Chapter 6

Neil surveyed the mess of cables and disassembled rifles in front of him with a grim satisfaction. He just knew that if Conrad was walking by and saw hundreds of thousands – if not millions of dollars of prototype tech in this state, he’d probably flip. “It’s the little things,” he thought to himself.

Tracing some wires, he took an extra second to look at the “rifle”, though that term was no longer an adequate description. The rifles were disassembled and reassembled hastily using clamps and duct tape.

Rushed, he finished soldering the wires he was holding together and took a step back, positioning the high speed camera. He looked over to Tom. “OK, NOW!”

Neil looked through the view finder of the camera, but it wasn’t what he expected. He looked over at Tom’s hands, noticing they weren’t holding all the triggers.

“No, No. Stop. Stop. Like this! You have to fire all of them at the same time.” Neil reached over, pulling the other triggers at the same time. He continued. “See, Like this!”

When he was satisfied that Tom was doing it correctly, he stood back, raised the camera and started counting. “Okay, 3. 2. 1. NOW!”

Even through the view finder the bright light was painful to watch. Neil noticed a flicker and prepared for the telltale sound of the generator overloading. Right on cue, the experiment ended due to electrical failure.

“Shit,” said Tom. “I really thought we’d have it that time.”

“Yeah,” agreed Neil. “We’ve only blown the generator 15 times so far today. Not to mention the last few weeks. Go reset it while I review the footage.”

Neil watched the footage at a crawl to analyze every part of the process. He had hooked up the ion and plasma rifles to fire in sequence, predicting that there would be a specific timing and interaction that would actually force a bolt of ionically charged plasma to fire.

Neil felt a smile creeping up on his face. This situation was less than ideal, but he enjoyed working with Tom again. It almost felt normal. It wasn’t just that. Neil admired how Tom was able to complete his work. He was starting to see him as a peer.

“OK, man. The generator’s reset.” Said Tom, as he walked back over. “Should I ask if there’s anything promising on the video?”

Tom caught Neil off guard. “Sorry, um, I was watching, but I wasn’t. I was thinking about stuff. Let’s um – let’s review it together.”

Tom nodded. “Yeah, the stuff. There’s a lot to stuff to think about. I’m so worried that Conrad’s going to find out we’re starting over. I’m sick to my stomach over here”

“Well, at least he’s paid up the hospital bills now,” joked Neil.

“You know there’s more at stake than – HOLY CRAP. Did I see a bolt actually fire there?”

Neil stopped the recording and moved it back frame by frame. A blurry silver-bluish streak flashed across the screen. Neil was so excited he fumbled the camera, practically dropping it. Tom gave him a high five and a hug. Excited, Neil stepped forward and felt a burning sensation in his bad leg. His leg crumbled under his weight. Falling forward, he awkwardly shifted himself toward a chair and managed to land into it as he collapsed. He looked up and saw the concern in Tom’s eyes. Neil attempted to reassure his friend.

“I’m OK.. I’m OK. I just shouldn’t be standing up that long like that. I was gonna sit before you got back and I forgot. It stings like a bitch, but I’ll live. I just need more practice before I can do that. I’m OK. I promise, just a little weak. It was exciting.”

The excitement nearly made Neil forget their good news. He looked over at Tom, who was completely stunned looking back at his leg.

“Um, can you go check the blast wall?”

Tom paused for a second and looked up, mouth agape in confusion. Neil was frustrated at being fawned over.

“OK, Tom, I promise I’m OK. I swear. This is just the way things will be with my leg now. It doesn’t hurt now that I’m sitting, it’s just too weak to hold me that long. I got carried away and I didn’t feel the pain until I was done my task. Now, go check the damn wall!”

As Neil completed his sentence, he could see the look of terror in Tom’s eyes fade. His assessment allayed the fear. He watched Tom walk to the blast wall, expecting some excitement any minute now.

Neil realized it was taking too long. “What’s going on?” He asked.

“Um, I can’t seem to find any blast points. None.”

Neil started to feel a little impatient. He started feeling that warm, uncomfortable frustrated feeling crawling up his body. He looked down at his leg. It still hurt. It felt like it was on fire. Looking back up, he watched Tom scan the wall methodically from top to bottom in stripes, working across from left to right.

Neil started to get a panicked feeling in the back of his head. He worked out some of the formulas and math in his head a bit, with a building feeling of dread. Neil looked over at the one remaining rifle – the plasma rifle. Forcing himself onto his feet, the pain was so great he could feel himself getting light-headed. He knew something wasn’t right. He moved towards the rifle slowly, plugging it into the generator. He was nearly ready to pass out from the pain. Enraged, he picked the rifle up and shouted over to Tom.

“Hey, dipshit, when you got these to work, did you even bother to test if they did anything other than make pretty lights?”

