by Jake Christie

DEATH RAY.
a story.

Bill finished the first prototype while he was still in college. Any casual observer might have thought that he'd get his fill of engineering, physics, and quantum theory from his heavy courseload, but every night he was back in the lab long after his professors had gone, studying his own idiosyncratic curriculum. The first Death Ray was the size of a hair dryer and shot a beam strong enough to kill a flea.

It wasn't some obsession with killing that prompted Bill to create the Death Ray. As a child he never exhibited violent or sociopathic tendencies, and didn't torture neighborhood cats or shoot BBs at birds. No, Bill didn't create a Death Ray because he wished harm on anybody. He created it mainly because he wanted attention.

Bill hoped that the attention would be from scientific journals and academic institutions, recognizing him as the creator of the world's first Death Ray, a science fiction fantasy brought to life. They didn't respond to his inquiries in the way he hoped. If they even got to the science the suspected it was wrong, but most of them didn't get that far; they thought he was a comic book fan with an overactive imagination. He hadn't expected the words “Death Ray” to stick out like a flag that said “Crazy Person.”

As rejection letters came in and the phone messages went unreturned, Bill continued to refine his machine. Within a few years he'd gotten it down to the size of a handgun and made it powerful enough to vaporize a guinea pig. He experimented with colors for the beam itself until he settled on a classic high-fantasy fluorescent green. If he was cursed with too much imagination, he reasoned, his detractors suffered from a lack of it.

The Death Ray became more of a pet project as Bill received his doctorate, settled into a teaching position, and alienated more of the prospective scientific community. He stopped reaching out to the military, the private sector, and the Nobel committee. He didn't even mention it on first dates anymore. He tinkered on it as a hobby while his acquaintances spent their time perfecting golf swings or mastering the seven-ten split. While he was able to get it small enough to fit in his jacket pocket and powerful enough – in theory – to melt a grown man into protoplasmic goo, it spent most of its time on his basement workbench, communing with his old records and his exercise machine.

Bill got married and moved into the suburbs. He got the attention he craved from his wife, his children, and his students, and he somehow avoided the express flight to a secret island fortress full of henchmen that many of his prospective benefactors had predicted for him. While Bill continued to follow developments in weapons technology, waiting for something to come along that could provide a foothold for his strange-looking green beam-shooting, Death Ray, nothing came close. He would take it out and tinker with it every few months, but when the old trigger snapped off under a little too much filing he didn't even bother to replace it. He gave up the idea of someday, at some fortuitous moment, using his Death Ray to foil a bank robbery or child kidnapping. It took up residence in the bottom drawer of his desk, covered by papers and old Christmas cards.

When Bill died he was remembered as a respected professor, a devoted husband, and a loving father, but not as the creator of the world's first and only Death Ray.

The responsibility of organizing Bill's possessions fell on his grown son Robert, who didn't know a thing about his father's complicated field of study. Kneeling in front of his father's desk, he filed his papers and books haphazardly, mostly by the length or complexity of the title. He was puzzled when he got to the bottom of his father's desk and found what looked like a toy gun. It was heavy and metal and missing a trigger, but otherwise it looked as polished and well-designed as anything in the toy store at the mall.

Robert aimed down the barrel and fiddled with the trigger guard. The gun was too damaged to sell, even at a yard sale, but it might be the kind of thing his five-year-old son could have fun with. The young boy already spent his days in his own overactive imagination, living out scenarios of faraway worlds and swashbuckling adventures. The toy gun could be a prop in one of these far-flung epics, the trusty sidearm of an intergalactic pirate who crossed the galaxy with nothing but his wits, his spaceship, and his Death Ray. Robert couldn't think of anything his father would have wanted more.


This story originally appeared at Weirdyear.


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