I watched as the timer continued ticking.
It now read thirty minutes. That was how long I had waited since inputting the final instructions. It was just a waiting game now as the machine next door cranked and hissed, turning the raw materials into what I hoped would be my life’s work.
“This has to work!” Lara said over my shoulder.
“It will.” I confirmed.
The simulations over the past few weeks had proven the physics and everything suggested this version would be a success.
“Yes, but you said that three prototypes ago and I am starting to lose faith.” Lara explained, still hovering over my shoulder watching the counter on my screen. “The last one didn’t take this long!”
“It’s nearly there, give it a few more moments.” I replied, tapping at the progress bar that was nearly complete.
On the other side of the wall a one of a kind prototyping machine chugged away, firing lasers and radio waves at molecules. Manipulating them so they resembled the blueprints I had given it.
I was nervous but I wasn’t going to let Lara know that.
“Do you mind giving me some space?” I asked as politely as I could.
Having the CEO of the company overlooking your life’s work can be intimidating but not for me. I’ve known Lara for a very long time and I was used to this behaviour now. As soon as I told her I was close to a breakthrough she hadn’t left my side.
“I am not going anywhere!” Lara exclaimed. “Not until I have a working device in my hands.”
Lara had hovered over me, like this, for at least six hours. It was nice to know my boss was interested in my work, but I knew as soon as she saw the device working she would be gone, scouting out some other project with some other unlucky employee to hassle.
The machine changed its tone and a loud hiss could be heard from the other side of the wall. This meant that it was close to completion. I just hoped this time it worked. The machine had rejected so many of my creations I had lost count and started to lose faith.
I wasn’t sure how the machine worked. Taking in raw materials and spitting out refined products, all I knew was its size, it was huge, not only physically, taking up a large area of the basement floor, but it also had a huge impact it had on our research. No longer did I have to wait for prototypes to be sent away for construction, I could build anything I wanted, right here in this lab.
“Maybe I need to task someone with improving the speed of the replicator!” Lara moaned as she shuffled her feet impatiently.
“I don’t think there is anyone left who knows how it works.” I said, unhelpfully.
Lara had been responsible for its construction and it helped her dramatically rise to the top of the company. She didn’t physically build it, Lara was smart, very smart, and too smart to actually build something like this herself. Instead she managed the team that built it and then took all the credit for herself.
During this project she became known throughout the company as one of the most ruthless managers in the entire business. There were stories about how she had broken the spirits of the staff in the final few days, pushing them to their limits which was why many of them chose not to return to work while she was still in charge.
I must admit that I understood their pain. Lara had basically held me prisoner in here for the past thirty hours. She never physically stopped me from leaving but she was not subtle about what would happen if I did.
“Nobody left. What do you mean by that?” Lara hissed at my comment.
“Nothing, just pointing out that no-one really knows how this machine works anymore.” I replied, turning back to the monitor.
Fortunately, I didn’t have a family to go home too. I rented an apartment close to the facility and over the past few years research had become my life.
I already had a makeshift bed in the office where I could catch a few hours’ sleep while the supercomputer would create my simulations. As were the joys of being an experimental physicist.
Besides, who would want to leave knowing that their life’s work was about to become reality.
A green light appeared over the hole in the wall. The hole that linked this lab with the massive machine in the next room. The rubber conveyor belt started to move and I got very excited.
“This is it!” Lara squealed in my ear.
“Remember, it might not be perfect this time.” I said, trying to subdue her expectations.
“What do you mean?” Lara turned on me. “What have you done to it?”
“Nothing.” I replied. “I am sure there will be bugs to work out though.”
I looked up at Lara and she glanced back at me.
Out of the dark void where so many prototypes had previously appeared rolled a metallic, spherical device not much bigger than a basketball. However, this ball had switches and dials all over its surface and a small display along the equator which was glowing, displaying the word ‘Ready’.
Lara stood up straight and leapt across the room towards the output tray where the little orb was still rolling around.
The lab wasn’t that big, only a few meters across, and between us and the little spherical ball were all kinds of experiments. Test tube, tanks of exotic slime and all kinds of strange liquids in different beakers. Lara didn’t care about any of that, she knocked into one of the tables, nearly toppling a centrifuge on her way across the room.
I was not going to get in her way, so I took my time, getting out of my chair and slowly walking across the lab. I was excited, but I had knocked over these liquids before. I was only slightly scared of what hazardous chemicals the contained but terrified of the scientists who set them up and what they would do to me if they found out I had destroyed their experiments, again.
After all, this was not my main office. The biologists mostly used this room and I had just been taking up their valuable space for the past two weeks.
I found a desk in the corner and this was where I stayed, stopping anyone else from using the prototyping machine while I ran the simulations and created lots of failed devices.
I likely wasn’t anyone’s favourite colleague at the moment but this was a monumental creation and I never usually used my authority.
