Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Process

by Mike Wilson



Martin Ruhe was nothing if not careful. Once he discovered the key to a practical, functioning 'cold fusion' process, he saved some preliminary data on the company mainframe, heavily encrypted. But he saved the entire process sequence on his Blackberry phone. Feeling satisfaction tinged with pride, he closed up his office and headed out. Not bad for one day's work: discovering a new process that could change energy equations around the globe. He was naturally a bit paranoid.

As he made his way down the hall to a rear exit, a security guard bid him good night.

"Frank, if you only knew how good!" said Martin by way of reply.

The two Hamas operatives in dark clothing had managed to bull their way through the front security station, but not before an alarm was triggered. Martin, walking to his car, heard the thin whistle go off, and hurried his steps. He made it to his compact sedan, and wasted no time in getting under way. Another operative glared at him from inside a rental sedan, then pivoted his head this way and that to locate his companions. Martin stepped on the gas, and raced out of the parking area of the Chemical Products Company just as two others were racing out of the rear entry doors. In moments they had made it to their driver, and the sedan zoomed after the receding shadow of Martin's car.

Martin was trying to drive and text at the same time. Specifically, he kept trying to send the file with the fusion formula to his co-worker Sandra. But he mis-keyed her number the first time; the second, he almost hit a pedestrian, swerving this way and that as he tried to drive.

Finally he decided to pull over somewhere, risking capture or worse. He had to get this out!

He screeched into the parking lot of a fast-food joint, and pulled behind the building. Meanwhile, the chasers were having a spirited conversation.

"Slow down! He could have turned off on I-235!"

"There was only that one exit, idiot! He must be ahead."

"Didn't you get the file back there? Why not?"

"It was encrypted, and the alarm went off. I had to get out of there!"

"Fool. Stupid fool. We could have had it. Now we have to get Martin Sanderson, or we are dead."

They debated for several minutes. Finally, the driver sped back up somewhat and they headed down the main drag, trying to look around and not kill each other in the process.

Martin tried to send the file again. The "message not sent" came up. Damn, now what? He only had one bar of signal strength -- that must be it. And now he was getting a low battery indication.

The car charger was not in his car, where it should be. He would have to get home! He looked out at the main thoroughfare, Euclid Ave. Hardly any traffic...but there!

A big sedan sped by, slowing as its occupants scanned the street, and then speeding up. Martin could see it as it went past the building, but he was not sure if he had been spotted.

No -- the sedan continued on.

Martin waited for a few minutes, then pulled out onto Euclid, heading the opposite direction. Time to get home.

He made it there in good time, only to spot the big sedan in his driveway, luckily when he was still a block away. He swung the car around, and headed back out.

Now what? He was concerned for his wife, but he could not help her now. He simply had to get this file out, or the implications would be terrible. He would have to go buy a charger somewhere. He headed to a mall some distance away; they had a cellphone store with chargers. He would also try one more time to send the file before he went in. He pulled into a nearby place, got the car stopped, whipped out his Blackberry and prepared to send the file. He was just getting ready to hit "send" when a loud rapping noise on his window made him jump out of his skin. He looked over, and it was a cop, peering in.

He rolled down his window, and said, "Officer. I'm trying to send a message here; could you give me a sec?"

"Ah, yeah. Are you all right, Mister?"

Martin managed to press "send", and it came back. Low Battery. Damn.

"Hey, Mister? You OK?"

"Yes, listen officer. I'm a chemist, and I am trying to send a critically important file. Some men are chasing me, I don't know who, and I just need to get this sent."

"Well, here, let's have a look at this." The officer reached his hand into the car to take the Blackberry.

Martin recoiled. "No! This is the only copy of a proprietary process! I can't just give this up."

Placing his hand over his sidearm, the cop said,

"Okay, sir, I need your license and registration please."

Martin dropped his Blackberry and fished out his wallet.

"Okay, officer, whatever you say. But I'm in a real bad situation here..."

"I know, I hear it all the time."

Martin pulled out his license, and showed him a company ID for good measure.

