A Day in the Life of a Scientist

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about a scientist.... view prompt

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Drama Historical Fiction

A Day in the Life of a Scientist

R. Aaron Falk

The brakes squeaked as Thomas eased his fifteen-year-old Datsun pickup into an empty stall at his apartment complex. The engine stuttered and shook for half a minute after he turned off the key. He grabbed his daypack and slammed the door shut without bothering to lock up. Maybe someone would steal the rust bucket and force him to buy a new car.

Then again, how would he get to work in the morning?

He walked back and locked the door.

His nose wrinkled as he entered his one-bedroom apartment. Maybe the garbage, or maybe just the growing pile of dirty clothes in his bedroom. He winced at the thought of dealing with either right now.

Half a case of Coke stared back at him from the fridge. Nothing else blocked the empty view. Thomas grabbed a can, popped the tab and swilled down half the contents. The sweetness, the tickle of the bubbles and the caffeine buzz overcame any guilt of consuming something of such marginal nutritional value.

The freezer compartment contained an assortment of frozen dinners and meat pies. He grabbed a chicken-pot-pie, peeled off the box and slid it into the toaster oven.

The sound of a TV set in the adjoining apartment filtered through the walls. The opening theme to ‘Northern Exposure’ played. Thomas turned on his own set and tuned into the same channel. Most sit-comms were mindless dribble for the masses, but this show actually required a bit of thinking to catch all the jokes and sub-plots. He sat at the small dining table, the only furniture in the apartment’s main room. He stared at the TV screen, but paid no attention to the action. His mind kept focusing back on work.

Damn it, get your head out of this morass.

The smell of burning crust roused him from his stupor. He pulled out the pie onto a small plate, singeing his left thumb. With the singed digit in his mouth, he scraped away the black bits of the crust around the rim and cracked the top open to let out the built-up steam. Memories of a scalded mouth reminded him to wait before digging in. Warm, thick gravy mellowed his mood.

His mind wandered again to his work problem. The solution tickled the edge of his consciousness. A vision of his father helping him with high-school chemistry homework drifted in. “There is always a solution to every problem. If the approach you are taking does not work, move on. Learn to look at the problem from a different angle, a fresh perspective. The solution is there, waiting for you to see it.”

A tune on the show crooned out lyrics about how ‘everyone’s got to live and everyone’s got to die.’ Thomas blinked at the prescience of the song.

He’d reduced the meat pie to the burned bits. Dark memories of burned flesh overwhelmed him. He jumped up and tossed the crumbs and pie tin into the trash. An odor of decaying food greeted his effort. The spoon and plate joined others in the sink.

Thomas turned on the water, got the temperature set to just below scalding. Soap and scraping, removed the detritus from the pile of dishes. The squeaky-clean results filled the drying rack.

The sack of garbage accompanied him to the garbage chute and rattled down the four stories into the dark oblivion of the basement.

He came back and went into his bedroom. A pile of dirty clothes stared back at him.

Enough, not tonight.

He dropped onto the unmade bed, not bothering to undress. His mind focused on tomorrow’s test plan, searching for a chink in its armor.

Things always go wrong, don’t they?


Thomas stared at the secondhand clicking clockwise around the smoke-yellowed dial on the analog wall clock. With all the high-tech equipment in this room, you’d think management would replace it with a modern digital unit.

Still, it didn’t matter exactly when he pushed the button, did it?

Two video screens covered the wall in front of his control station. One showed a picture of empty desert. The early morning sun cast contorted shadows of cholla across the rugged landscape. The second screen on the right showed a domed cave illuminated by the blue cast of a thousand fluorescent lamps. A maze of wires cloaked the car-sized object at the center of the cavern as though to keep it warm and protected from the outside world.

The control chief paced in front of the screens and grumbled into his microphone. “Have you got things closed up yet? We still have an interlock fault at Bravo 68.” The chief nodded. “Right.”

The chief spun and pointed at the safety officer’s station. A gray-haired technician in a white lab coat sat there staring at his board of indicator lights. He glanced up and raised a thumb.

“We’re good to go, chief,” said the old man.

The chief came over to Thomas’ counsel, inserted his safety key, and turned the control from Locked to Armed.

“Well, Thomas, this one is your design. Push the button and let’s see if it works.”

Despite himself, Thomas watched the wall clock second hand tick towards zero. The scientist at the counsel next to his mumbled the countdown. Thomas stabbed the button at the zero count.

Nothing happened. Thomas tensed. Then the camera delays caught up. The right-hand screen flashed pure white and then faded to gray noise. The left-hand screen showed nothing for a few seconds until the cholla tilted at odd angles as a half-mile wide dome lifted and then collapsed back down. Dust rose and obscured the picture.

“Radiation sensors indicate we’ve had a minor breach,” said the scientist at Thomas’ right.

“Which way is the wind blowing?” The chief pointed at the staff meteorologist. “Come on, get the map on screen quickly.”

A weather map filed the right-hand screen. Arrows and numbers indicated the prevailing wind speed and direction.

“OK, chief, looks fine,” said the meteorologist. “Nothing downwind but desert for roughly two-hundred miles.”

“Well, damn Thomas.” The chief came over and slapped him on the shoulder. “You said your alternative approach would increase the yield, but even you underestimated the amount. Good job.”

Good job? A bigger, better bomb. A bomb one thousand times stronger than the one that incinerated tens of thousands at Hiroshima. We need it to protect ourselves from the Russians, right? The world was safer for what he was doing, wasn’t it?

March 18, 2022 21:08

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1 comment

Michael Regan
19:20 Mar 24, 2022

Loved the story. Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.


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