The view outside did not comfort him. The town was dark and silent. Not silent in a tranquil, peaceful way, but in a diseased almost insomniac like manner. A few people trudged up and down the snow covered streets, their faces expressionless and grim. They were thin and shivering, and walked with their heads down, seemingly aware only of their own misery. Fires burned and he could see thick clouds of smoke rising from numerous chimneys. He sighed and thought about how the view mirrored and reflected his own despair and loss of hope. What has happened to the world? he thought. How could they let it become like this with so much suffering and horror? The questions were rhetorical for he had known the answer for many years and payed a high price for such understanding.
His wife was the last thing he had because everything else had vanished or been taken away. His wife, his daughter, his profession as a teacher, and his hope that some day he would be able to allay the misery he saw around him. He tried to avoid thinking about his daughter but could not keep the image of her face away. She had died only three days ago of the same virus that inflicted his wife. It had been a long and painful death, and in the end, when her hand had gone limp and her crying had stopped, he had wanted to run outside and not stop until the cold had frozen his blood and he lay dead on the hard ground. It was your fault, she died, he kept screaming to himself! You had to pursue that crazy invention! As much as he tried, he couldn't stop blaming himself. Yes, it was all his fault, a result of his stubborn desire to pursue his dream and defy the laws of society. Because of him the Enforcers had taken everything away from them, leaving only a freezing cold house. His daughter had been malnourished and sickly, an easy victim for the deadly viruses that were sweeping through the towns and villages now that medicine was scarce and people's immune systems weak. Damn, he had been so stubborn and filled with so many ideas.
The pain and guilt was nearly unbearable and his hand shook as he traced a smokey swirl on the dirty window pain. So much had changed. He walked over to the cracked mirror beside the bed and looked at himself. His face was gaunt, his cheeks covered with dark stubble, and his eyes looked so lost and dim. There was a time when he was sharp and full of energy. Yes, he asked himself, where had those days gone? It hadn't been so long ago.
For a day after his daughter's death he had remained mad with grief and rage. When he finally came home, his wife had tried to comfort him and explain that it wasn't his fault. He had turned his anger on her, trying to yell and burn the pain out. Now his wife was sick and dying and he only wanted to join her. He walked back to her and as he clasped his wife's damp hand, her eyes fluttered open.
"Wayne, Wayne, is that you?" she asked in a soft whisper. Her hand tightened slightly and he looked at her watery eyes and translucent skin. Even like this she was so beautiful and he remembered first meeting her. Strange, he thought, that I would remember that moment now, when I'm about to loose her.
"Yes, I'm here." She smiled and gave his hand another little pulse.
"Wayne, I know what you're thinking. Don't be so surprised, you're eyes have always given you away. I've been thinking also, and I need to tell you before I die that you must finish your machine. It's the only hope and I can't die knowing that you have given up. I need to know that something will be done and other mother's will not lose their children, and other husbands will not lose their wives. What happened to us is not your fault. They were the ones who killed us. Your machine was and is the only chance to save us."
"You're not going to die," he said determinedly while wondering how she could read his mind so well. He couldn't bare to think of her dead.
His mind turned again to the machine stored in the basement. It was because of the machine that the Enforcers had taken everything away and left them to live in this poverty. He wondered again why he hadn't taken apart the cursed machine and melted it down.
When he had been a physics professor at the university, he had thought of an idea to tap the rotational energy of the planet. He calculated that if his idea was successful, it could have provided enough energy to run the world : to run cars, create products, open doors, close windows, anything that needed to be done.
He had originally envisioned it as a giant spinning turbine and his preliminary research showed that it was possible to shoot an energy beam into space, reflect it off the moon, and back to earth. The displacement between where the beam originated and where it was reflected represented the rotation of the earth and moon. By carefully calibrating the light beam, these rotations created distortions that could be converted into energy. He had explained it to his daughter by taking a top and spinning it on the table. Before it had lost its momentum he scooped the whirling toy up and pressed it to her face.
"What do you feel?"
"It's warm," she said excitedly, but confused.
"Yes, it's friction," he had said and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. It was the same principal of friction, expanded millions of times, which he knew could power the world. He began to construct a small prototype of the device, expecting praise and excitement from his colleagues. Instead, they rejected his idea, calling it ludicrous and silly and telling him it violated the Law of Conservation and would get him into trouble. Despite this, he worked on, hoping that his mentor Dr. Molero could see his vision and realize the importance of what he was striving to achieve.
