WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR?
“I don’t need his ideas, okay? Or any old crap full of vacuum tubes and God knows what. I need his face. Not his ideas. And for sure not his mouth. We’re going to plaster that face all over—TV, internet, magazines. A full-court press. ‘Oscar Trent, famous inventor, joins cutting-edge research team.’ Can you deliver or not?”
“Yeah… Sure.” The pause was inadvertent.
“Hey. Don’t mess with me. The clock’s ticking on this deal. If you don’t want my money, I’m talking to someone else.”
“No! I want… I’ll get him on board. No problem. The old man’s been looking for something like this, if you know what I mean. Between us, in strictest confidence you understand, he needs a bit of help with his cash flow, not desperate, mind you, and he expects what he’s worth, but I am as confident of this as the time I signed Swinborne. You remember that deal—”
“Shut up. I’ll shoot you a contract within the hour. Get it back to me with his John Hancock on it by tomorrow, two o’clock, or the deal is off. Got it? Two o’clock. Not a minute later, or the deal’s off. You with me?”
“Two o’clock. Piece of cake. Let me take this moment to tell you how much we are looking forward—”
The line went dead, and Tom swore. How in the hell would he convince the old hermit to go along with this scheme?
Tom had lied on the phone; Oscar Trent had more money than he needed, though in worn loafers, baggy trousers, and frayed shirt, he looked more like a homeless street person than a wealthy technology tycoon. Tom had been trying to pry dough from the egghead’s mitts for the past year, without success. All those dry wells would soon force him to desperate measures. Even, heavens forbid, work.
He’d tried that a few times: work. No longer. Better to skim cream from others’ efforts. Tom Cristini had built a career pushing other people’s buttons; Moneybags had made it clear on the phone that he wanted Trent and would pay. Tom, of course, would skim off a more-than-fair percentage for his time. Tom wasn’t about to miss this opportunity.
What did Oscar Trent need? It sure as hell wasn’t money. What did all men need?
Tom laughed. No, that one wouldn’t work here; Trent would whip something up in his lab if that need arose.
What did old men need? A hint of a smile emerged. They wanted the world to remember them. Stretch the story of their lives here and there, smooth a few rough edges, resurrect and air the nostalgia of youth. And Moneybags remembered Trent from his youth, enough to track down Tom and dangle bucket loads of money to obtain his backing.
The smile blossomed.
Oscar Trent worked from an immense barn, quaint at first sight, until a visitor noticed the complex of connected Quonset huts and storage buildings sprawled behind the barn, a veritable medieval city of blind alleys and sharp turns. Assorted piles of refuse clustered in odd corners and cul-de-sacs, glancing through weeds with suspicion at the visitor.
Inside the warren of huts, storage racks soared upward, filled with supplies and assortments of indecipherables, labeled with meticulous care. A light film of dust coated much of the equipment, but not a single cobweb sullied the racks, and the dust-free floors gleamed.
Tom walked the aisles, wading into the musk of time. He angled to the right, following a familiar trail until he came to a clearing in the jungle, a sturdy workbench in the center of the space lit from overhead fluorescent lamps. An immense steel column stood guard in the corner of the clearing, an oversized sequoia out of place in the forest of ordinary posts and rafters.
Tom found Oscar perched on a stool at the workbench under the colossus, before him an oversized hunk of machinery the size of a lawnmower engine, all lights and dials. Oscar sat staring at the display, screwdriver in hand, lost in thought.
“Hey. What happened to cleaning up?” Tom asked. “Remember? It’s a fire hazard with all this junk.”
Oscar smiled at him, not surprised by his visitor. Oscar carried the slow-slumping softness of age, a letter ‘o’ to Tom’s tall angularity.
Oscar shrugged. “I tried. A young man with a truck came by, but he kept asking about stuff. ‘What’s that?’ And, ‘boy that looks cool.’ Once I began explaining everything… Well, at the end I was unwilling to part with any of it.”
He leaned back to rest an arm on his workbench. “I worked all my life, the same as everyone else. Loved every minute, but showing that kid around, I realized how lucky I am, more than most.”
Oscar waved around him at aisles stretching around them. “Look around you. It’s a testament to all I’ve done. A record of all that filled my life. I guess that’s why I spend so much time here.”
