty. Oh no. Professor Smithson was there and a couple graduate students, but that was it. Professor Smithson looked just like you'd imagine the perfect grandfather to look. He always wore dapper suits and his full head of wavy pure-white hair was always perfectly groomed. I half expected him to take a pocket watch out of his vest and examine it. "Did I miss it?" I asked him. "Did you flunk me?"
Professor Smithson frowned. "No. Everyone's late for some reason." He looked closer at me. "Are you all right? Is that blood?"
I glanced down at my wrinkled bloody suit. "I'm okay. It's not my blood." I collapsed in a chair and tried to catch my breath. "There was a pretty bad car accident in front of campus."
"That's unfortunate," he said.
I nodded and sucked air into my lungs. "Especially for the people who were hurt."
When I finally got my breathing under control I stood up. "So, what's happening? Are we going to start? Can we without the rest of my committee?"
"I think we're going to have to wait for them," Professor Smithson said.
"I'm going to take a few minutes to go freshen up, then." I shuddered to think what I must look like.
As I walked past him, he touched my arm. "Ella, did you get it to work?" The look of concern in his eyes was how I always imagined a dad would look at his daughter. Of course Professor Smithson was old enough to be my grandfather, but still.
I nodded, throat suddenly full. "Yes. I got it to work." I smiled.
He smiled. "That's wonderful! I knew you could do it, Ella!" His praise was amazing. It washed over me like a warm wave. I'd never felt so good. Was this what it was like to have a proud father? My eyes felt full.
I tried to fix the moment in my memory. Remember this, forever. He's proud of me.
We stood there for a few moments smiling until one of my other professors entered the room.
"Sorry!" Professor Perez said. "Are you waiting for me? There was a terrible traffic accident."
The moment was gone. "I'll be right back."
"No, Juan," Professor Smithson said. "Everyone else is late, too. We haven't started yet."
"Good." He rubbed his hands together. "I'm eager to put Ella through her paces."
I wasn't sure I could handle many more paces. So far, this whole day had been very challenging. I tried not to let my nerves take over as I raced down the hall to the restroom.