He had been wrong. Society was no longer willing to take chances and bet on the hopes of one person. The machine sat in his basement, untouched and untested.
"Wayne, Susan may be gone, but there are others out there like her. You're such a special and great man. You must do something to help them. I know you can. You must finish the machine. I know the dream never really died." He thought about what she said and wondered again why he had never destroyed the machine. It's because a part of you has always known it would come to this, and the machine would need to be finished. He had lost his resolve once and the worst had happened anyway. Oddly enough, the dreams he had started with were the only things he had left.
"I'll try," he said whispering intimately into her ear, wanting only her to know that her words had re-inspired him and lent him a lost appreciation for life. There was nothing left to lose, and the professor watched his wife fall asleep thinking that even in her state she had the power and the love to unearth his desire to try.
He walked over to the window and watched the figures dance in front of the flames. They talked peacefully to one another but there was no laughter or mirth, just the drudgery of life etched on their faces. He recognized a few, Mr. Timmel, and the girl Judy that lived around the corner and was always on a charity drive for some cause or another. Martinez held his wife's hand and blew a big sneeze into his free palm.
The machine was where he had left it so many years ago. It's long thin body was resting against the wall. At the top was a square compartment made out of a glass encasement. A small socket sat in the middle of the compartment. On top of the compartment was a small dish with a thin metal stick protruding from the center. A wire ran from the bowl down the thin black metal pole and into a crudely cut hole near the base of the device. It wasn't heavy, but its size made it awkward to carry. Wayne kicked the basement door open and light flooded in. A few snowflakes blew in and swirled around before settling on the ice cold floor. He awkwardly carried the machine up the steps, across his front lawn, and planted it firmly on the frozen snow in front of his house. The snow crunched as the machine's weight settled into the grimy powder. He went back into the basement and scavenged around until he had found the necessary tools. As Wayne twirled the screwdriver in his hands, he contemplated his actions again and realized he was scared. His body shook not from the cold, but from the fright of his actions.
The Enforcers would certainly come when they realized that he meant to finish it. He thought again of poor Lim and the memory filled him with fury and shame. Lim had refused to give up his work despite the consequences. Sometimes, as Wayne watched Lim waddle across the street he wondered who was really better. And now, as his wife lay dying, he wondered if his machine could have saved her if only he had been braver. Professor Wayne picked up a hammer and began to bang a metal flap flat against the base of the machine. The hammering echoed loudly down the street and he could see heads turn. A few fingers pointed in his direction. He continued hammering and a small figure detached itself from the crowd and ran towards him. The small boy slipped on a patch of ice, slid for a few feet, and then continued running towards him. Wayne recognized Billy, a young boy that came to visit him occasionally. The boy liked to hear about inventions and what the past had been like.
"Billy, how are you?" he asked trying to sound merry and mask his fear. He extended a hand and clapped Billy on the back. "You look a little cold." Mucus ran down the boy's nose and his hands were dug deep into his tattered jacket pockets. "Here, have one of these." Wayne dug into a fur lined pocket and pulled out a small red candy. "Made it last week, go on eat it, it's perfectly safe." It was an old recipe he had developed in the lab, and he had made a batch of the candies to keep his daughter warm.
Billy took the small candy and popped it into his mouth. He swished it around and suddenly smiled brightly.
"It makes me feel warm Professor!" he exclaimed in delight. He nodded and saw Billy look over the machine. "Everyone heard you hammering Professor and we were all wondering what you're building. It's been so long since anything's been built."
"I'm inventing something Billy. It's going to be an electric light, but no ordinary electric light. It's going to run on space energy," he said pointing to the star specked sky.
"But that's illegal. There's no electricity and no one is supposed to waste time or energy inventing something new." The Professor chuckled. His parents had told him that. He had bumped into them occasionally and could tell they didn't like him.
"You stay away from my son know, you hear," William Gruuf had said. "We don't want you putting bad ideas into his head. Just stay away and let us raise him."
"Your parents told you that, didn't they? Well, I'm not going to listen to what people say. I believe what I'm doing is right, and that's all that really matters." Billy was silent for a minute before asking in a scared whisper.
