My eyes were glued to the monitor as the gas temperatures climbed higher and higher. I knew we shouldn’t have run this test. It was too soon. We’d skipped key steps in development just to meet a stupid deadline, and now someone might die. Warnings flashed on the screen. The battery had reached critical levels and would explode when the battery’s temperature raised another twenty degrees. And if the test chamber failed, this room would turn into a giant fireball, like the Hindenburg killing everyone.
I yelled, “Shut it down!”
The technician frantically slapped the large red button. The system began the shutdown procedure, but temperatures inside the battery continued to rise. Crap! I’d waited too long to abort the test.
I screamed. “Everyone out!”
My staff filed out the lab, quickly and efficiently. The senior engineer on my team, a man ten years my senior, hesitated in the exit. “Brian?”
“Go! I’ll ignite the gases once everyone is clear.”
He frowned but followed my orders. The heavy fire-proof door slammed shut behind him. I didn’t look up. The temperatures were now ten degrees away from the gas’s flashpoint. My fingers danced across my keyboard as I entered the command to exhaust the system. In the secondary chamber upstairs, the gases could be burned off safely. But only if I was fast enough, otherwise, they would explode in the main chamber inside within the lab.
The valve opened, and the gases exhausted through piping into the ceiling. But the temperatures in the main chamber still rose higher. Six more degrees and they would self-ignite. There was nothing more I could do but watch and pray. Five. Four. Back to five. It stayed there for several seconds before slowly falling to a sustainable level.
I slumped in my chair. Exhaling, I said, “That was close.”
No one was there to hear me. Per protocol, my team remained outside until I finished the shutdown procedure. The process would take ten minutes, and it would give me time to find where we went wrong in our calculations. However, not a minute went by before the door opened, and my boss, Phil Sloan, strolled in. “How is it going, Brian?”
I shook my head. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”
He stood over my shoulder. “It’s my company. I’ll go where I please.”
“No. You don’t understand. It’s not safe.”
“No. I understand that you are a month behind, and I need to ensure all our duck’s in a row. I don’t need to remind you that this is the mission-critical stage of the project. I hope you’re grabbing the low-hanging fruit.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect Phil spoke using a business jargon generator, but sadly he didn’t. That was how he really talked. I used to think that it was an impressive skill, now I found it annoying as hell.
“Isn’t every part of the project mission-critical?” I asked.
“You know what I mean. Right now, I expect everyone to give one hundred and ten percent.”
I bit my lip so that I wouldn’t laugh in his face. “That’s mathematically impossible, Phil.”
“The hell it is.” He banged his fist on the desk. “We will not miss the contract deadline.”
“No. Giving one hundred and ten percent is impossible, the most anyone can give is one hundred percent.”
Phil threw his hands in the air. “Bullshit!”
If people thought Steve Jobs had been hard to work for, they had never met Phillip Sloan. Four years ago, his charisma sold me on this company over the many others that had courted me out of graduate school. And truthfully, in the beginning, he’d been a tough but fair boss. All that changed when his daughter from his first marriage went missing. Never having children, I won’t pretend to know how hard that could be on a person’s psyche. But when she turned up dead, one of the countless victims of the sex-trade epidemic in our country, he went off the deep end.
Since that horrible event, he’d thrown himself into his work and expected everyone around him to do the same. I initially felt sorry for him, but it’s hard to have sympathy for a tyrant, month after month. To save my team, I tried to take the brunt of Phil’s demands, but I was only one man. Most nights of the week, I managed to catch a few hours of sleep on the couch in my office after I forced my employees to go home. Other nights I fell asleep right here in the lab.
Grabbing the edges of my keyboard, I picked it up and slammed it down on the tabletop. “I can’t do it.”
“Can’t do what?” Phil asked.
“Continue to work here. I’m done.”
He rolled his eyes. “You’re not serious.”
“I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.”
I was done with the job and Phil’s monomaniacally gibberish. The money in my savings account should last a year. I could find another job at the drop of a hat, but meaningless achievements at work wouldn’t make me happy. What I needed was love, and I’d let that slip through my fingertips. Jessica was a girl you meet once in a lifetime, and now she was with another man.
Phil said, “Think of the company!”
“What do you think I’ve done for the last five years?”
“Come on, Brian, be reasonable. We’re dead without your out of the box thinking.”
Phil was so transparent, switching tactics from monarch to good cop. I said, “I’m sorry. My answer is still no.”
“Fine. Then I want three weeks’ notice so that I can find a proper replacement.”
“No. I’m leaving today.” I knew better. Phil would never get around to hiring my replacement.
