Chapter 4

Neil was pretty zoned out. It was the first day back to work and Tom’s car had just pulled up to the lab. Instead of talking to Tom for the drive, Neil spent the drive thinking about the morning. He woke up to a sunbeam right in his eyes and was so lost. He felt as if he wasn’t used to real light anymore, having been in an artificial sterile environment for so long. Or maybe he just wasn’t used to lights you couldn’t control. He felt ashamed as he recalled his awkward flailing that morning. It had been a few days, but still, every morning Neil flung his arms around, looking frantically for light switches, call buttons, anything familiar to him. He needed Tom’s help to get out of the guest room bed and he sensed that this new dynamic was putting a strain on their friendship. He noticed the look of fear - or was it revulsion, maybe discomfort - when Tom saw his mangled leg up close the first time. Tom hadn’t spoken much since Neil arrived, except for a few words mumbled over the meals they shared. Neil started to come out of his daze when he noticed Tom standing beside the open car door waiting to help him out of the car.

“Oh, I got it. I can get out of the car.” Said Neil. He reached beside the seat for his cane and carefully positioned himself, turning his legs out the door. He slid carefully down, feeling his weight on his strong leg, then slowly allowing himself to put more and more weight on the weak leg, until it wasn’t comfortable anymore. Steadying himself with his cane, he started to walk.

“You seem to be moving pretty good today.” Said Tom awkwardly. Neil couldn’t get a fix on his mood. He stopped walking. With a concerned look, Tom stopped as well and looked directly at Neil’s cane.

“Tom, what’s going on?”

“Lots man. Lots.”

“Like what?”

"Oh, I don’t know. We’re seconds away from having to see Conrad. I’m worried about how you’ll react. Just a bit ago he managed to goad you into a very serious panic attack. How are you not freaking out?”

“You’ll be there. I’ve promised to do what he asks. At some level, he needs our cooperation, so he’s not going to try to make this awkward. I’m doubtful we’ll even see him.”

“And if you do?”

Neil thought long about this. In fact, he had been thinking about this over and over again since he left the hospital. He had actually realized that the extreme stress from the situation was actually triggering panic coping mechanisms, much like a fight-or-flight reflex. Sure, he was sick to his stomach and completely messed up, but being in panic mode meant he was actually fairly confident he could handle dealing with Conrad until the project was done. He wasn’t sure how to convey this to Tom, but he attempted to put it into words.

“I’ll be civil, Tom. Cool, even. I approach this as an obligation to fulfill, so I never have to see him again.”

“How are you this cool? I can’t be this cool about it!” raved Tom.

“Oh, I’m not cool about this. Not one bit.” Neil could feel his stomach get upset again. “I’ll act cool and I won’t let him get under my skin when I deal with him, but I am furious. I hate the guy as much as you do. But the driving force keeping me sane is the idea that the sooner we finish this work, the sooner we can all move on. So, let’s go and have fun in the lab, pretend it’s like old times and make this project – whatever it is – work and then we start firing off resumes.”

“Are you sure you can handle pretending to be cool?”

“I don’t know. It’s not really pretense, it’s a panic calm.” Neil mustered up his most confident, determined look and looked right at Tom. “I’ll try my best, as long as you will too.”

“Alright, then it’s decided.”

Neil took off walking again and reached the doors. He looked up at the giant sign on the building. He could still see the faded logo of the company he founded – ATOMICO – underneath the letters on the new, bright, re-branded facility. What kind of a name was AET? Some forgettable acronym. His company wasn’t his anymore. Neil cursed his business sense. He was always so bright with the applied physics, but terrible with the business. He thought about his father for a second. He was a shrewd business man. A great business manager. The business manager that sold the business out from under him. No emotions involved in that decision. He was supposed to take care of things. And he did. Money before family. Neil could feel his temperature rise, and this distraction was breaking down his false calm. He gripped his hands tightly, took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds. He counted backwards from five and felt his pulse slow and his head started to cool down. He pushed the thoughts aside and reached out to open the door. Waiting on the other side was Conrad.

“Well, you were wrong. He did show up,” Neil thought to himself. Attempting to provide an example to Tom, Neil threw his hand up for an enthusiastic handshake and put on a fake smile. Despite the confusion in his eyes, Conrad was the first to speak.

“Neil, I’m so glad that you accepted my offer.”