"What about the Nevers?" Wayne felt like he was looking at a younger version of himself. Almost all parents told their children about the Nevers. They were supposed to be pitiless creatures that took away the bad people that didn't obey the conservation laws. His parents had told him they were foolish fairy tales and that he should always remember that the Nevers didn't exist. Others children didn't have parents that were as sensible. He pitied the boy and hoped that he had the strength to escape from the fears. The Professor winked at him.
"No such a thing Billy. Have you ever seen Never? No, I didn't think so. No Billy there's only one kind of Never and he exists up here," the Professor pointed to his forehead. Billy didn't seem to understand but he shook his head anyway.
"Well, if the Nevers don't exist, can I help you Professor?" He scratched his head and felt himself leaving a greasy smudge. He needed help because he didn't think there was going to be much time. It was imperative he finish the machine before the Conservation Police arrived, which he knew they would. Did he dare risk this boy's future? He thought about his dead daughter and what this boy's future would be like if society continued as it was.
"Actually you can Billy. Have you ever seen a lightbulb? Well I need one. There not too common nowadays, but if you can scour around town, poke around here and there and find one, you'd be a really big help." The Professor watched him scamper off and was glad that he had let the boy help. For the first time in a while, he felt slightly happy. Perhaps it would all work out. The machine would be finished very soon.
He soldered and hammered and could see the crowd growing larger at the corner, their curiosity drawing them out of their homes and into the cold day. A few fingers pointed, but people just mostly stared with blank, slightly confused expressions on their faces.
Wayne kept glancing down the road, expecting a black van to round the corner with the words Conservation Police printed neatly and innocently on the side. When it didn't happen, he began to relax. Perhaps they wouldn't find out and everything would be okay. The times might have changed, and perhaps with conditions so bad society was ready to try something new.
As the first flakes of fresh snow began to fall, Wayne saw another figure detach itself from crowd and move towards him. The figure moved slowly and steadily, its gait measured and precise. Wayne recognized it as Dr. Molero, his old physics professor from the university. He would never forget that Dr. Molero had betrayed him, calling his invention a quackery and leading the battle to have him expelled. Now he felt only an odd deadness and a desire to turn away from his former mentor. The Dr. looked cold and a big blue vein stood out prominently on his large forehead. He stopped five feet away and sadly shook his head.
"Never learned your lesson Wayne. After all that has happened, it's come down to your foolish desire to finish a worthless machine." Wayne bit his lip and didn't respond, instead soldering another wire into place.
"I saw you try so many different things at the university before you were expelled. The solar energy contraption you started with Lim, the geothermal energy pump, the infrared energy absorber. They were all failures, all a waste of time and precious energy. It's because of people like you that we must have these dreadful conservation laws. Look around you, do you see these suffering people, they suffer because minds like yours invented products which have looted the planet and sapped all its resources. Dreadful, shameful," he said exhaling a large plume of frozen breathe. Wayne looked up from the machine and thought of so many things he had always wanted to say to this man. Instead, he asked simply:
"Why did you betray me Doctor? I thought you of all people would understand. But you betrayed me." The flat eyes continued to stare at him.
"I used to think like you Wayne. That one good invention would make everything right. Perhaps under different circumstances that would work. But look around you. Progress has been killed and a scientist has no place in this world. We live amidst people who think technology has destroyed the world. They want to return to the past, not move towards the future."
Wayne had often wondered what had changed his mentor so much. There were rumors that the Enforcers had threatened his family and even taken him in for a little "brain stimulation."
"Professor, you used to think like me, what happened?" Dr. Molero looked surprised for a second and then looked down at the snow.
"That's not important Wayne," he said softly. "You don't want to know and it wouldn't help you." Then the softness left his eyes and his voice hardened. "I didn't like it at first Wayne, but I wanted to survive and I slowly learned that this is the right way. Progress and technology will not save humanity now Wayne, only sacrifice and pain. We must learn to endure pain. Society has had enough of people like you, people who think they can change the world. You seem to have forgotten what it was like before there were any Conservation Laws? Technology had warmed the earth, threatening to drown and starve millions. Sunlight penetrated the air and could make people sick. There was stinking water, polluted dirt, and glowing vegetables and so many people, that cars couldn't move, and you had to wait in long lines for hours. Humanity was out balance and about to be destroyed. Only the Laws saved us! They must be enforced for our own good! You were my best student, but my duty to humanity came and will always come first!" He finished and Wayne could feel his gaze bearing down on him.
