by W.S. Bethel
“You’ve asked me that a thousand times.”
“You’re not wrong?”
Hughes looked at him as a father looks as a child if that child had soiled itself. “No, I’m not.”
They looked in opposite directions. Hughes stared at his computer screen. The numbers were still there as they were yesterday and the day before and the day before and so on. He tried to remember when he first thought it, that first time it became a real possibility. It was on a Tuesday, odd that it was a Tuesday, as there’s nothing that special about Tuesdays, sort of a blah day, when you really think about it, and that’s what I’m doing, Hughes thought, I’m thinking and thinking and thinking. He began typing, better check again, just to make sure, one has to be sure about something like this, absolutely sure, without a doubt, but I am, I’m not wrong. Today is Thursday, he thought as he typed and then he thought that he always liked Thursdays for some reason but couldn’t recall why.
Govenetti looked at his computer screen. The numbers were cycling through again, but it always was the same answer in the end, but that can’t be, he told himself, it just can’t be. I must have made a mistake, did before, covered before, but that was different, this is… this is… what is this? No, it can’t be right, I can’t be right. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. This, this is supposed to happen to other people, smarter people. I cheated on a chemistry test in college for Christ’s sake. I can’t do this. This can’t happen to me. He looked back at Hughes.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I thought you were sure.”
Hughes turned and looked at him and almost smiled. “I am.”
“This is bullshit, man. How could we figure this out and no one else has?”
“Well, I’m a genius. I don’t know about you.”
“How can you joke at a time like this?”
“I wasn’t joking.”
Govenetti’s eye narrowed and he thought Hughes was an asshole. He had always thought Hughes was an asshole as some people are just assholes. They say things that are inappropriate, but what makes them different from the socially awkward is that they don’t care, which makes them assholes, at least it does in Govenetti’s book.
“You’re an asshole,” Govenetti finally decided to say.
“Now, now don’t let your Italian temper get the best of you.”
“I was just stating a fact.”
“I was stating a fact too. You’re an asshole.”
Hughes thought for a minute, as he thought about most things, thought and thought and he thought about himself being an asshole. The facts were there, he had been called one several times before, his fiancée and then his ex-wife called him an asshole well over a thousand times by his count, but then again she was only one person. In the end he couldn’t deny the truth, it’s not really that awful he decided, he was an asshole.
“I suppose you’re right,” Hughes admitted.
Govenetti looked surprised, but then he smiled, and then didn’t know why he did, one shouldn’t smile at a time like this. “What should we do?”
“Do?” Hughes was looking at his computer again but his mind was lost in a memory of his wife, one of the last times they fought, or more precisely a time when she yelled and he yawned. She yelled at him often because he yawned at everything or metaphorically yawned, that is to say he said nothing and simply nodded in response, his mind was probably on more important things.
What do think about children she asked after a year of marriage. He had avoided the question while they were dating, he had nodded when she gave her opinion on children during the quiet times after sex, how many was enough, how many was too many, genders, ages, schooling. She was a going for her doctorate and she had very firm views on children. But then a year into the marriage she confronted him again, this time over dinner, some sort of beef he recalled, with potatoes, baked he thought, and a salad, maybe and some wine. Well, she said, what about children. What about them he responded. Do you want to have children, she asked. With you, he responded with a smile. I’m serious she said and she became very serious. Sure, he said, why not. That’s not an answer, this is a serious question. I can tell, he said to her, the lines on your forehead are getting more pronounced and then he took a drink of wine. She was not amused and she said as much and then she repeated that having children was a serious topic and not to be taken lightly. He remembered putting down his knife and fork and looking right at her. He knew that she didn’t know him, didn’t really understand him and that was fine, it would take too long to explain and in the end it would just upset her. But then he thought there’s no point in trying to deflect the conversation as he had done with every other serious conversation up to that point. He took a breath and told her the notion of having children with her or anyone was terribly frightening for him. With what he did for a living, the things he knew to be true, the idea of children seemed a awful burden and in a more selfish manner an attempt to stave off the inevitable, which he was sure was going to happen sooner than later. Wasn’t it enough that they had each other, that they brought a brief glimpse of happiness to each other? Did they need more? Was having a child going to make things any better? He had reached his answer, which was no. He thought she knew this, being almost as smart as him, but she didn’t, and the look on her face was a great disappointment to him. He clearly recalled thinking about a lawyer and mentally dividing up the assets. And as it came to pass the divorce was over four months after that dinner.
“Hughes. Hughes. Asshole!”
“What the hell, man? What were you think about? You just zoned out there.”
“The weight of the day. It takes awhile to process all that’s happened.”
