The lights blazed into life one after the other like dominos across the ceiling of the cavernous chamber, illuminating a massive, gleaming bulk. Joe blinked as details coalesced in the antiseptic glow.
Nick smiled with childlike glee. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Nick’s excitement was not contagious. Even in the light, Joe did not know what he was looking at. The thing before him seemed to grow from the floor, curves and flourishes coexisting with harsh right angles. It had a fluid, organic aspect that made Joe think of a metal flower sprouting from a computer. What looked like closed petals arose from its center, reaching halfway to the high ceiling.
“What is it?” said Joe.
“What do you mean, ‘what is it’? This is what we’ve been working on! Or the contract for, at least.”
“I know. But what is it?”
Nick stepped forward, his footfalls echoing around the chamber. “It’s officially called the Chrono-Displacer, but Sanjay and all of those guys call it ‘The Machine.’”
This made no sense. He followed Nick as he made a circuit of The Machine, caressing its curves. The Machine was tall, taller than Nick; it must have taken up a quarter of the basement labs.
Up close, it looked like a prop from a science-fiction movie, festooned with buttons and panels and screens. One flat plane near the front had a large built-in touchpad flanked by rows of circular lights. Another part looked like a door. Near the back, taking up the bulk of the space in the room, was a large cylindrical hunk of metal, like some cyclopean battery.
“That’s the power source,” said Nick, pointing at the mass as they walked by. “You’ve heard of the Large Hadron Collider and stuff like that? Anti-matter? This is similar. Don’t ask me for specifics, though. I’m a tech geek, not a physicist.”
Joe, being neither of those things, simply nodded.
“But look at this thing.” Nick spoke in a reverential tone like he was in a church. “Isn’t it amazing what human beings can do when they have the will? The desire? The–”
“Money?” said Joe.
As they walked, Joe began to feel frightened by The Machine. Though inert, it seemed to buzz with a strange, living power.
Finished with their inspection, Nick turned towards it and raised his arms as if in supplication. “So this thing, Joe. This thing, if it works, could help us. It could give us a chance.”
Nick sounded hoarse, his voice shaky. Tears started to roll down his cheeks.
A wave of sympathy cut through Joe’s fear. “Let’s call it a night, alright? Go get a drink somewhere. We can deal with the boss later. We should get out of here.”
“It’s supposed to help with war,” said Nick, “but I think that’s a waste. Not a total waste. I mean, if it could save some soldiers’ lives, then that’s totally worth it. But we could do so much more with this. So much more.”
“How about you tell me about this over a beer or two. How does that sound?”
Nick shook his head and sniffed loudly. “If I read the specs right, it’s simple too.” To Joe’s horror, he began tapping the touch screen.
The room shook. A loud bass thrum rattled Joe’s bones. This explained those vague vibratory sensations he occasionally felt in his office ten stories up.
Other parts of The Machine began to glow with soft blue and white light. It made the mechanical flower look more elegant, more alive. Slowly, the curved petals in the center began to spin, opening slightly.
Joe swallowed hard and managed to keep his voice calm. “This isn’t a good idea, Nick.”
“Sanjay said all you have to do is put the information in and hit the button once it gets fired up. Simple interface for battlefield use.”
The vibration grew more intense, filling Joe’s ears and making it difficult to hear his own voice. “Come on, Nick! Turn this off!”
“. . . when it all started to go wrong,” he heard Nick say. “The when and the where.”
“Come on, man! Enough messing around!”
Nick stood with his shaking finger hovering over a button. His eyes were red. A faint trickle of blood seeped from one nostril. “Should I do it? Will this even work?”
Joe grabbed Nick by the forearm, holding it tight.
Nick didn’t struggle, but his voice was firm. “Let go of me.”
“Turn this off! Come on!”
“Let go,” said Nick. “I don’t want to hit the wrong button.”
Joe did not let go. He pulled, jerking Nick forward.
Nick yelled in surprise and fell onto Joe; for such a skinny guy, he was quite heavy.
Joe landed on his tailbone, sending a sharp spike of pain up his spine. Nick caught himself, keeping his balance with a hand on the touch screen.
“Oh no,” said Nick, so quietly that Joe had to read his lips. The sound of The Machine took on a different quality, more like a whine than a hum, the high pitch distorting Joe’s equilibrium as he tried to stand. The metallic petals, now mostly open, twirled like a pinwheel. A brilliant glow came from inside the flower, forcing Nick and Joe to shield their eyes.
Joe’s heart hammered and his breath grew short. He got to his knees, holding himself upright with one hand on The Machine. Its vibration rattled him like dice in the hands of an angry god.
Nick staggered back, bringing his long fingers up to his open mouth. Blood gushed from his nose now, into his mouth and onto his shirt.
“What’s happening?!” yelled Joe, but his words were buried under the commotion.
“Oh God,” said Nick. He grimaced, his teeth fearsomely red. “Oh God, oh God, I think I made . . .”
Joe howled something, but his thoughts were lost in the deafening noise.
Through the brightness, Nick looked like a tall shadow falling to its knees. Whatever he had said was lost in the sound that had overtaken all of existence.
This is dying, Joe thought. This is death. This is what I wanted. As something seemed to separate his consciousness from his body, Joe’s last thoughts, hardly noble, were of all the poor decisions he had made.
And check out my Instagram here.