Lara stood there admiring the little sphere like a new-born baby. As I got closer I noticed that she was literally shaking with excitement, like a child staring at a mountain of presents at Christmas.
“Well, what are you waiting for! Turn it on already and make sure it works!” Lara barked at me.
I had known Lara for many years, and she never hid the idea that I was beneath her in society. We were roughly the same age, in our mid-thirties and by every measure we were equals but she had the title of CEO and I didn’t and somehow that justified how she treated me.
Picking up the oddly shaped ball I held it in my hands. It was surprisingly light for a metal basketball; the steel casing was cold to touch and the dials spun round effortlessly. Overall, it seemed very durable as I twisted and toggled the switches. The little colourful display reacted, displaying different numbers and icons, just like I had programmed it to.
“What are you doing?” Lara questioned, staring over my shoulder again at the machine in my hands.
“Hold on.” I ordered. “Let me set it up.”
This was it, my lifetime achievement. The years of research and dedication to this company, to Lara, were finally all worth it.
I wasn’t the only person responsible for this of course and I would make sure that my team knew how important they were to this success.
I had started to prepare for this moment weeks ago, making a list of what each member of the team truly valued. Tomorrow they would all receive a heartfelt gift from me as their reward. Whether it was an expensive bottle of champagne, flights home to see their family or sports tickets to the cup final, I didn’t care about the cost I just wanted them to know that I was grateful. They had worked hard on this project and it was a shame none of them were here now to witness this moment.
I rotated a few of the dials away from their default positions and then located the single button on the top of the device.
I pressed it.
A small, audible hum came from deep inside the ball and I felt it struggling to leap out of my hands. I let go and it jumped into the air, abruptly stopping and floating above my head just over two meters from the floor. It looked odd, floating there like a Las Vegas magic trick. I couldn’t contain my excitement anymore, I let a smile creep across my face.
Lara let out a squeal of delight and turned to me.
“This is great, now pack it up, it’s getting shipped out of here first thing tomorrow morning, I have a prototype aircraft waiting for it. Let’s find out which military has the biggest budget!” Lara said as she smirked at me, unable to contain her own delight. “Don’t forget to encrypt the files on the computer too. We don’t want this secret getting out, letting the whole world know what I’ve created here!”
I could see the energy in her face as all her emotions became exaggerated. I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wondered if I was about to suffer the same fate as so many that had come before me. Was Lara about to cast me out now that she had my invention.
There were rumours of lawsuits from previous staff, some of whom had mysteriously disappeared. I remember Ron who was working in this lab until about a month ago. He was one of the biologists who I feared.
He was working on something to do with cloning technology, but I hadn’t seen him around the office in over a month. Maybe he had taken a long holiday, or maybe he had finally had enough of Lara.
“What do you mean, your invention?” I asked, accusingly.
“This is my invention. It’s my machine, made in my factory by my equipment.” Lara explained, not even hesitating.
“And what about me?” I asked again.
“Yes, what about you? What are you going to work on now that this project is done?” Lara questioned me.
“I don’t know, I haven’t thought it through.” I replied, caught a little off guard by the question.
“Well you better think of something, quickly!” She said, then tapped her watch indicating that time was running out for me.
What was Lara going to ask me to do now that this project was complete? She couldn’t fire me; I knew too much so I was safe from that. Even if she did, I would go and work somewhere else, taking all my research and skills with me. If I do say so myself, my credentials are quite long and I would have no problem getting another job. I suspect that other companies would love to know what goes on in this place and would hire me just to get me drunk and hope I spill the company secrets.
No, Lara wouldn’t risk that. She had to keep me around.
She walked under the floating ball looking up at it. She was tall enough to reach it but instead she just smiled and turned back to me.
“Run some tests on it first and make sure it’s operating correctly whilst I go and get the champagne. This calls for a bit of a celebration!” Lara instructed; her tone was a lot more friendly, even happy. She threw me a smile before she bounced off through the airlock door.
She was pretty, brunette and the same age as me.
We had grown up together and our families had been close, but she had a completely different personality to me. She was ruthless and her opinions could only be described as ‘extreme’. She believed only she knew how to improve the world and would instantly reject anyone’s opinion that didn’t match hers.
If Lara wasn’t technically my boss, then I would not have spent the past few evenings with her. It would be much more enjoyable alone in my apartment, or at the supermarket, anything except being with her.
There was only one door in and out of lab and it operated like an airlock, just in case an experiment went wrong. It also served as a security filter. Only people with the correct badge were allowed in. It was important for Lara to know who was going into each lab. She decided who had clearance and who didn’t. I once allowed a biologist called Julie into my office one lunch time. Lara found out about this and striped Julie of all her privileges for a month. No parking spot, no gym, no medical. Lara took security very seriously!
