Darren strode down the stainless steel hallway. He was late, again. Would he ever learn to leave on time? Probably not. His boss would be livid this time. Not only was he late for his normal work schedule, but the day before, Darren had promised to arrive early today.
Darren muttered insults and reminders to himself as he hurried past steel doors with foreign numbers attached to them. He finally reached a blue metal door and took a deep breath before entering the danger zone.
“You’re late!” boomed the big man.
“You said you would be early!”
“I know, Sir, but…”
“What is the problem boy? Can’t you be on time for anything?”
“Sir, if you’d just…”
“I will not tolerate this again! If you are late one more time, I will fire you. You know what that means?”
Darren gulped. “Yes, Sir. I know what that means.”
“Good! Now get to work.”
Darren looked up at the man’s face. That’s all? No explanations? Nothing? Darren shrugged and stumbled through the room, out the door behind the man and into his small, dingy office. The desk was littered with garbage parts.
Darren hastened to his desk and picked up a conglomeration of metal parts that seemed to be jumbled together and started muttering to himself. “Someday this will work. I know it will. My invention’s just got to work.”
For the next few hours, Darren puttered around his office, attaching this part, soldering that part, moving this part a few centimeters, repeat. He stood staring at the mess of parts glued, soldered and wrapped together. Something wasn’t quite right.
Darren walked to the wall behind his desk. The metal wall was painted a brilliant white. He tapped on the wall and a light blue light shone from it. Tapping in all the right places, Darren brought up a screen containing lines and diagrams. He study it before swiping his finger across the screen to bring up the next page. This page contained diagrams of all the parts he thought he needed.
Darren glanced behind him and took a quick inventory of the parts scattered around and on his desk. Yes, he had all the right parts. He swiped his finger across the screen again, turning before the page came on the screen. He walked took a quick step to his desk, picked up his invention and turned around to look at the picture.
Studying the picture on the screen, he compared it to the mess he held in his hands. He muttered to himself as he looked up at the screen, then down at the parts. His fingers moved nervously across the surface of his attempted invention.
One last glance at the screen told him what the problem was.
* * *
Two days later, Darren jumped out of his bed, threw on his clothes and ran out the door. He hurried to the blue door and burst through it. He didn’t even notice his boss staring at him with wide eyes as Darren brushed past him to get to his office.
Darren rushed into his office and immediately went to the screen behind his desk. Touching it on, he tapped his foot in nervous anticipation while the screen came to life. This has to work! I just know it will! Pulling up the screen with the model, his finger’s worked with quick precision to swipe in a few changes to the model. He took a step backward when he was finished and squinted his eyes, looking at the new model with a critical eye.
He heard a noise behind him and spun around on his heel, regretting his quick movement as the room spun for a few seconds.
“Boss!” he choked. “You scared me half to death!”
Darren’s boss chuckled. “No more than you did when you came bursting in here almost an hour early.”
Darren glanced at his wrist. “Oh. I suppose you have a point.”
The boss shook his head in amusement. “I guess that’s why they say that all the brilliant scientists are eccentric and a wee bit crazy.”
Darren grinned. “I guess so.” Darren turned back to his work. He did not notice when his boss left as he lost himself in his work.
* * *
Another week passed by in a blur. Darren worked at a feverish pace. He could sense that his invention was nearly done. Once it was…Darren shut the thought out of his mind. He couldn’t go there. If he did, he knew he would never finish it.
That day, Darren moved slower than usual. He had a feeling that today would be the last day he would need to work on the invention. He refused to think what that meant. He knew he would never lack a job, he was too good of a scientist for that. But, could a scientist be a good scientist if he didn’t have a conscience? Or rather, if he refused to use his conscience?
Darren shook the thoughts out of his mind as he neared the blue door…for the last time? He hoped so. He trudged into his gloomy, dingy office and got to work.
He was slow today, mostly because the finishing touches he needed to do were delicate and if not done just right he could ruin the entire thing. By the time the sun had set, Darren had the invention finished. It was finished two days ahead of schedule. Tomorrow, he decided. Tomorrow, I will come in and test it before I tell him…
His thoughts were interrupted by a booming voice. “Darren, me boy! How is the invention?”
“Almost done, Sir,” Darren replied looking him levelly in the eyes.
The big man narrowed his eyes. “Excellent! I want to be here when you test it out.”
“Yes, Sir,” Darren said. Now what do I do? I can’t test it without his knowledge. That’s why I have this office so close to his.
That night, Darren could not sleep. He tossed and turned as his thoughts ran faster than the fastest sprinter. Faster than the fastest working computer.
Why did I agree to do this? I knew what would happen if I did it? How can I live with the fact that MY invention could–will–cause the death of millions of innocent people? In the hands of the right people, it could save lives. This boss of mine is not the right sort of person.
Morning came with no answers. He couldn’t sneak it out, he couldn’t destroy it. He paused in mid-thought, balanced on one foot as he put his sock on. Or could I? No, I can’t destroy it, but I could cause it to not work properly. I could make it so it will run, but not truly and completely work. I could sabotage it in such a way that only I know how to get it to truly work.
Using the adrenaline caused by his idea, Darren finished dressing and ran to the office. Bursting through the door, he ran into his boss.
“Is there a problem, Darren?”
Darren gulped. “No, Sir, just an idea I had last night. I need to…”
“Of course.” The boss stepped out of Darren’s way. “Get to work. Remember, it needs to be finished by tomorrow and it needs to work to its fullest capability or your life will be forfeit.”
Darren swallowed hard. “Yes, Sir. I know that.” Darren scooted past the man’s wide girth and hurried to his office. He had forgotten that part of the contract. Darren straightened his back. What is one man’s life in light of the millions who will die if this invention gets into the wrong hands. Darren set to work.
* * *
The next morning, Darren put the finishing touches on his purposely sabotaged invention and stepped into his boss’s office. Taking a deep breath, he said, “It’s finished.”
Darren’s boss grinned and they stepped into Darren’s office to test it. Darren was thrilled when it worked well enough for his boss to call in others.
The other scientists and higher-ups gathered around as Darren put his invention through test after test after test. Finally, they brought in a prisoner to do the final test. Darren’s palms were slick with sweat as he walked the audience through the steps to obliterate the man. He pulled the final lever.
When Darren opened his eyes, the man still stood across from him, whole and alive. Darren swallowed the lump forming in his throat. It was the only test his invention had failed. Despite his failure, Darren felt the load of guilt give way to relief and he took a deep, satisfying breath. The last he would ever take.
A short story by Faith Blum. Published in Heralds of Courage: A Holy Worlds Anthology.