Wayne thought of his dead child and his dying wife and new he could never accept what he saw around him. "You're breaking the Law of Conservation and as I told you many years ago this could have very dire consequences for you. If logic doesn't dissuade you, than you should know that the Enforcers are on their way. They'll be here shortly."
They stared at each other in silence for a few moments before the Dr. turned around and trudged back through the thickening snow. He dropped the hammer and staggered back towards his house, opened the door and slammed it behind him, wishing the world outside would disappear and allow him to be a prisoner inside of his house for all of eternity. He leaned against the door and listened to his pounding heart.
Wa-wum, Wa-yum, Wa-yme, Way-ne, realizing finally that it was his wife softly whispering his name, "Wayne" from the bedroom. He walked slowly in and tried to smile through his exhaustion and fear.
"Hello beautiful," she whispered. He sat and took her hand. It was hot and frail but he kissed it anyway.
"I don't know if I can do it," he whispered. "I think it's too late, the world no longer wants what I have to offer."
"Sssshhhhh." She put a finger to his lips and brushed aside a stray lock of hair. She closed her eyes, smiled, and began to softly speak.
"When I was small, my parents used to tell me about the Nevers. I guess nearly everyone's parents did when they were young. Anyway they scared me to death. They said that they were little creatures with dark faces, sick yellow eyes, and long sharp pointy teeth who made sure that the conservation laws were enforced. Bad girls and boys who broke the law were fed to the Nevers and they were eaten alive. My parents told me the stories to scare me and I would stay awake at night, terrified that I had done something wrong and would feel the sharp claw poke through my pajama and nick my back. I would have horrible dreams and wake up trembling in fear and shame every time I thought of something that would help my family and improve our miserable situation. I also dreamt some day my prince would come and protect me forever from the Nevers. The thought kept me sane and when I saw you Wayne, when I heard your strength and your utter conviction..." She was crying and Wayne could see her strength ebbing. Her grasp became loose and her eyes fluttered. "Wayne, you'll always be my prince, you always have been..." Her words trailed off and her eyes became still. He held her limp hand and savored the last few moments he had shared with his wife. When he had replayed the scene and embedded it into his memory, he placed her hand on the bed and closed her eyes. He cried. And after, when the initial pain had lessened, he realized that his mind had cleared and that he could once again think like he always had. The doubts had vanished and Wayne walked confidently out the door and into the swirling snow.
It had become a full-blown snowstorm outside but the crowd was still huddled by the fire. Wayne knew they were all waiting for the Enforcers. It would probably be the central highlight in their life, and a story they would pass down from generation to generation. To hell with them, he thought, to hell with this world. He thought of his dead wife and he picked up the blowtorch. He brought the helmet down and unleashed a mighty flame into the swirling snow.
Let them come for him! To hell with them all and this stinking world! He would at least die a free man, he thought bringing the flame in touch with the metal and producing a shower of sparks. They flew out beside him and he see the burning embers mixing madly with the falling snow. The blood coursed through his veins and his senses opened to the roaring wind and groaning of the massive clouds flying by above. He felt powerful and wonderfully alive. To hell with the stinking Enforcers and the Conservation Laws! To hell with a society that stifled innovation and fed its citizens stories about the fang toothed Nevers. To hell with Professor Molero and the university that had expelled him because he dared to dream!
The sparks continued to fly and he guided the torch with deft accuracy and precision. He soldered the last wire into place and then welded a metal panel shut. More sparks flew and he did not notice the snow reach his angles and then form in small mounds around him. Nor did he notice some in the crowd begin to inch forward and peer timidly through the wind to see what was going on amidst the shower of sparks and blasts of glowing fire.
He looked up and noticed that the crowd had split into two groups. What was going on? They were shouting at each other and he could see anger and hate glowering from some of the faces. A few shouts of anger drifted over to him through the wind and he strained his ears to hear the words.
"We've got to arrest him!!!"
"...will help the world!!!"