There were a lot of locked doors like this in the facility and I refused to find out what was behind most of them. There were also a lot of rumours, but I liked the innocence of simply not knowing, it was a simpler life and allowed me to focus purely on my own work.
At this late hour I doubted that there would be any staff around to witness our creation anyway.
As soon as Lara found out I had a successful simulated the gravity defining orb she ordered that neither of us were leaving until the prototype had been built.
Now that time had arrived and the prototype was happily hovering over my head, proving the theory worked flawlessly and I was starting to realise I hadn’t slept in a long time.
As I stood there, staring at the basketball floating in mid-air my mind suddenly started to race at the possibilities. Flying cars, floating cities and holidays the moon.
One serious project I had simulated involved creating a clean energy generator. Using a gravity distortion, I could suspend water in continuous free fall. When you are messing with gravity you can decide which way things fall, down then back up again in a continuous loop. If you stick a generator in the middle, then you have continuous clean energy.
It wasn’t quite perpetual motion, but the machine didn’t use energy from local dimensions, instead dragging power in from exotic locations from across the universe.
It effectively worked in the same way that solar panels convert the energy generated by the sun billions of miles away into electricity here on Earth.
This was essentially a magical device and it could solve so many of the world’s problems. Free energy, population explosions not to mention space exploration and Lara wanted to keep it a military secret and auction it off to the highest bidder, she had no ambition; my life’s work deserved to be used for the good of humanity not to pad out the profit of this company.
I stood there staring at the orb floating over me, in awe of the possibilities and I never heard Lara return until she got closer and whispered in my ear.
“Beautiful isn’t it!”
Her voice startled me and I jumped a little. Lara was holding two champagne flutes and handed one to me.
“To the future!” She declared as she held her glass in the air.
“To the future!” I stuttered, copying her gestures, moving my glass flute into the air to match hers. Her eyes followed my hand all the way, not wavering from the glass.
As I lowered my hand her eyes remained fixed on the golden liquid in the glass and I started to feel very sick as reality suddenly dawned on me. I moved my hand to the left and right and her eyes followed it like a dog watching a ball. Why was she so obsessed with my drink? What was in it? Surely, she wasn’t trying to drug me?
I would have to think quick though. I noticed that she was becoming impatient, her eyes growing frustrated as she watched me play with the drink.
“And to VisionTech!” I yelled.
I threw my hand up into the air again at a pace that ensured most of the contents of my glass leapt out, flew the short distance between us and landed mostly over Lara, especially her glass, causing it to overflow and trickle down her hand.
“You idiot!” She screamed before composing herself. Her voice went quiet and narrowed into a scowl. “That was very expensive!”
“Sorry, I let my excitement get to me.” I lied. “You drink yours and I’ll clean up this mess.”
Her eyes darted to her glass, overflowing and dripping on the floor then snapped back to stare at me, deep into my soul.
It was in that instant I realised how much danger I might be in. Lara had just tried to poison me. I had to get out of here.
“What are you going to do now?” Lara hissed as she put the glass down on the table. “I don’t need you anymore, you’re just a liability at this point, you must understand that, it’s purely business.”
I stepped back slowly, making my way across the office.
The silence caught my attention. It was late but this was a twenty-four-hour facility and Lara always demanded people work late. Tonight, it was too quiet.
I had worked several late shifts recently in preparation for tonight and there were always people around. It wasn’t difficult to lose track of time down here in the basement with no windows, so people always stayed later than they planned. Tonight, there was no-one, I suspect Lara had planned it this way.
“Don’t do this! We can work something out.” I mumbled. I never thought I would need to beg for my life, so I didn’t really know what words to say.
“You’re so naïve. What options do I have? You have nothing else I want and you know too much.” Lara walked slowly towards me and I saw her hand reach behind her. “You should have just drunk your champagne!” Her voice turned shrill and she grasped something behind her back.
I decided I didn’t want to hang around long enough to find out what she was holding. Now that I had put a bit of distance between us I dove to my right, behind a floor to ceiling steel container that we used to store chemicals.
It was the loudest noise I had ever heard. My first instincts were to pat myself down to make sure that I hadn’t been hit. Relieved that I couldn’t feel any pain I noticed the glugging of slime that started to pour out of the container I was hiding behind.
It was a pink ooze that the biologists used to destroy their creations.
“It is excellent and eating waste organic matter, just don’t let it get on your skin.” I remember Julie telling me when I had first started at the company many years ago. It was good advice.
Quickly climbed to my feet and jumped onto a nearby stool. If I got that stuff on me, I will be begging Lara to shoot me. I had seen what it does, it acts quickly and painfully.
“This stuff is dangerous! Someone is going to get hurt!” I yelled to the crazy woman holding the gun trying to shoot me. I grimaced at the irony of what I was saying.