Tom glanced about, bit his tongue, and put on a convincing smile.
Maybe Oscar noted the boredom underneath Tom’s smile. For whatever reason, he sat up and became more businesslike. “Anyway, I couldn’t get rid of anything. And then we found this.” He motioned to the contraption before him.
“What is it?”
“That, my friend, is my life.”
Tom snorted. “Yeah, I see the family resemblance. What’s it do?”
“More of me is in here than you realize.” Oscar stroked the case of the oversized device with a loving touch. “One of my first inventions, before I had done much. This is my life clock.”
“Yes. A real challenge to design and build, more so with the technology available back then. It’s a countdown timer, meant to remind me of the shortness of life, not to waste that life. A timer is easy to make.” He took on a professorial attitude.
“But I added artificial neural networks—using discrete transistors, mind you—to produce a more accurate simulation of my expected life path. Hell, keeping this baby running all this time presented as big a design challenge as the actual clockwork. This contraption has some battery technology that would make the nuke weapons folks envious if they learned of it.” Oscar laughed.
“Simul-what?” asked Tom. “With nuke parts, did you say?”
“Ingenious, isn’t it?”
“Doesn’t look ingenious to me. Looks like parts from some robot with all those numbers and lights. Reminds me of a bomb, the way it’s counting down, the way they do in those action movies, if you know what I’m driving at.”
Oscar nodded. “It looks like a bomb, doesn’t it? In a way, it is. When it counts down to zero, BOOM, no more.”
“No more what?”
“No more me. No more Oscar Trent. Like I said, it’s my life clock. When I built it, I put in my expected life expectancy from actuarial tables and used those neural nets as a refinement. I intended it as a novelty but realized I could do much more. Make it accurate.”
“Wait a minute. Back up. You said boom?”
Oscar smiled and nodded.
“You mean that thing’s going to blow up?”
Oscar nodded again. His smile took on a maniacal tinge. Tom pushed backward, reaching behind him with one hand and raising the other to ward off danger. “When’s it going off?”
Oscar chuckled. “It’s not a real bomb.” He beckoned for Tom to return to the workbench. “Don’t worry. You’re safe.”
“Damn, man. Don’t do that to me. I’m not ready to push up daisies, as they say.” Tom wondered if he should call the cops, just in case. He’d always felt uncomfortable around Oscar, even without blinking bombs.
He peered at the clock. “How do you read the thing?”
“It’s easy. See—years, days, hours, minutes, seconds.”
Tom deciphered the readout. “So it says, what, twenty-two days?”
“Twenty-two days, fourteen hours, seventeen minutes, and forty-three seconds.”
“When zero comes, what then?”
“Then I die.”
Tom stared at him, mouth open. Then he realized he’d been had.
He shook his head. Conned by that egghead! He started laughing and slapped Oscar on the shoulder. “Wow! You had me going, and it takes a lot to pull one over Tom Cristini’s eyes, let me tell you. That’s something else, if you know…” He sobered and stared at Oscar. He didn’t like what he saw.
“Don’t tell me you’re serious.”
“You’re telling me when that gizmo counts down to all zeros…”
“When the clock reads zero, I will die.”
Silence grew. The last thing Tom wanted was to deal with a dementia patient. He had much bigger fish to fry, which reminded him of the contract in his hand. First things first.
“You’re just feeling down, crazy, whatever. Someone as… mature as you, if you don’t mind my saying, will have a lot of memories.” He smiled.
“Good memories—mind you—but still,” Tom continued, “a man’s got to look forward—something’s always coming, you know. Like this.” He waved the contract. “I have just what you need to cheer you up.”
Oscar raised his eyebrows.
“I’m talking with this guy, see,” Tom continued. “And he remembered watching you on TV when he was a kid.”
Oscar snorted. “Good Lord, that was a long time ago.”
“Yeah. And he’s excited, like you’re a superhero or something. Wants to meet you.”
Oscar turned back to the clock and spoke over his shoulder. “Bring him by, but he’ll be disappointed.”
“That’s not all.” Tom circled around and spoke over the clock, forcing himself into Oscar’s view before he continued.