Hughes scowled at Govenetti, but Govenetti just turned away, back to his computer.
“Can I ask you something?” Hughes said.
Govenetti didn’t turn around, usually Hughes’s questions were either over his head or condescending. “What?”
“Have you thought about you children since this all happened.”
Govenetti looked at the numbers cycling on his screen. Since he had realized what they meant all he thought about were the numbers. He went home kissed his wife, kissed his son and kissed his daughter, but he didn’t think about them, they were just there.
Hughes nodded and then turned back to his computer.
Govenetti looked at the pictures on his desk, his wife and the children and he thought he loved them very much and that he was lucky to have them and then he thought about luck and his luck and how he had always been very lucky. He won that scholarship, though his mother wrote the essay, lucked his way through college, graduated with an outstanding reputation and little else. His brain just didn’t work like other people’s, not that he was slow, in fact he considered himself very quick, able to read people and know what they wanted to hear. He convinced his wife to marry him, he was very romantic because that was what she wanted and then the children and he loved them, at least he was pretty sure he did. Yes, he thought to himself, I do love them.
“Hughes, what should we do?”
“Yeah, do. Should we tell someone?”
“The Director. We should alert the proper authorities. This is too big for just me and you. We should…” Govenetti looked down at his shoes. “I should tell my wife.”
Hughes watched him in a detached scientific manner, as if he were a series of numbers, something to that needed to have a solution drawn from it. It occurred to him that he felt great pity for his partner. They had met ten years ago, when they were young and science, in particular this branch was a wonder and safe and important and beautiful. How it’s changed, thought Hughes as all things must, as the universe is always in flux, moving outward, but then there’s Govenetti and now he knows that change, monumental change happens quickly or can happen quickly and the poor man cannot deal with the knowledge that he’s learned. And then Hughes thought that it was them that had discovered it, not just him, as he had almost convinced himself. Govenetti, despite his lack of extensive knowledge had a certain knack, a certain dumb usefulness, like one of those mentally handicapped people who can see certain patterns in chaos constructs, a savant like retard, Hughes thought and almost smiled. Yes, he was certain it was the combination of his genius and Govenetti’s childlike bumbling that had led them to their conclusion. A one in a million chance, the universe aligning just so, the numbers falling into place, the reasoning of both minds together, one in a million, actually one in a trillion, thought Hughes and he did smile. But then he looked at Govenetti as his lab partner looked up, tears in his eyes and Hughes’s pity turned into something different.
“What are you going to tell your wife?”
“Huh?” Govenetti sucked in some mucus.
“What would you tell your wife? What would you tell anyone?”
Govenetti’s face turned quizzical and Hughes though he actually looked like a retard attempting some understanding of a basic truth, this is your hand, it is different from your foot, no don’t eat that, that’s poison.
“We have to tell them what he found. We have to tell someone, don’t we?”
Hughes sat back and brought his hands up to his mouth, like he was praying, but he wasn’t, because there is no God, that one he figured out when he was thirteen, simple really, if God did exist and was perfect why did he create the world? For perfection, by definition, is to be without want, and if God is not perfect then he or she or it is capable of mistakes and thus the world might be a mistake.
“Let’s think about this for a moment,” Hughes began. “It is my opinion that what we have discovered is singular, that is to say no other team of scientists, no other person could do what we did. That’s not to sound arrogant, it’s a simple fact. A comment here and word there and we came to our answer, singular, original and I believe, could never be duplicated. With that in mind, say we did tell some one, The Director for example, naturally we would have to prove our findings, go through our research piece by piece, because he wouldn’t believe us without proof, he wouldn’t want to believe us, no one would and who could blame them? During that time we would by pariahs. It would get out, what we were working on and as I said we would be outcasts. And if they didn’t believe us we would be fired if we weren’t fired immediately after talking to The Director.”
Govenetti listened seemingly intent, but his mind was worlds away. He visited his childhood, saw his parents who loved him and gave him anything he wanted, high school and football, the catch he made to win that one game, college and the wedding and the kids, and he was sure he loved them. He didn’t think of himself as a bad man, he had done things that were bad, the tests, the manipulations, he was pretty sure she said no, but they were drunk, he pushed her once after she screamed at him, he only kissed her, passionately to be sure, but again he had been drinking at the Christmas party. He had dark thoughts about people, about Hughes, about The Director, about The Director’s secretary, but who didn’t? Can’t stop your imagination. But most people liked him and he liked his life, he was settled and now this and everything is fucked. He hadn’t used the word in some time, he missed it, his wife didn’t like it, but he did, and he was convinced he was fucked.
