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Madi looks over her writing prompt, bracing herself for the next paper she's going to write. She picks up her pencil with the intention to place it down on paper but hesitates — twirling it in circles.
“All right,” she declares at last.
The tip touches the white sheet and starts to move rapidly, dancing up and down. Page after page fills with her words, and a thin line of sweat appears beneath her brow. She does not falter.
After the third paper, Madi pushes off from her writing desk and spins on her chair. She flicks her left hand back and forth until the throbbing slows. Then, as if the page might leap out at her, she carefully leans over her work and starts to read.
James Shenandoah (that wasn’t his real last name) had been spying for five years, and he liked to think that he was famous for his last-second escapes. He grew to love the thrill and adrenaline that came with his job, and looked forward to more and more dangerous missions.
Where am I going this time? As soon as he thought that, a message appeared on the inside of his dark sunglasses — it said "Mt. Etna.” After that, James scrolled through a long list of instructions. The last two words were the same as always — “good luck.”
James clenched his teeth, ready to board the next flight to Italy. He was going to climb into the most active volcano on Earth.
James had been to Italy four times now, and only once for a vacation. As soon as he set foot on the country’s ground, James was overwhelmed with the pressure of what he was about to do.
Alas, this was his job. If he didn’t do this, someone else would. James booked a taxi to Mt. Etna, and after three long hours in traffic, the car stopped in front of the volcano. He exited the Jeep and it departed down the dusty road.
As he stared up at the hugeness of Mt. Etna, James was beginning to have doubts. “So… uh… you couldn’t have gotten some fancy high-tech drone to do this?”
His shades replied, “No. We have tried machinery before. Only a human can successfully retrieve the classified-28 inside of the vault.”
“Figures,” James mutters. “Okay, so how deep am I going to crawl in?”
“How far away is the vault from the lava?”
“There is no lava. Mt. Etna is not active right now, Shenandoah.” The robotic voice disappeared and was replaced by a government tech operator who talked James through each outing.
“So I can just step in, step out?”
Operator: “It’s not that simple. You cannot breathe the air because of the sulfur and ash. You will have to wear a full-body suit to protect you from the poisons.”
“And the vault?” As soon as James asked, a map appeared in his shades showing him the trail to climb up and where the classified-28 is located. “Wait, wait, wait! I’m going to have to—,”
“Dig. Yes. The vault is three feet inside the side of the volcano, and you are going to cut it out.”
“Glorious. I’m also going to assume that there will be no crew to help me?”
“Correct. Too many people could cause suspicion.”
“So, I’m going to walk into a volcano — the most active one on Earth — and dig out a vault planted there by a foreign body? And I’m doing it alone?”
“No. You have me, Shenandoah. I’m in a helicopter and my job is to make sure you don’t die.”
“Anytime. The equipment you will use is beneath the welcome sign. Grab it, put it on, and get walking.”
“I can’t be driven or flown up there?”
“Sorry. You have to act like a tourist or at least some crazy American YouTuber.”
James chuckled to himself, then did a few stretches before taking the first stride on the powdery trail that led to the welcome sign. He hastily put on the suit and then held out his phone and pretended to film himself waving at Mt. Etna.
Operator could be heard laughing on the other line.
The jaunt was horrible and long, though this kind of stuff James had already trained for. He kept going despite being cramped up and lightheaded.
Finally, James stood on the rim of Mt. Etna. There were several tourists here. He — in a way he hoped was somewhat casual — began to walk down into the volcano. Note that the opening to Mt. Etna was not fiery with lava spewing everywhere. The hole on top looked like a large, inverted crater's bump.
“Five more feet and you’ll be on top of the vault,” Operator said.
James nodded, though he knew that no one saw it.
“Three more feet.”
James crept forward on the ashy surface, ready for the volcano to swallow him at any moment.
“Two more feet.”
Another tentative advance, and then, “Shenandoah, you’re there.”
James immediately pulled out his digging instrument — it was some sort of cross between a shovel and a drill — and began the gruesome work of breaking up the rocks. Once the surface cracked, it was much easier to go further down.
After half an hour, James felt the end of the shovel/drill touch something metal. Clank!
He excavated around it, then carved out of the rock a heavy box around the size of a wooden chest. “This is unbelievable!” James stood back from the trunk in awe.
Operator: “Focus, agent!” He began to ring out a series of numbers, all of which James plugged into the small keypad on the vault. Halfway through the process, Operator stopped in his listing of figures. “Shenandoah, we have company.”
James was alert. “How many?”
“Seven trucks coming this way and fast. Can you pick up the vault containing classified-28?”
James tried. “No, it’s too heavy.”
“Okay. Steady yourself and prepare to type in numbers like your life depends on it.”
The spy cracked his knuckles then, following the rushing stream of almost nonsense from the operator, entered in the seemingly never-ceasing code.
James heard the Army trucks coming and in return typed faster. It wasn’t working. According to the instructions given to him after he left the plane, the code of numbers went on for infinity, and they didn't know how many digits it needed before the door unfastened. All James did was hope that at some point soon the vault would release the files.
Operator finally stopped the surge of numbers and pronounced, “Shenandoah, it’s no use! You have to get out of there!”
“No way. Just keep it up.”
“You won’t be able to escape this one, agent, if you don’t start running now.”
“I got this. What is the next section of code?”
After a grumble, Operator continued the numbers.
The trucks turned and drove around the rim of Mt. Etna, then click! the vault door opened and James pulled out the strange stack of laminated papers. “I’ve got them!” He shouted to his earpiece.
Operator: “The helicopter is coming to get you. We’re going to send down a ro—,”
The rest cut off; James became consciously aware of a dozen or more people holding him at gunpoint.
“Place the files back into the crate!” ordered the leader of the group with a thick, unidentifiable accent.
James did not move. “Operator? Operator!” He whispered to no avail. They must have some sort of device that cuts off our connection, he thinks.
“Place the files back in the crate!” Shouts the man again. James returned the packet and stuck his hands up, defeated.
Two other heavily armored members of the association — a woman and a man — came up to James and handcuffed him. The spy was shoved and pushed into one of their Army trucks, then driven away.
The vault was later demagnetized from its spot on the inside lip of the volcano and relocated with classified-28 in it. Who the group was, what they were hiding, and what happened to Operator's helicopter is still a mystery. James Shenandoah was never seen again.
After her review, Madi reads over her writing prompt to make sure she didn’t miss anything. It states: Lead readers to expect a “final moments” rescue that doesn't appear.
Satisfied, Madi places the stack of papers into her own little file titled ‘Someday Prompts.’ She scratched off number 28 on her list of to-dos, and then read over number 29.
Once again, she picks up her pencil and twirls it in her hand — hesitating to start another paper.
“All right,” she declared at last.
The pencil meets paper and the world bends at her fingertips.