Conrad was as subtle as a chainsaw. Between the aggressive grip on the handshake and his close in-your-face stance, Neil got the message. This wasn’t his company anymore. Conrad wasn’t fucking around. Neil’s primary job role was full compliance. For a second, Neil considered making his distaste known, but he really wanted to prove something to Tom. Or maybe prove something to himself. He decided to signal his intent that there would be no animosity from his end. He emphasized his forced smile. He hoped it was genuine looking. He spoke. “Well, there’s no better offer than being able to finish something we started.” He smiled and looked over at Tom.

Conrad nodded. He seemed to be happy with Neil’s response and attitude. He reached into his pocket and handed Neil a laminated access pass.

"Here’s your access pass, Neil. There’s also a key on the lanyard as well. It’s for the golf cart.”

“Golf cart?” Neil was confused. He looked at Tom.

“They expanded out. Or under, rather. They installed a – for lack of better terms, a missile silo,” Tom explained. “It’s got a few floors above ground, but the majority of it is underground on the back 40 of the lot. It’s a hell of a walk, so there’s a golf cart. And no. Before you ask, it’s not special treatment.” Tom lifted his lanyard to show the same key. “We all have keys, there’s a few of these carts kicking around. Nobody walks there.”

Neil’s head raced. Missile silo? What was this big project after all? What kind of weapon were they having him build? With some discomfort, Neil hopped onto the cart. As soon as he settled, Tom took off in the cart, weaving through a set of large doors.

“These are new.” Neil said, motioning at the doors.

“Yeah, the passage to the silo is underground. Hermetically sealed too, apparently.”

“Great, I love the idea that they can just trap us at work as they please.”

Tom shuddered at the thought. Neil cracked a smile. “Are we there yet?” he asked.

“It actually takes a little time to get there. Should I bring you up to speed in the meantime?”

"May as well get started. The sooner this is done, the sooner our debt is paid.”

“The project is energy weapons. Think something like a taser, but with plasma or ion energy.”

“Plasma and Ion energy are not an either/or kind of thing.”

“Yeah, but we’re developing both, hoping that one of them manages to make it past the prototype stage.”

“And so far?” Neil asked

“So far, both weapons have been extremely disappointing.”

Neil noticed the golf cart approaching another set of doors. He assumed this was the testing silo Tom spoke about. As they entered the threshold and the doors shot open, Neil’s heart raced with excitement. As much as he hated the idea of working on this project, this was a spectacular workspace. A touch of jealousy rose into his mind as he realized that he could have never taken his vision here. When it was ATOMICO, it was all about having fun at work, dicking around until they accidentally fell upon an idea that made money. Success was a byproduct, not the plan. Sure, he hated that AET had turned his little company into a weapon manufacturer, but he admired how they ran the business. They had a plan. They had vision. The disconnect between their ability to get things done and the horrible things they did made him feel truly conflicted. While he contemplated, he noticed that the golf cart approached a table and came to a stop. Tom got off.

“So, here’s the plasma gun,” said Tom as he hoisted a heavy looking battery pack onto his back with great difficulty. It looked uncomfortable and started pulling him down, affecting his posture. Neil knew he wouldn’t be able to even get that on his back without falling over. Attached to the battery pack was a rifle looking thing. It kind of reminded Neil of the kind of rifle you’d see on a bad Sci-Fi show. The butt of the rifle looked normal, up to the trigger. Then it was all about electronics and weird shapes. Instead of a round barrel there was a square barrel that came to a point, much like a pyramid. With little warning, Tom fired the weapon. A column of pinkish light extended from the tip of the pyramid. It stretched out about 18 inches, never separating from the barrel. It seemed more like a plasma cutting torch than a gun. It was painful to look at, both due to the intense brightness and the ridiculous nature of the gun. Neil looked away and couldn’t help crack a smile.

“Well, I see that you used some of my preliminary theories on plasma, despite my warnings and protestations. And I see that you’ve ignored those warnings and you’ve wound up developing a rifle-shaped plasma knife or cutter of some kind that requires a backpack that seems to weigh a ton and probably lasts like that for, what, maybe 4 minutes?”

“4 minutes, 13 seconds was our best time” added Tom as he nodded. He continued. “But, yeah, that’s about the size of it. Some of the guys called it a plasma bayonet, but that really pissed off Conrad.”

The idea of a pissed off Conrad made Neil smile. Neil motioned to the other gun. It was similar in design, save for a round barrel and a conical tip. “I’m assuming that’s the ion one. What’s the story with that?”

“Well, that one does about the same thing. Except it’s blue. Oh, and it kills the battery in just under 2 minutes. I think the battery is actually dead right now.”