"The Enforcers will...all." One of the groups surged forward towards where he worked and the other group fanned out to block their path. He recognized some of them. Susie the college student who he had tutored and Gim, a middle aged man who spent his time swearing and spitting. Dr. Molero was at the front of the group and a large wild eyed youth who he didn't recognize was shaking his fist and pointing towards him.
The other group stood impassive. Don Timmel was pointing and speaking animatedly and the Professor felt a wave of affection for the old man. Old man Timmel had always tried to support him and his dreams.
"You're a doer Professor, a dreamer and a builder unlike the rest out there. They only want to destroy. It's a shame, it wasn't always like that. No, when I was young the world was full of builders, men like yourself that worked to conquer the imagination and do the impossible. It's all gone, so sad," he had said shaking his head and shrugging his weak shoulders.
The two sides were only trading insults then an iceball flew and struck the man next to Timmel in the face. It was immediately answered and the two crowds moved closer together. The Professor stared in horror and Gim grabbed a metal pole of the street and smashed into another man's back. He crumpled and Gim moved forward, swinging the pole wildly. He watched the melee, rooted in his spot and unable to move. The snow swirled and screams and shouts momentarily reached him on another gust of wind. Just when he thought its was going to turn into a full blown bloodbath, the fighting suddenly stopped. The crowds dispersed to the side of the road and Professor felt his blood cool another few degrees as he heard a soft crunching. It sounded like a swarm of devouring locusts approaching across a field of crops. He could see the fright on the frozen faces and feel the sense of trepidation in the stillness of the town. No one moved, they waited and prayed like spectators informed about an impending disaster and forced by curiosity to remain at the scene. The Enforcers were coming.
He blocked out the sound long enough to solder the last connection and finish the machine. It was done but Billy and the light bulb were nowhere to be seen. He was doomed. Realizing this and mentally urging Billy to hurry, Wayne turned into the wind and prepared himself to greet them.
The crunching of the tires on the snow grew louder and white light suddenly shot out from over the hill and bathed the town, giving it an eerie phantasmal feeling. It highlighted the snow and Wayne thought it looked like a blizzard. The grumbling of the engines became audible and then a large black sedan appeared with the words U.S. Conservation Enforcement printed neatly in white on the side. Surrounding the car were several armored vehicles, their large treads churning the snow and spitting it across the street. The machines groaned one final time and then stopped about twenty yards from him. He strained to see through the blinding light but could only make out the outlines through the chaotic snowfall. The lights dimmed slightly and he saw the door to the sedan open. Yellow light from the sedan bathed a tall mustachioed man wearing a black overcoat and hat. He smoothed back his eyebrows, twisted his mustache, and stepped from the car. The conservation agent glanced icily at the crowd before walking towards him.
It was ready, he only needed the lightbulb! The man stopped in front of him, struck a match, lit his cigarette against the wind, and then discarded the cigarette onto the ground. With equal brevity he examined the machine and said tonelessly, like one who has said the words a million times before,
"Professor Dane, you are under arrest for breaking the Law of Conservation. You will come with us." He looked into the man's eyes and could see the hate. Although they had never met, they were born enemies. He wondered about the countless others this man had crushed and destroyed, their life and hope smashed by the steel tipped boots and the merciless face. There was no skill in his job, no redeeming value, just the ability to destroy and spread misery. My wife and child died because of people like you, you bastard, he thought. The anger fed his defiance and resolve and he held the gaze, returning the order.
"No." He could see the crowd shifting at the corner, straining to catch the conversation. The hate and anger were gone, replaced with a terrified curiosity. Hurry Billy, he screamed to himself, hoping Billy would somehow hear the voice.
"Your contraption violates the Conservation Law," the Enforcer repeated. "It is a technology which has not been approved by the Conservation Board. It has wasted valuable public resources and energy. Take it apart!" he hissed.
"How can you be so sure it will not work? Wait a few minutes and I will show you what it can do." The man wasn't listening; his dark eyes appeared only vaguely human.
"You're under arrest according to Statute 7.5 of the Law of Conservation." Two guards stepped forward and violently cuffed the Professor's hands behind his back. The crowd shifted and a figure broke forward. Wayne saw that it was Old Man Timmel and he tried to yell a warning to turn back. Large tears ran down Timmel's wrinkled face and he was screaming into the wind.