“What!” He screamed.
I shook my head. “If I stay to hand the project off, you’ll move the goalposts. I’m not falling for your scope creep.”
Phil’s face went beet red. He obviously didn’t like his own jargon against him. “You, little shit! You’ll bankrupt this company.”
“Don’t be so overdramatic, it’s not rocket science. My team doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. They just have to be a fast-follower and punch a puppy.”
Of course, it was more complicated than that. The project would fail without cobalt in the battery substrate. Without getting too technical, our company was a battery startup in Silicon Valley. I’m the CTO, the Chief Technical Officer, a pretty high position for someone my age. It’s not bragging when I say that I’m the smartest person in the company, but I do have a B.S. in both physics and computer science from Stanford and a master’s and Ph.D. from Cal Tech.
I had dreams of being the next Elon Musk after I graduated. Our planet is in bad shape, but most people don’t take it seriously. Sure, they bring cloth bags to the grocery store and stopped using plastic straws, but that’s not enough. Yet solar panels and giant wind turbines won’t solve the problem, neither is a constant power source. They have natural ups and downs, while our nation’s energy consumption is consistently high. Which is why the power grid needs batteries. Lots and lots of big batteries, to store power for cloudy days.
Conventional batteries are made of lithium and cobalt. However, cobalt is expensive and mined in the war-torn Congo, so our company to appear politically correct tried to implement a substrate utilizing nickel and aluminum. However, after a year of research and development, the battery still had issues that couldn’t be overcome. We would need cobalt to meet the government’s requirements, or we’d have more disasters like today. Still, Phil wouldn’t take that for an answer.
“What did you say?” Phil growled.
I said, “Sometimes, you have to punch a puppy.”
“Are you insane? Who would hit a dog?”
“It’s a saying.”
A bell rang on the far wall. I checked the monitor in front of me. A flashing prompt needed my approval to close the valve, or we’d get blowback to this room when the gases were ignited.
Phil said, “I’ve never heard of it.”
“I’m surprised. Wasn’t it in your management books? It means sometimes you have to do something unpopular to succeed. Like, punch a puppy.”
The bell rang again. I tried to type the command to finish the process, but the system didn’t respond. I must have broken the keyboard when I slammed it on the desk.
“And you think that by quitting, you’ll succeed?”
“Yes. Maybe you should think about it too.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Sighing, I said, “You never took time off after your daughter. You just threw yourself into your work and never dealt with her loss. It’s not healthy.”
I rolled my chair to the neighboring desk to disconnect its keyboard and connect it to the primary system. I had thirty seconds before the secondary chamber ignited the exhausted gases.
“How dare you!” Phil grabbed my arm and yanked my chair away from the other desk.
I took a deep breath. “As your friend, I think you should talk to a professional grief counselor before you have a breakdown. And let go of my arm, it’s urgent that I finish this procedure.”
Growling, he said, “We’re not friends, and don’t presume to tell me how to manage my life. Or this company.”
I tried to shake my arm loose. “I guess we’re not friends. So, don’t presume to tell me how to live mine either.”
Phil literally kept my arm in a death grip. “Go ahead. Leave. I’ll make sure you never work in this town again.”
“I’m sure you’ll try.”
The bell clattered on the wall.
“I’ll have you black-balled.”
It was too late. I’d never close the valve in time. I should be scared— I could be blown to pieces, but I was too pissed at Phil to think about it, and I was outside of moment with the absurdity of it all, so I laughed and said, “Go ahead. I don’t care.”
“Oh! You’ll care,” he shouted.
I managed to pull free and duck behind the desk, but not a second too soon.
The remnants of gas exploded in the test stand. The large metal box with a wire-reinforced glass window lifted off its base then crashed to the floor. It contained the worst of the blast. Still, the force of the explosion knocked Phil on his ass. A new set of alarms rang, and the overhead sprinklers poured coolant down on top of us.
When I was sure that it was safe, I stood up to survey the scene. It was as bad as I thought. The one of a kind, prototype battery was destroyed. It would take weeks to fabricate a new one.
Phil brushed the water from his eyes. “What the hell happened?”
“The battery failed under the extreme temperature test. I warned you that this could happen, but you were too stupid to listen.”
He clenched his jaw. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I know what I’m going to do.”
“And what is that?”
“I’m going home.”
I left the lab with a huge smile on my face. Phil screamed profanity-laced threats in my wake. I couldn’t remember the last time that I felt this happy. Maybe, when I was with Jessica. If only there was a way that I could be back in her arms.