Neil was concerned. He had assumed that there was at least a concept to work with. A promising starting point that would need some fine tuning. This needed a redesign. Theory would need to be revised. Assumptions weren’t tested properly. This project was exactly what he’d expect from the pre-accident Tom. Sadly, Neil couldn’t see a way to make this work. “Tom, I think that my theory was wrong, or we’re talking a lot more power needed here. I don’t know if this is even doable or if it’s time to scrap it.”

Tom nodded gravely. He handed a stack of papers over to Neil. “Listen,” Tom spoke. “I’ve made concise and accurate notes about any changes I made to your theories. Can you look over everything and start there?”

“Well first off, I don’t think I like the square barrel. Not just for esthetics – I think my designs were wrong with respect to plasma. I’ll look at the notes though, you know I enjoy a good puzzle.” Said Neil as he started flipping through the papers. Distracted, he continued slowly “But I’m really, really concerned that this won’t work and that it’s not just a matter of bad design, but a matter of scrapping an impossible project.”

As he finished his sentence, he realized that Conrad was walking up. Conrad started talking. “Nonsense. We can’t scrap this project. It’s promising. Did you know that other companies are just starting to develop technologies like this? We have to beat them to market. Thankfully I know they’re in the stone-age compared to us. Firing or not, we actually have a stable gun while our competitors don’t. Last I heard all they have managed to do is send their staff to the hospital with burns. The guns do the impossible part of generating a stable beam, now we just need to make it shoot that beam.”

“You don’t understand, Conrad,” said Neil, “this is based on a redesign of a concept I had – one that was never intended to do this. An idea I wrote on the back of a napkin, without testing, which was then picked up, used for something vaguely related to the idea, again, without testing and now we’re all shocked that it’s not working. I have no idea what the issue is right now, but I hazard a guess at it being related to a lack of energy. It’s not a feasible weapon if we have to have 2 soldiers carrying 200 pounds of batteries to make a single shot. If someone beats us to market, it’s because they didn’t start with this concept.”

“No, you don’t understand, Neil. I don’t care. You were brought back here to do something and our agreement isn’t fulfilled until that’s done. I don’t care about the real world practicality. Take it out of the theoretical. I don’t care how you do it. Make it tank mounted. Stack up a ton of batteries for one shot. I don’t care. Make it work and once you make it possible, we’ll talk about scaling it down. This is your job. This is your path to freedom. Stop making excuses. Make the impossible possible and we’ll take care of the rest.”

Tom manages to step between Neil and Conrad. He attempts to clarify. “Any size?”

Conrad nods. “Yes, any size. Make it work, impress the investors, show them we can still do this kind of stuff.”

Tom looks at Neil plaintively. Neil sees the look in Tom’s eyes. It suggests that Tom is trying to play the role of peacemaker. Neil nods. He agrees. “Size probably isn’t the factor, it’s the limitation of the backpack. Can we develop a prototype that is powered off of a generator?”

Conrad nods and starts to walk away. “As long as you remember that the long term goal is portability. Get it working on a generator. Hell, we can even start with a tank-mounted beta, but the goal is to have a wearable model for combat situations.”

Neil nods. By the time Conrad finished his sentence, he was on his golf cart heading back to the main office. Neil looked down at the paperwork in his hand. Frantically, he began to scan through and analyze Tom’s notes.

Tom speaks, breaking Neil’s trance. “That went well, didn’t it?”

Neil feels his head shaking in disagreement. “In my book, going well means that he cancels the project and I get to go home.”

“You know that it’s not going to be that easy.”

“Well, it might,” replied Neil. Pausing for a second, he continued excitedly. “Tom! The notes are great. You actually solved some of the problems I was assembling in my head. Truth be told, I think I already have an idea. We’ll need to disassemble a few of the prototypes – how many of these do you have?”

“We have seven of each”

“Great. We’ll need 5 of the ion weapons taken apart, 1 of the plasma. And we’ll need to charge up those battery packs. All of them. And hook the battery packs together. And get a generator set up. We’ll also need to come up with a testing protocol.”

“You have an idea?” Asked Tom

Neil could feel a smile forming on his face. Nodding, he replied. “I have a great idea”

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1 comment:

Richard Belzile said...

Again, a chapter prior to making notes. Nothing to see here.

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I am Sinewave: Spark

Written by Richard Belzile

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I am not a professional author, this is my novice attempt at creating a novel in an episodic fashion. Comments, critiques and compliments accepted.

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