The Urn

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Chapter 1

June 1987

Orville was sitting in the afternoon sun of Dr. Emily Fote’s clinical suite finishing up the last of his coffee and examining the pendant he had received from Guatemala as he waited on his therapist to arrive. His time here was wrapping up and though he had never been a big believer in the value of mental health care for himself, he had to admit that Dr. Fote had changed his mind about all that. After returning from an extended tour across Central America that had been sorely needed to recharge his batteries, Orville threw himself back into his work at the engineering firm where he had worked since graduating from Ohio State. He had begun at Reardon-Mantle Designs (RMD) as an intern back then, but his skills and keen intellect came to the attention of Frederick Mantle immediately and Orville was soon promoted step by step on a nonstop path until he found himself the Director of Alternative Product Development at RMD, guiding a team of about six to eight engineers.

The relatively new group at RMD was the brainchild of both Frederick Mantle and his partner, Janice Reardon. The firm had been incredibly successful since their inception in applications and adaptations of various segments of both electrical and mechanical engineering programs and when their balance sheet indicated it, both Janice and Frederick agreed it was time to branch out and begin to look beyond the traditional and mainstream. This is where Orville’s new group had its birth. With some significant funds with which to experiment, Janice and Frederick decided to turn Orville loose with some of their more promising new engineers on ideas that were well off the charts for what other more staid and straight-laced firms might consider.

The projects, they knew from the start had a very limited chance of being brought to fruition, but if they did, it would pay off in returns beyond any of their other current projects. And with what they had seen Orville accomplish and how his mind worked in ways that none of their other prominent engineers did, that he was indeed the man to go to for this gamble. Of the two, Janice was considerably more patient and comfortable with risk than her partner and she knew from the beginning that in addition to consulting with Orville regularly as to the progress of the various ventures, one of her main responsibilities would be to keep Frederick from panicking when dead ends were hit as the work went along. From her own days in R&D, she knew intimately that less than a 10 percent success rate was likely in such speculation.

She had always been the more creative and visionary of the pair as Frederick’s strengths lay more in the practical realm and keeping track of adherence to a financial base that would allow them to thrive and grow as an organization. Janice knew there would come a time when Frederick would not want to approve of the large expenditures that they were committing to this long-shot, and she would have to step in and “talk him in off the ledge”, so to speak, when there was no immediate return on the investment in Orville’s group. And sure enough, this happened on more than one occasion….Janice had initially been able to remind him of why they had created this group in the first place from a marketing and purely creative perspective….that it had never been tried before. But soon this argument wore thin on Frederick and she had to, to her regret and dismay, fall back on numbers and spreadsheets, showing him just how substantial this would all be when it did one day succeed.

And so, with Janice in his corner, Orville plowed ahead with his small but dedicated team as they stretched the boundaries of normal exploration and considered ideas that in most firms they competed with would have laughed off the table during preliminary planning discussions. It was exciting and challenging and completely exhausting all at the same time until one day Orville got results back from Loraine and Thomas, his most valued co-workers, showing they had finally hit on a path that would, he was sure, lead them to the success Janice kept promising to Frederick and their major investors to keep the work funded and alive. But the closer they got to true success and a real tangible application to develop into a marketable service, the more small glitches and bugs arose keeping the final finished product just out of reach.

Frustration began to grow within the Alternative Product Development team and Orville was beginning to feel, for the first time ever in his career at RMD, the stress and pressure he had so far been untouched by. It was not ultimatums or pressure from above, but rather a self-imposed demand that he put on himself knowing that their ultimate success was just out of reach. He was pushing himself to his very physical and intellectual limits as the days went by, but with each passing day he was finding himself no closer to an answer to the final snag that was holding up the entire project. Multiple meetings were held with the entire team as well as with other key engineers across RMD as Janice and Frederick pulled out all the stops to make this happen, knowing what was at stake.

Janice had, she feared at last, perhaps pushed too hard for this to succeed, and was nearly ready to join Frederick in the camp of just saying enough was enough financially, after a brutal shareholders meeting where the board of directors intimated that perhaps a new brain trust was needed to run RMD. She did have to agree that the outflow of cash to fund the group was way more than she had initially envisioned, but even with financial considerations aside, it was breaking her heart to even consider steping back and melding the new innovative group into the generic fold at RMD….cutting their losses and writing it off to a failed experiment and moving on with business as usual.

But in one of the last meetings before she knew the board was likely to intervene and take control of the overall vision and creative motives of the firm, Frederick of all people pulled them from the fire. Never the most creative nor visionary person she had ever known or worked with over the years, Frederick threw out a suggestion at the meeting that made everyone at the table go silent. Orville paged through his notes and calculations while Janice tapped away at the table with a pen, obviously in deep thought.

“Hit me with that again, Frederick,” Orville said as he looked up from his papers.

“The circuitry design on the Loren population control circuit. The one that will control the electrical detection of the bacterial response to heavy metals. Did you ever consider rerouting it through the sub-base interface to avoid the heat buildup?”

Orville said nothing as he thought it over before looking to Thomas and Loraine.

“Guys?” he asked. “That sound like something you looked into?”

“Not that I know of,” Loraine replied. “Tom?”

“Not me either, Orville.”

Orville wondered if what had been holding them back for so long and causing such a high level of personal frustration had just been lifted.

“We did look at the population control circuit routing, Frederick,” Orville finally replied as he went back to his notebook, “but not at the sub-base level. I thought it might cause too much of a static discharge risk for the limited size of the portals we wanted to incorporate.”

“Can the portal orifice be enlarged?”

Orville shook his head no.

“No, but your suggestion regarding the sub-base interface gives me an idea we have not yet tried. I know you guys have been fighting off the board on keeping us afloat in this, but is there any way to let us give a shot at this new approach before they shut us down?”

Frederick and Janice exchanged a look that did not give Orville and his team a strong feeling of confidence.

“You’re the expert here, Orville,” Frederick continued, “I know you cannot predict the future, but what would you say, in your professional opinion, that the chances are of this thing getting fixed with this approach?”

Orville shrugged, but smiled that quirky grin of his that Janice knew well.

“Hard to say before beta testing, but theoretically? I’d give it a 70-30 chance…”

Janice leaned forward, her elbows on the table, as she interlaced her fingers and rested her chin on her hands as she stared at Frederick. He sighed heavily and sat back.

“OK, Orville. Move ahead and I will go to the board and hold them off as long as I can. They are all about numbers and ROI for the investors and shareholders. I can speak their lingo better than anyone here. No promises, but I will do what I can.”

Orville nodded and smiled with Loraine and Thomas as he closed up his notebook and they headed back to the lab.

“But, Orville….” Frederick said before he got out the door. Orville turned in response.

“Make it as quick as you can, I know you will and I do not want you to rush anything so errors are made, but sooner would be better than later, OK? It’s going to be a bit like holding back starving animals from a trough of food with this cadre of suits, if you get my meaning.”

Orville nodded and disappeared down the hallway with his lead engineers.

“How long do you think you can rein in the ‘starving animals’?” Janice asked once the engineers had left the room.

Frederick shrugged.

“For now, what they don’t know won’t hurt them I guess. But I anticipate for us being summoned to the inner sanctum again soon, and that is when I will have to work my magic on them. Let’s hope Orville and company have some good news for us to pass along by then….”

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