“He wants to tell everyone else about you. Wants to make a big deal about all you’ve done in your life. And he’s dying to hear about whatever great ideas you have, like you are always thinking of new things. Am I right?” Tom leaned forward over the clock.
“This guy said to me this morning,” he continued, punctuating his points with his hand, “all gushy on the phone because he had a chance to get close his hero, this guy said to me, ‘Tell Mr. Trent I can’t wait to hear all his new ideas and see what wonderful inventions he’s working on.’ Practically drooling on the phone. Wanted to jump on the first flight out, but I put the brakes on.” He nodded at Oscar, acknowledging how he was protecting the inventor.
“Here’s the important part. He wants everyone to learn about his hero. Willing to give you carte blanche to talk about your work and what you think is important.”
Oscar shook his head. “I’ve got nothing to say. Bring him by if he wants and I’ll show him around.”
“But he’s willing to pay!” Tom held up the contract, desperation creeping into his voice.
Oscar sighed. “This is another one of your get-rich-quick schemes, isn’t it?”
“That hurts. It really does. I’m doing this for you.”
“I see. You’re always looking out for me, is that it?”
“What are friends for? Always ready to take a bullet for you.”
“Yeah, right.” Oscar sighed again. “Okay, what’s your latest scheme?”
“No scheming needed, though you don’t have to say it like it’s something dirty. But this,” Tom shook the contract before him, “this is the real deal. Sign this and you’ll be rich.”
“I’m already rich. Don’t need any more.”
But I do!
Had he said that out loud? “You don’t need it. I got that. You can donate it to charity or something. But I wasn’t kidding about the guy remembering you. This is a chance to remind everyone else of all the great work you’ve done. Like you were saying earlier. You can be an inspiration to a whole new generation of inventors. Like you were when you were young.”
He’d set the hook; the man’s wrinkled eyes gleamed as he searched Tom’s face. Tom pressed on. “Think of it. You inspiring a whole army of young people, hundreds of Oscar Trents marching forth…”
Oscar’s shoulders began to shake, then his laughter bubbled out, ending in a coughing fit. He blew his nose and returned the red bandanna to his back pocket, shaking his head. “You are so full of crap.”
Oscar composed himself, then reached for the contract. “So I sign this and we unleash a horde of Trents on the country.”
“I suspect there’s more.” Oscar started to read through the contract, but Tom snatched it back.
“Don’t worry about the details. I checked it out. Standard stuff. The important thing is that this guy wants to do a big publicity blitz for some startup specializing in future research stuff. You appear in some commercials saying how important research is to the future of the country and platitudes like that. And get this, it’s a three-year gig. Guaranteed. Even if they go belly up, we—I mean you—still get paid. Sweet, huh?”
“Yeah, sweet,” Oscar said but in a distant voice. “Three years, you say?”
“Three beautiful years, all expenses paid. A lifetime of cannoli. Like I said, sweet.”
Oscar turned away. “I’m not interested.”
“Wait a minute. Wait! What do you mean you’re not interested? Three years not enough? We can ask for more. I can have this guy eating out of my hand, if you—”
“Twenty-two days.” Oscar gestured to the clock. “I only have twenty-two days left. Signing a contract knowing I can’t keep my part of the bargain would be dishonest.”
“Dishonest? You gotta be kidding me. This is business, for God’s sake!”
“I haven’t told you how much money—”
“Look. It’s not dishonest, dammit! Any of us can pop off any time. Life’s like that. They’re willing to pay and take their chances.”
“But we know when I’m ‘going to pop off,’ which changes everything.”
“It changes nothing!” Tom ran his hand through his hair. Don’t lose this! “My God, I can’t believe this. You unearth an ancient relic out of the trash heap and you actually believe when it counts down to zero—”
“—I’ll die. Yes. I built it for that purpose.”
“No one knows when they’ll die, not even mad hatter inventors. How could you peg it all those years ago you that would croak twenty-two days from now?”
“Well, I couldn’t—”
“Aha!” Tom slapped his hand on the bench.
“—so I used actuarial tables. I told you. Like the insurance companies use.”
“Statistics, right?” Tom jabbed a finger at Oscar. “I’m not an egghead, but I know better than to trust crazy numbers. What do they say about lies, damned lies, and statistics?”