"Okay. My Apologies, Martin. You can go about your business"

"Listen, officer. There were some men following me, I think they want to rob me or something. Could you escort me back home so I can charge up this phone and send a message?"

The cop looked around.

"Well, I don't see anyone now. But I suppose I can at least follow you home."

So Martin drove back home, followed closely by the police car. Unbeknownst to Martin, the cop ran his plates. No warrants. The cop was satisfied.

They arrived at his home. The house was dark. Martin rushed into the house, yanking the door open. He saw a dark form lying prone.

"Honey? Cheryl? Cheryl?" He shook her, then felt her neck. A pulse, weak. He ran back outside.

The cop was talking to two men in a dark sedan. They were gesturing his way.

"Officer! Those were the men following me!"

Then it occurred to Martin that the cop was outnumbered and probably outgunned. The men had probably left Cheryl for dead; killing the cop would probably come easily to them when so much was at stake.

Making a snap decision, Martin rushed back into the house, slamming the front door behind him and engaging the deadbolt lock. The door was heavy, solid wood over a metal core, and set in a reinforced frame. It hadn't protected Cheryl -- with no reason to expect trouble, she had probably opened the door when the two men had pressed the doorbell button -- but it would slow down the two men if they tried to enter now. Chemical Products had insisted on the security upgrades when they assigned the 'new energy process' project to him; now they might save his life. He could only hope that help would come in time to save Cherylů

Martin raced up to the bedroom, found his charger, and managed to get the Blackberry hooked up. In no time he was composing an email to three colleagues, with his file attached.

He hit send, and a moving graphic appeared at the top. Then, "Message sent!"

Martin heard gunfire outside; his next call was to 911 to report the police officer's likely demise and Cheryl's injuries. He shortly heard a fusillade of slugs hit the door and house. Windows shattered, glass flew. Metal shutters slammed down, turning the house into a fortress.

Martin made his way back down to the front hall, staying low despite the knowledge that the doors and windows were bullet-resistant. He lost his balance when the front door shook in its frame as something heavy -- probably the foot of one of the killers -- struck it near the lock.

The door held. Martin regained his feet and scuttled across the floor to Cheryl's still-motionless form.

"Cheryl! Can you hear me, honey?" He slid his hand under her head and recoiled as his fingers found a soft spot, warm and sticky, where no soft spot should be. Shuddering, he placed his other hand on her throat, seeking but not finding that faint pulse he had felt earlier.

"Gone?" He sat down heavily, his legs too weak to hold his weight.

The sound of sirens and screeching tires was followed by a new fusillade of gunfire. Martin heard none of it. In his mind, he was reviewing the last few minutes, asking himself what might have happened if he had called 911 before sending the precious files.

Would Cheryl be alive now?

####

Within days of its announcement, the process became widely known as the Ruhe Energy Extraction Method (or 'Reem'), in spite of Chemical Products Company's best efforts to 'brand' it as 'CPCStar'. Within a year, Chemical Products Company made billions licensing the technology to individual households in the developed world, and to governments elsewhere. Within a decade, petrochemicals became raw materials rather than fuels; cheap and abundant energy brought clean water and abundant crops to previously arid land.

Alone in his fortified estate, safe from the occasional assassins sent by former energy magnates, Martin told himself for the ten millionth time that he had done the right thing. By ensuring that the files detailing the process were in the hands of those who would use them (albeit for a profit) rather than concealing them, he had saved the lives of thousands, and improved the lives of millions more. And he told himself that Cheryl's life had been a small price to pay for a new golden age.

Sometimes he even believed it.

THE END


© 2011 Mike Wilson

Bio: Mike Wilson has been writing short stories, poetry and essays for several years. He has been published in periodicals like Tales of the Talisman, as well as an annual poetry book. Mr. Wilson's stories and poems have appeared a number of times in Aphelion, most recently Murder at the Space Olympics (May 2010). A member of the Iowa Poetry Association, he has had formal training in the IT field. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa with his very eccentric cat, Snickers.

E-mail: Mike Wilson

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