"Please don't take him, please I beg of you. He's the only hope I have. Professor don't let them take you."
"Hey shut up! You're going to get the whole town killed!" someone shouted. The crowd was waking up from its awed dormancy.
"Professor, I believe it will work!" someone else cried before being smashed over the head with a thick tree branch. The crowd had become angry now and the armed guards slipped their hands over their weapons. The Professor was not sure what to think, understanding that they could all die. So much death.
"Our life stinks, let him go!" someone yelled and threw an iceball at the sedan, shattering a window.
"Let him try the machine!" The crowd began to fight itself as the brawling mass surged towards the guards. The guards raised their weapons and trained them at the crowd. The professor could see what was going to happen and he screamed.
"Stop it! They'll kill all of you! Get back and go home!" It was already too late. The crowd had become a seething mob that convulsed and moved without thought or care. Blood streaked the snow and more cries and screams erupted. A line formed and moved towards the circle of guards. Wayne saw the determined faces, hardened by years of misery, pain, and suffering far worse than anything he had known. His supporters broke through the mob and moved forward.
They did not hear him and Wayne saw the soldiers move their fingers to the triggers of their guns as and crowd continued to advance. His heart nearly stopped when the soldiers began firing. They pumped round upon round into the crowd and the Professor was momentarily blinded by the smoke and nauseated by the acrid smell of gunpowder. Through the haze he could see most of the crowd scattering, their determination and anger reduced to pain and panic. A figure broke through the cordon of guards and fell onto the ground in front of the Professor's feet.
"Help me," Old Man Timmel whispered, the side of his head a bloody mass and his blue eyes moist and pleading. The Professor tried to move towards him but the guards were quicker. The old man's pleading was silenced by the butt of a rifle which easily crushed his skull. Wayne watched the blood ooze out of his friend's head and screamed into the night. The smell, the snow, the horror began to numb him and he could feel his senses dulling themselves to protect his brain from overload.
"Do you see this, this all your fault. Look at their pain and agony and know that it is just the beginning for you. Just the beginning," he laughed. He hardly heard him or felt himself being dragged across the foot high snow. He saw flashes: a young boy lying flat on the ground, his chest slowing to a stop, and the steam from his breathe extinguished; a woman crying down an alley; a man hunched over a woman, trying to stem the waves of blood which poured from her neck. Why this? He had only wanted to help humanity. The door slammed and the Professor felt the metal handcuffs tear into his flesh. He thought of his wife and heard her voice.
"Don't touch that dial, don't touch that lever,
Don't be greedy or wish for better,
Because you got to watch out for the fang toothed Never."
Billy walked into town and stopped by the corner. Where had everyone gone? He walked slowly forward and shuddered. The Professor's machine stood alone, barely standing out from the scraggly trees and the dark night. Ringing the machine were several still bodies. Billy knew they were dead, and he knew what had happened. The Nevers had come and punished the Professor for building the machine, and the town for watching. Surely they would be back to punish him. He should have run home to the security of his house, but instead Billy felt along the smooth metal for a switch he intuitively knew was there. He flipped it but nothing happened. There were no other switches and Billy thought that perhaps the Professor had failed. Maybe the Nevers were right, he thought, as a deep sense of despair settled into his stomach.
He began to walk slowly away but stopped after hearing a soft hum coming from the contraption. It stood out from the dark, silent night. On the pole was a small red light which was growing brighter and brighter as the hum broadened in pitch and increased in volume.
Billy's hands were shaking as he carefully withdrew the bulb from under his pocket. After hours of searching and misadventure he had found the fragile glass device, and protected it. He turned it over in his hands and searched the contraption for a slot to slide it into. Standing on his tip-toes, he slid open and small glass compartment where he found the slot. Billy turned the bulb until it was stuck and said a small prayer. Still nothing happened. He slowly withdrew his hand from the glass casing and when the compartment had closed, the bulb burst to light. He stared in awe and nearly fell back into the snow. He whirled around laughing, bathing in the light. When he stood still again, the whole world had been transformed. The snow didn't look as dirty, the street didn't look as cracked, and the air didn't feel as cold. He fought the glare to stare straight at the miracle, and realized that the Nevers weren't invincible, and they didn't always win.