“We could go public, I suppose,” Hughes said, still in the position of prayer. “We could publish our findings on the internet. A select few would understand, would comprehend what it is, but the majority of the world will only see the final conclusion and then where will we be? Although not our fault, the blame would fall to us, would be linked with our names, our faces. We would be them, the ones who told, the ones that caused it all to happen. Hitler, Stalin, Manson and us, but we’d be worse, we’d be the ones who brought it all to an end. And what of the world after we told? It would take time, again many wouldn’t believe, but then as the signs would begin to unfold, as our research clearly states, think of society then, all of it unraveling, the very fabric of the world: law, culture all of it disintegrating under the weight of what he did, what we said, because we were right, the sheer terror that we would unleash in those last days as it became clear that there were only days left, it’s hard to even fathom, but we would be the cause, it would be our fault, although not technically.”
Hughes noticed Govenetti was leaning forward in chair, running his hand through his hair, a nervous habit Hughes concluded, maybe a left over from childhood. Hughes never hated his lab partner, although he had always been aloof, in fact Hughes knew very well he need Govenetti, because people liked Govenetti. It was always he who went to budget meetings, it was he who made the presentations, his was the face of the team. Hughes wondered then, not knowing and being surprised by not knowing, how Govenetti would react. Hughes brought his hands down and folded then over his stomach and leaned back in his chair.
Govenetti heard Hughes, heard the words as a sort of a soundtrack to his own thoughts. He saw the world crumbling, the screams, the terror. He saw himself and Hughes trying to explain what they had discovered, the frustration on Hughes’s face as no one believed him, he saw his own face, devoid of the normal smile and trying so hard to be serious this one time, because it was serious, finally and forever serious. Maybe it was better to say nothing and just let it happen and let it all come to an end. There was something profoundly liberating and powerful in being one of the only two who knew it was coming. If Hughes said no one else would figure it out then no one would. He had read Hughes’s file, flittered with one of file clerks, the ugly one, easy pickings and read his entire file. He was a genius, smartest person in the building, maybe in the country, maybe in the world. Someone, if you were their lab partner, you would be set for life, he’d do all the work and all you would have to do is sit back and take half the credit. But now there was this, and who could have seen this coming? Fucked, absolutely fucked by a fucking asshole.
“Tell no one?”
“It’s what’s best.”
He’s probably right, Govenetti thought as he watched Hughes get up and walk out the lab, probably to take a piss, basic functions don’t stop for anything.
He remained in the lab with the computers and the print outs and all the other evidence, the terrible truth locked in papers and computer monitors and he thought about his wife and his kids and his neighbors and his friends from high school, the people in the complex, the faces on television, his favorite singer, his favorite movie star, a commercial with a fat man selling cars, the author of his favorite book, the roofer that put on his new roof last month, the waiter from his favorite restaurant and then he thought this is ridiculous, people have to know. We have to tell everyone we can. Who am I to deny people this knowledge? Everyone deserves to prepare in their own way. Who am I to keep this secret? This is bigger than me, bigger than Hughes. So what if the world loses its mind. If that happens then it happens and that’s how it ends, but people deserve to face the end in their own way. Who am I to say no? Who am I to say you can’t know because I think you’ll act irrationally? People should panic, people should scream and yell and run around wildly. Who am I to decide this is too important not to know? When he gets back I’ll tell him, we’re telling The Director and if you won’t I will. That’s all there is to it. Govenetti felt relieved, he felt good for the first time in days, he felt as if he was ready for anything. He faced the greatest knowledge in the history of mankind and was ready to share it with the world. He smiled to himself as thoughts of arguing with Hughes circled in his mind, he was sure he would yell fuck at him and storm out of the lab, taking all the print outs with him. He sat back and waited and for some reason he thought of his wife again.
Hughes found the hammer in the maintenance room. It was never locked as someone always needed a tool of some sort, screw driver, pliers, always something was needed. He slipped back into the lab quietly. It was when Govenetti’s head was down that he knew what must be done. The Italian would never keep quiet. He loved gossip, loved sordid stories about co-workers, and this, well this was too much, despite my argument in favor of silence, he would tell, Hughes was sure of it. I can’t let that happen, Hughes concluded, people in the vast majority will not be able to take this news with the cold reason necessary the information demands. Everything ends, all people know that, but so few are ready to accept it. Marriages end, dinners end, movies end, people die, even the world ends. There’s no point in making a big deal out of it, it just happens. As he raised the hammer, the back of the head is the most vulnerable, one swift blow and there should be no real pain, Hughes thought he would hang himself, after erasing all the data, maybe even burn the lab to ground, he never liked it that much anyway.