This story was inspired by a character I play-acted back in 1972-73, at age 7-8.
Let me just say, by way of introduction, that unpaid internships suck.
It's one thing to have just graduated — cum laude, no less — with a bachelor's in chemical engineering from a real, accredited university. It's quite another to be able to find work. Between the time I chose my major and the time I graduated, the job market for junior chemical engineers tanked. I'd scoured the job fairs and signed up for every job-hunting site I could find, with no luck. The few companies that were hiring wanted someone with experience, education level be damned.
So, in desperation, I took a paper flyer pinned to the chem department's bulletin board that read, "Lab assistant wanted. Chem eng preferred. Expect no perks beyond my presence."
Well, experience wass experience, or so I thought at the time. Maybe that last sentence should have tipped me off as to what I was getting myself into. Maybe I should have listened to the alarm bells going off in my head. But instead, I just shot off an eagerly-worded e-mail to the address on the flyer — the same e-mail I'd sent to every prospective employer — and waited for a reply.
Much to my amazement, I got a reply less than ten minutes later. It gave an address and a time and said, "Knock twice, wait 2 seconds, then knock twice again." And that was all.
I shrugged. I didn't exactly have a lot of job hunting experience back then. Maybe this was what employers normally did? The time was in less than three hours, so I went home, put on one of those fancy job-interview shirts that had buttons down the front, twiddled my thumbs until half an hour before the appointed time, and then headed to the address.
I got there ten minutes ahead of time. The address turned out to be in one of the shabbiest parts of town. The area gave off a vibe of petty theft and street gangs. Nothing was happening at the time, but I still got the impression that if I'd parked a car on the street, I'd return to find its hubcaps missing, if not its wheels. The building at the address itself was a concrete fortress of a mini-warehouse. It had only one visible door, at the top of two concrete steps, which was completely unmarked. This had to be a mistake. The only kind of "lab" which wouldn't look out-of-place in this neighborhood would be a meth lab, and that would be in the basement of somebody's old run-down house, not this concrete bunker. The building in front me might have been an automobile body shop in the best of times, or the hangout of a fence for thieves in the worst.
Okay, I figured I might as well get this over with. My would-be employer had obviously sent me the wrong address, or had missed a crucial detail in the address that would distinguish it from a near-identical one. I'd just eliminate that possibility right now. I knocked twice on the door, waited two seconds, and then knocked twice again.
The door flew open almost instantly. That startled me enough. The head that thrust out the open door nearly made me lose my footing on the steps. There was nothing particularly striking about his features, nor did the man's face give off any hint of anger or insanity. But his eyes stared at me keenly and intensely, from atop an almost-smirk. "You're early," he blurted, then grabbed my collar and yanked me inside before I could react.
"So," the man said, slamming the door shut behind me. "You're a chem eng grad?" His words came out rapid-fire, but without any hint of worry or urgency.
"Um, yeah," I said, still trying to regain my bearings. I glanced around at my new surroundings. I guessed the room was pretty big, but I couldn't see all the way to the far walls. There was too much equipment in the way, most of which was utterly unrecognizable.
"Good," he said. He turned to stand beside me and started leading me through the labyrinth of parts that littered the floor and tables. "One thing I've never had a nack for was producing the compounds I need in high volume. Batteries, backflow burners, rockets, glime ignitors — all of 'em eat up oodles of reagents. Right now, in fact, I need at least fifty pounds potassium nitrate, and I've only got five."
I frowned. "Saltpeter? That's usually made from ammonium nitrate and caustic potash. But it's so cheap, and available from so many sources — you could just buy fifty pounds of stump remover at a hardware store."
He smirked, but the smirk was gone an instant later, as though it had been an involuntary tic. "Why buy it when you can make it yourself?" He stopped in front of a table along one wall, laden with a cacophony of glass tubing. A mercifully familiar-looking hooded vent perched above the table and ran all the way to the ceiling. "Here's the chem station. Raw materials should be somewhere close by. Hop to it!"
He turned away, as though he were about to dive back in to one of the many piles of mysterious somethings around the . . . the lab? The warehouse? The secret government research facility? What was this place?
"Um, wait," I said. I fumbled for a poignant question, but all that came out was "Who are you?"
His brow knitted as though he felt genuinely hurt. "You don't know who I am?"
"Uh . . ." Now I really felt nervous.
He jabbed a hand into one of his many pants pockets and whipped out a business card. I read as I took it from him: "Inventions?"
"That's me," he said.
That threw me for another loop. When I'd seen "Inventions" on his card, I'd thought that was his line of work. Or maybe the name of his company. But his own name? "Mister Inventions?" I asked. "Or . . ." I shook my head. "Is Inventions your first name, or your last name?"
"Both," he said. "Or neither. It's a one word name, like Cher or Pelé. Now come on, chop chop!" He clapped his hands twice, pointing at the chemistry equipment. "That glime ignitor ain't gonna fuel itself!"
Okay, I thought. Calm your nerves. It's just like you practiced in chem lab. I took a deep breath and started in. Not half a minute later, from wherever in this building Mr. Inventions had sequestered himself, there arose a mighty din of clattering, dinging, and . . . whooshing? What the hell was he up to? Was this what every chemical engineer had to get used to? I made a mental note to get some earplugs at my earliest opportunity, then pushed the noise out of my mind as best I could and tried to concentrate.
After about half an hour, I settled into a sort of rhythm. I finally felt comfortable enough to sit back and take a longer look at this giant lab. Despite the jumbles of seemingly disorganized parts, there did seem to be a kind of pattern to it. There were corridors wide enough to walk through single-file between each heap. The lighting seemed to be the standard cold-white of a fluorescent-lit machine room, but the light fixtures overhead were . . . were those fluorescents? Arc lamps? LEDs? Halogens? They didn't look like any lights I'd ever seen. I swore one of them was shaped like a klein bottle. I scanned the far walls, and found a few pieces of safety equipment, probably the minimum required by law. There was one lone fire extinguisher, an emergency eyewash station that was disturbingly far away from my chemical table, and what looked at first like a glass-encased fire alarm, except it was too big. Stenciled on the glass of that glass-covered box, in letters big enough to read from half way across the room, were the words: "IN CASE OF SKELETON MONSTER, BREAK GLASS."
Skeleton monster? I snorted, shook my head, and returned my attention to the reactions on my benchtop.
Inventions frowned. "Actually, I did invent a time machine."
My eyes practically popped out from their sockets. "A real — a time machine? A real one? A real Back-to-the-Future, travel-into-the-past, go-back-and-kill-Hitler time machine?!"
"I invented it three times, as a matter of fact," Inventions said. "First two times, future me came back to the present and prevented me from inventing it. The third time . . ." He looked uncomfortable. "The third time, Adolf Hitler came forward to the present and prevented me from inventing it."