Neil pressed the barrel of the rifle to his hand and pulled the trigger. The beam passed through his hand harmlessly. He felt nothing but the barrel getting warmer until Tom ran over and forced the gun out of his hands. Having made his point, Neil collapsed to the floor, seeing stars.

“What in the actual hell man?” asked Tom

Neil felt pretty out of it, but he could feel Tom pulling up at his hand, bringing it closer to his face to inspect for damage. Neil didn’t even bother to look. He knew that this whole project was a colossal mess. He looked up to Tom angrily.

“You know,” Neil spoke “When you told me you had working prototypes, I assumed they were really working. I was in a hurry to get this over with, so I wasn’t being thorough. Then, it dawned on me as you were over there finding nothing. I mean, I realized that I never really checked the math – I mean, I looked at the formulas you had, but we were past that point. Then I realized I didn’t see any of the post-build test results. Nothing about energy levels, temperatures. Nothing to show you actually tested it. So, you didn’t test. What other corners have you cut? How bad have you screwed us over?”

Tom looked at the floor. “We did some rounding”, he admitted.

“So – let me process this” Neil asked. “What was it - You didn’t balance the equations or you rounded or cheated on constants? Something like that? Took some creative leaps? And even after that, you didn’t think to test the process out?”

As he finished the sentence and watched Tom nodding sheepishly, Neil could feel himself starting to tremble. To say this was a major setback was an understatement. His breathing was strained, his heart beat could be felt in his ears.

“What are our next steps?” Asked Tom.

Neil looked up at Tom exasperated. Throughout his time in the hospital, Tom had been so responsible. Neil forgot this wasn’t typically in his nature. Neil’s voice got low, signaling the graveness of the situation. “I have no idea about next steps. I came here, hoping I could get out from under Conrad’s thumb. And that hope, that gamble made me blind to what was going on around here.”

“It might not be that bad,” offered Tom.

“It might not be. But it might be that you’ve had me gamble everything I have left on a stupid concept. I don’t want to wind up further in Conrad’s debt!”

Speaking Conrad’s name aloud made Neil uncomfortable. He continued talking, getting progressive louder. “Conrad! He is going to be so pissed off. We took it all apart. He’s going to think I sabotaged everything.”

“What can I do?” asked Tom.

“I don’t know, Tom. Maybe since you’re building fake shit, you can cobble together a time machine and test the goddamn rifles you made a few weeks ago! Then you’d know that what you built isn’t a rifle, or even a plasma cutter or anything like that, it’s a multi-million dollar laser light show!”

Conrad pushed into the office, followed by a man Neil didn’t recognize. Neil realized that his outburst had gotten loud. It had caught Conrad’s attention. Neil wondered if maybe the other guy was security. He was jarred back to the present as Tom put his hand out and pulled him off the floor. Tom turned away from Conrad and spoke to Neil under his breath. “Things just got real. You need to calm the hell down and let me deal with this. Don’t say a word. Just calm down.”

Neil didn’t feel ready to calm down. He pondered whether, in the history of the entire universe if there was ever a person who calmed down when they were told to, because all it ever did was agitate him more. Still, he knew what Conrad was capable of. He resolved himself to keeping his mouth shut.

Conrad scanned the office and looked around haphazardly. He looked dumbstruck, shifting his gaze from table to table, looking at months of work in disassembled piles. He started to turn pale. He wandered over and stood uncomfortably close to Neil and Tom.

Inches away from their faces, Conrad spoke “What in the hell is going on in here? Why the fuck were you on the floor? What in the hell is this mess?” Conrad motioned frantically around the room.

“It’s a celebration, sir!” said Tom.

“Celebrations?” asked Conrad

“Yeah! We got a rifle to fire a beam!”

Neil noticed that Conrad didn’t seem to buy it. He could see his head swiveling, his eyes flicking around the room, fixating on millions of dollars of garbage.

Tom took a step back and put his hand on Conrad’s shoulder “Conrad, did you hear me, we got a rifle to fire a beam!”

Neil noticed Conrad’s eyes come back to Tom. Conrad seemed to respond as if he was just woken up.

“Oh? Um. Oh!” Conrad’s face contorted into what Neil figured was excitement. “Which one? Plasma? Ion?”

“Well, both, sir.” Said Tom.

Conrad was impressed. “Both! This is great news! Stable Plasma and Ion weaponry!”

“No, Not quite sir. Just one rifle, using components from both. It’s technical, but the gist is that neither tech is complete, but share some interesting interdependencies. Working in tandem, we’ve managed to fire a bolt of um – I guess plasmion? You and marketing can name it.”

Neil would have admired Tom’s ability to bullshit if he wasn’t so mad at him.

“And it’s stable?” asked Conrad?

“Well, it’s progress.” Replied Tom.

“Can you show me?”