The stool wobbled underneath me. I am not a heavy man, slim and slender, but the stool was not designed for this and it continued to wobble.
I also noticed that the rubber on my boots had started to bubble, it had been splashed by the pink ooze. Looking down I saw the whole floor had turned pink. I couldn’t get away, but Lara also couldn’t get close enough for a clean shot.
“What is the plan now?” I shouted back. “I am trapped but you can’t get to me either. See sense Lara, please!”
This corner of the lab was keeping me safe. The metal container against my back pouring its contents all over the floor. There was a rack of test tubes opposite me, but I couldn’t reach them without stepping into the slime. The only good thing about this position was that Lara couldn’t position herself to see me without stepping in the slime, I was trapped but safe, for now.
The bullet hit the metal container on the other side but it didn’t travel all the way through. Bullets are useless at moving through liquid and I had an entire container of slime behind me.
“You can’t shoot through that! It’s basic physics. Now can we please talk this through!” I yelled, the ringing of the bullet still in my ears.
“I can wait. Don’t worry.” Lara yelled back. “Once that container has emptied all over the floor, I like my odds then.”
She was right. I was safe behind this container as long as there was liquid in it but with every moment that liquid emptied and the more holes she shot into it, the quicker that would be.
Another loud bang echoed around the lab as this time the bullet went through the top of the container and smashed all the glass test tubes on the wall opposite. I looked up and saw the puncture hole high up above me in the metal barrel. At least we now know the bullets can make it through.
“How about we work together with this. All the best inventions were given away for free. The world wide web, polio vaccines, the ball point pen! You could be a modern-day hero.” I tried to appeal to her conscience.
“Dom are you telling me that you want to give this technology away for FREE! Your survival instincts aren’t very good are they!” Lara shouted over the glugging liquid behind me.
My eyes fixed on the door over on the other side of the lab. I wonder how good she was with the gun. I could jump over the tables and possibly make it. Then again, I suspect that this might not be the first time Lara has been in this situation.
This time the container shook as the bullet entered it. Luckily it didn’t come all the way through but I could tell the container was emptying fast.
There was one idea that came to mind, it was a long shot.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my smartphone. While I had worked on previous prototypes of the gravity defying beach ball I found it useful to get technical readouts so I tasked my team with creating an app that could talk to the onboard computer wirelessly.
Within that little floating globe was an array of sensors including a very awesome camera. If I could connect to it, I might just be able to fashion an escape.
I told my phone to scan the local area. A few seconds later a device popped up. It didn’t have a readable name but it was the only device in range so it must be the ball. I pressed ‘Connect’ and held my breath.
“Success.” The screen read and the custom app launched, the VisionTech logo glaring back at me while it loaded.
Everything that I was about to do was all theoretical. It had worked in the simulations but there was no guarantee. To be honest I didn’t even know how the app worked. It had been created by one of my team who had torn apart a drone he received as a birthday present and reverse-engineered the code that made it fly.
The app only took seconds to load but it seemed like a lifetime. My phone screen flashed and then a picture of the back of Lara’s head came into view. She was stood on a steel table to avoid the slime on the floor and she was aiming the gun at the container.
A few moments later two little joysticks appeared on my screen. These were used for flight control. I hoped.
I pushed the sticks forward towards Lara’s head and without hesitation the floating ball jerked forward, crashing into her.
The clatter behind me could be heard before I saw it on the screen. Then I saw her, out cold. She was still breathing but had received the equivalent of a baseball bat to the head.
Pushing on the joysticks I manoeuvred the silver beach ball around the lab to my location and jumped on top, careful not to move any of the dials or press the button that would turn the whole machine off.
If you have ever tried to sit on a yoga ball you know it isn’t easy but when it’s life or death, even someone as awkward as me can learn to balance very quickly.
The sensation was strange. I expected it to sag as it took my weight, the same way a beachball floating in the water will sink a little when you try to jump onto it, but it didn’t, it stayed completely unmoving, hanging in the air as solid as a rock.
Finding a comfortable position was difficult and if I survived tonight, I would certainly re-think the design. It was difficult to sit on top, not touching any of the buttons or switches and still use my phone as a controller. Eventually I found a position that worked, an awkward pose that looked like a crouching ninja.
I floated around the lab, over to Lara who was still unconscious. Her hand that was holding the gun was hanging off the side of the table where she lay. It was centimetres away from the rising pink slime.
Lowering myself next to her I pulled her hand up, shaking the gun lose and watching it fall into the slime, sinking out of view, bubbles popping on the surface.
Resting her hand back on the table I grabbed her ID badge and shifted the ball towards the door. As I went through the airlock door, I pressed the ‘Lock’ button trapping Lara inside. Without her ID badge she would have to manually override the door. It might just give me a little extra time.
I looked at the cold corridors, to my left was the
elevator, to my right, the stairs. Which way to go?