Oscar shook his head. “It’s more than the numbers. I started with the tables, true, but I added those neural nets. As I said.” He paused.
“Okay, you’re right, I have no way to predict when I will die for sure, but…” His voice softened.
“Well, I always believed in this. Don’t ask me why. Or how. But I became convinced it would mark the end of my days. I forgot for all those years, yes. But now I’ve found it again, my work on this all comes back.”
“This is abso-freaking-lutely stupid!” Tom paced about the shop.
“Tell you what,” Oscar said. “Let’s wait those twenty-two days. If I’m still kicking on day twenty-three, I’ll admit my mistake and will sign up with those guys for their commercials.”
“That’s too late!” Tom’s frustration boiled over. He turned from Oscar, faced the steel column rising over them and punched it—hard—wishing it were Oscar. Pain exploded in his hand and jarred up his arm.
His knuckles were bloodied and left a matching stain on the column. The column was rooted well into the building foundation, down to the core of the earth itself. It ignored his attack, looked down on him with condescension, dared him to test himself against its hardness, an ominous threat.
“They need it tomorrow.” Tom spoke in a petulant voice, not looking up from his hand, afraid to flex his fingers.
“Sorry,” Oscar said.
Think, man, think!
Tom paced away, working feeling back into his hand. He whirled back toward Oscar. “Okay, here’s another idea. What if your life clock box thing broke down? Right now. Battery died, something like that.”
“Not likely. Not after all these years.”
“Maybe so, but work with me here. If it conked out, quit working, are you still hexed, still dropping dead three weeks from now?”
“Gee, I don’t know.” Oscar rubbed his chin. “I never gave it a thought. You make it sound like a curse.”
“And I know just how to break that curse.” Tom reached for the clock. “I’m going to break it right now.”
The weight of the box surprised Tom. It was much heavier than he expected. Instead of lifting the clock over his head as he planned, he could only drag it across the bench.
“Hey!” shouted Oscar and grabbed at the clock. The two grappled. Oscar tried to pry Tom’s hands from the clock. Oscar had done hard work all his life and still had strength in his hands. Tom found himself face to face with the older man, close enough to smell his breath—age mixed with coffee and halitosis.
Tom broke Oscar’s grip and shoved him hard in the chest. Oscar stumbled backward, arms flailing.
Tom lurched toward the clock, pushing it to the edge of the bench. It tottered.
Oscar charged forward, head down, hitting Tom with his shoulder. They stumbled backward until coming up abruptly against the column. The impact stunned Tom and his arms went slack.
Through narrowing tunnel vision, Tom saw the clock tip over the edge of the table.
“No!” Oscar cried.
He dived for the clock and fell with it, a slow-motion affair in Tom’s fading consciousness. Oscar hit the floor first as the full weight of the clock crashed on him.
A mower’s drone floated into the barn, down the crowded aisles, to a clearing anchored by a steel column where disturbed dust motes floated in the overhead light. An elderly man lay on the floor, a broken piece of machinery on the floor beside him.
Oscar groaned and rolled on his side. Blood streamed from his head, blinding one eye. He wiped at the blood with his bandanna, focused his eyes with difficulty on his wet fingers.
The clock lay on its side, staring back at him. The case had cracked under the weight of its fall, spilling wiring and broken glass. One dial had snapped off, leaving a jagged post behind. The display, though cracked, still worked.
It read all zeros.
Oscar squinted at the numbers, grunted. He struggled to his hands and knees, crawled closer, and stared at the display.
He sat back on the floor with a thud. He chuckled.
“I’ll be damned,” he said under his breath.
“Hey, Tom,” he called. “Look at this. You were right. All zeros and nobody dead. I’m just an old fool, like you said.”
Tom didn’t answer.
“Hey, I’m sorry about… Tom?”
As Oscar watched, the lifeless body of Tomas Alberto Cristini, friend to the end, crumbled to the floor.
Glynn Germany is a short story writer working from the high desert of Albuquerque. This is his first fiction publication. Recently retired after 30 years as a scientist, he has returned to a long-standing writing habit that refuses to die, despite his best efforts.