Tom bit his lip hard and looked down. He really hoped this question would not come up. He looked over at Neil, looked down and looked back at Conrad.

The awkward silence started to make Neil uncomfortable. He found himself blurting out words. “We can’t show you because it doesn’t really work right!” Neil winced. “Way to keep quiet,” he thought to himself.

Conrad looked over at Neil. His face, once pale was starting to get red. Neil tried to explain.

“The problem, you see, is that, um,” Neil paused and looked over at Tom. He considered throwing him under the bus. For better or worse Neil had protected and cared for him. He took a breath to compose himself and continued. “The problem is the formula I left behind. It was incomplete and I took liberties with some of the constants. Tom didn’t notice and we rolled those bad formulas into what he had so far. Bringing everything to this state was irreversibly destructive to what we had so far as well. I think we need to scrap the project.”

Conrad nodded, and took a step back. He continued to nod. Neil got the impression that Conrad was calmly considering what he had just told him.

In the corner of his eye, Neil noticed Conrad swinging his leg. Before he could react, Conrad swept the cane out of Neil’s hand. His weak leg, still burning, crumpled under him. Neil fell face first onto the floor. Conrad turned around, wiping everything off the nearest desk onto the floor, shouting. Neil noticed the other guy walk calmly towards the office and close the door. Conrad turned back to Neil and kicked him in the ribs. Neil could feel a burning pain in his ribs. His stomach felt upset. Black spots began to crowd his peripheral vision. He wasn’t sure if he would pass out or have a panic attack.

Leaning in towards the floor, Conrad grabbed his collar and pulled Neil’s face uncomfortably close to his own. The jolt snapped Neil back to reality. He looked up at Tom, blocked by that other guy.

“Do you think I am a fucking moron?” Conrad asked Neil. “I get it. You thought this would be easy. Come in, screw up the project, leave a giant mess and get out of jail free. I don’t think so. You have a commitment to deliver.” He spoke so vigorously that Neil could feel his warm breath and spit on his face. It turned his stomach. The whole situation turned his stomach. He was angry at Conrad for being a terrible person. He was angry at Tom for getting him into this. Mostly, he was angry at himself for being so afraid of Conrad.

He shoved Conrad away from his face. Conrad laughed and got up. He uttered some glib comment that Neil ignored as he struggled to regain his composure. Finally, the random guy moved out of the way, allowing Tom to come over and help him up. Neil thought whether he’d actually care about losing a home he couldn’t stand to see again. He wondered if they would actually exhume his family. With a little perspective and some sore ribs, none of these things seemed to matter as strongly as they did in the hospital.

“What if I just quit?” Neil asked?

“Well, that’s up to you, but if you quit, make sure that Tom resigns as well. His failure to adequately manage you and this project makes him ill-suited to this type of work.” Conrad straightened his tie and continued. “Also, this means that our prior agreement is null and void. Furthermore, I will sue both of you for vandalism.”

Neil looked over at Tom. He wondered if he’d be doing Tom a favor if he got him fired.

Conrad continued speaking. “By now, I’m sure you know that your tenant in your home is your father. What I’m sure you don’t know is that he’s quite ill. He’s losing his mind. I don’t know what would happen to him while you’re in the court system.” Conrad stepped in again, speaking to Neil under his breath. “Also, if you bail on this, I will fucking kill you and anyone you care about.”

Conrad stepped back again and smiled. This bristled at Neil. The man was truly a psychopath. He kept talking. “Listen, I can be reasonable. I gave you a project to finish and I’m still willing to honor the commitment despite the setbacks. In fact, I’ll amend it a bit based on the success you’ve had so far. Take what you have left and make a single working rifle.”

Reluctantly, Neil knew he was trapped in this. Sheepishly he found himself asking for parameters.

“We might be able to do this, but we might need to adjust the scale of the project. We might need more materials.” Neil pointed at the prototype gun. “It might need to be made a bit bigger to accommodate some of the extra electronics and mechanisms”

“I’ve said this before, make it as big as you want. Spend what you need. This project needs to be finished. And consider yourself infinitely lucky that I only want this one project out of you, because after today’s stunt, I own your ass.”

Conrad and his lackey walked out of the office, slamming the door. Neil fell back to his knees on the floor, sobbing. There was too many things to process. Too many things to hate and blame. Tom walked over extending his hand. Furious, Neil slapped it away.

Suddenly, something snapped in Neil’s head. The feelings were gone. Neil felt numb. There was no pain, no frustration, no feeling at all. Curiously, he struggled back to his feet, looked over at Tom and spoke in a robotic monotone. “Well, you heard the man. Let’s finish this project”

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1 comment:

Richard Belzile said...

Again, I never had any comments when I moved from the old blog...

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I am Sinewave: Spark

Written by Richard Belzile

Updated semi-infrequently

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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