by Than Pence
Cramp Co-Winner. Clifford and his friend are on the brink of a scientific breakthrough!
“That, too!” His friend Aaron ducked around the corner as Clifford moved to the console, brushing the hair from his face in the process. “I can’t prove anything if there’s no charge to correspond from the other side!” he yelled, knowing his partner knew the exposition well enough. “I’m shouting for no one’s sake,” he muttered.
He stopped tapping to wipe the hair grease from his palms onto his pants. “Dirty touchscreens are not for us.”
“Who are you talking to?” asked Aaron as he approached the console, his task seemingly accomplished.
“No one. Anyone.”
“Cryptic.” He studied the readout. “We’re at forty-eight percent.”
“Almost fifty, right?”
“Almost, but not.”
“We’ll never get to a hundred percent. It’s not possible. The theorem only works if the energy-output coefficient is an asymptote. Not quite to the point of absolution, but close.”
“And if we reach one hundred percent? If we cross that threshold?”
He stopped tapping the virtual keys long enough to meet Aaron’s grizzled face. “Then we’d be crossing more than one threshold, I believe. The window we’re trying to merely see through could open and become a door.”
“Threshold has a double-meaning then? It’s an allotrope?”
“Are we in a chemistry class?”
Clifford looked back down, first noticing his obnoxious screen-streaks. “Damn hair grease,” he cursed as he bunched his sleeve around his fist for a makeshift cleaning utensil.
“Why do you use that stuff if it gets on everything?”
“It’s not something I put in. It’s stuff already there,” Clifford said, noting that he was pushing the smears around and not actually lifting them. “Or rather, it’s stuff that naturally accumulates up there. From lack of washing.
“Oh! Man, wash your hair!”
“No time. Fifty-three percent.”
“That’s five percent every two minutes. You have time to shampoo and rinse before we get to the point of Visibility.”
“No time! Go check the poles again. The draw on four and six just dipped slightly.”
Rolling his eyes, Aaron went back to the other end of the workshop. Clifford knew it was a maze of cooling towers, bays of processors and superconductors, and more fiber optics than a FIOS system could shake a stick at, but he needed to stay at the console. Aaron knew the way well enough. He had designed the layout, primarily.
From the nest of humming electronics came Aaron’s voice. “You smell good! How is that if you haven’t showered?”
“Axe works wonders, and the cold air helps keep odors from travelling as far when perfumes fail.”
“Axe makes perfumes?”
“I’m speaking generally. What’s it look like back there?” There was a small, noticeable grunt. “What was that?”
Another grunt and he heard Aaron say, “Nothing. Just shoring up the poles with more rubber tires.” He rounded the corner almost immediately. “Sure wish we could’ve put them in cement.”
Clifford, finally having wiped his touchscreen clear, said, “My calculations state that the poles will vibrate at a frequency that would destroy any cement housing. The rubber will absorb those vibrations more efficiently.”
“I’m sure there are almost literally thousands of ways to prove you wrong on that front… but it looks like we’re nearing ninety percent.” He looked over the console to the cage in the middle of the workshop. “Do you think this’ll really work?”
Biting his thumbnail while focusing on the energy readings, Clifford said, “Simulations had a thirty-two point six percent failure rate.”
Aaron, putting his hand on Clifford’s shoulder, met his partner’s gaze. “What do you think will happen?”
Clifford couldn’t stop a smile from forming. “I think we’ll open a window.” He smiled further when he noticed Aaron’s hair standing up on his head. “We’ve reached ninety percent. The anionic charge in the cage is causing static ripples.” He felt his smile tremble, his eyes well up slightly. “We’re gonna do it!”
Aaron smiled and looked to the cage. Clifford looked down once more and watched the readings slowly tick up. His body started to tingle. He imagined it was supercharged particles moving through him but he also knew the more likely reason was excitement or nervousness invoking involuntary chemical reactions. He chuckled silently to himself, muttering “I’m such a dork.”
A flash drew his attention and Clifford looked up to see another one: jagged, imperfect bolts of electricity sparked from one side of the cage to the other. Large enough to hold three men, Clifford knew the cage was an impractical containment unit, but a small percentage of the simulations resulted in a physical breach. He figured the odds of it happening were so slim that Aaron didn’t need to know.
Looking at his friend and that bearded, smiling face made Clifford appreciate ignorance that much more.
Another spark flared. Clifford glanced at the readout. Ninety eight percent. He focused on the cage again. He belatedly wished that he had designed a readout to be at eye level so he could watch it and the cage at the same time. Hindsight is always twenty—
A burst of light and sound derailed his train of thought and caused him to shield his eyes. Aaron screamed as if in pain and fell backward. Clifford ducked down, his face next to the energy readout. It made his stomach churn.
One hundred percent.
He looked back at Aaron on the floor behind him and couldn’t help noticing the blood pooling inexplicably beneath him. Clifford’s churning stomach fell as he felt his friend’s neck for a pulse. Nothing.
Raising his head slightly, Clifford looked over the console and readout and touchscreen to look at the cage. A man was inside it. Aaron was in it. His face was hard, scarred, haunted.
“Old friend,” he said, his voice scratched and metallic. “It’s been too long.”
In the other Aaron’s hand was a type of gun. It was aimed at Clifford.
He pulled the trigger.
Word Count: 997