A piece of flash fiction prompted by Chuck Wendig's terribleminds challenge
to write 1000 words inspired by an "impossible place" from this photo gallery
I chose "Mare Island Naval Shipyard – Vallejo, California", envisioning
an inventor's ruined lab and masterpiece, twenty-years after a terrible
As the boat passed through a long row of steel white and
green columns, Lattimore looked at everything except the video camera focused
on him. A perfect reflection mirrored the columns before them; Lattimore almost
felt they were flying, not floating. The tide was slack, and what remained of
the entry wall blocked the waves from the building.
He remembered choosing the green color. He’d sprung for pricier
paint to match the splashy Kelly green velvet of his favorite vest, which he
planned to wear for the unveiling. This morning he’d pulled the vest down from
the attic, rubbing the faded fabric between his fingers for a minute before
putting on a plain, modern sportscoat. He didn’t need any help in looking like
a man whose time had passed.
The paint was flaking now. Lit by the boat’s single
floodlight, the greens were like deep lake water – lifeless.
He dangled his hand in the water. Cold salt water slipped
along his skin like time over his body.
Mary tried to engage him. “You really haven’t been back
since the flood? Twenty-seven years?”
Lattimore wasn’t sure whether to bless or curse the young
journalist for this journey. Her phone call last week had exhumed dreams long buried.
Six months earlier, he wouldn’t have considered her proposal. Now that
Genevieve was gone… He turned to the camera and nodded once in confirmation.
“Yet you were so close to completion,” Mary prompted. “Months
away from revealing a project that would change the world, or so the papers
Lattimore reminded himself of his bank account. Three
hundred nineteen dollars and sixty-three cents. He needed the money that the
publicity would hopefully bring. The hospital bill was overdue. Bills, rather.
“I couldn’t bear to see my invention destroyed,” he said. “Carlisle
– my assistant – checked the lab for me, just in case… but the waters had
broken through the door.”
Mary’s voice was gentle. “Why didn’t you start over? It’s
been more than a quarter of a century, you could have recreated your plans.”
“My investors had
given me all they were willing. I’d spent all my own money. I had to support my
wife and daughters. I needed reliable employment,” he told the camera. Mary’s eyes
and lips drooped in sympathy.
Lattimore couldn’t stand sympathy. The same look flashed
across the face of every new coworker he’d been introduced to over the past
twenty-seven years. Some coworkers still wore it when they saw him. He ignored
the whispers of genius lost. He was satisfied that the work he performed was
technically excellent, if empty.
“My soul was drowned along with my plans,” he murmured.
He turned away and gestured for the captain to turn left. They
entered a narrow hallway that led to Lattimore’s lab. His throat turned dry and
his stomach roiled. His hands clenched the gunwhale of the boat.
Lattimore shone his light into the water. Rusted gears,
pipes, and rivets created a mosaic on the floor.
All five people in the boat were silent as they passed
through the smashed double door frame into Lattimore’s lab. The floodlight
followed his gaze towards the center of the room, where his destroyed
masterpiece rested, half-submerged.
“Allow me to introduce The Civilizer,” he said with a
Lattimore felt numb as he detailed the damage. Barnacles
coated the machine up to the high tide line. Corrosion scarred the casing. A
missing panel on the left side revealed the machine’s gears and pipes. The
solar panels and antenna had been ripped from the top.
“The Civilizer was intended to provide all the comforts of a
modern home with a single self-contained, self-powered device,” Lattimore said,
turning to the camera. He ticked off its features on his fingers. “It would cleanse
graywater and desalinate saltwater. It would generate electricity. It would heat
water. It would wash and dry laundry. It would sterilize nightsoil for use as
fertilizer. It would transmit and receive messages.”
Mary’s mouth was frozen agape as she groped for a reply.
“You don’t believe me. I can’t blame you.” Lattimore turned
back to The Civilizer, remembering the gleam of the fresh-polished brass panels.
“She would have brought the villages of Africa and Asia the blessings of modern
life. Helped equalize the world.”
“A beautiful dream,” Mary murmured. “Why did you give up on
Lattimore sighed. “I had my chance to help the world. I
The boat bumped up against the edge of The Civilizer.
Lattimore reached out and touched its shell through thick leather gloves. Emotion
surged through him like the first time brushing fingers with a new love.
He gestured at the central pipe, visible where the casing
was gone. “Dirty water flowed through this,” he said, tracing its flow, then
moved his hand down to a smaller pipe. “Clean water flowed back through this.”
He stood, rocking the boat a little, and stroked the top of
the machine. An elegant curve, like the arc of a waterfall’s origin. Even in
his dreams had he shunned her these long years. “Solar cells here gathered
enough energy to pump the water to the physical filter, where gravity pulled it
A hand touched his back and he turned, surprised. Mary stood
beside him. He harrumphed. “Of course, technology has changed so much since
then that The Civilizer is practically laughable.”
Mary’s lips hinted at a smile. “If you were making it today,
what would you change?”
Lattimore made a decision. He allowed his conscious mind to
recognize the past twenty-seven years of epiphanies in the shower and insights on
his daily walks. He took a breath to speak, but the ideas surged through the
breach in the dam in an unguided torrent. There was no patching this dike, he
Instead of answering, he just half-smiled. She must have known what
The Civilizer was. How? No matter. “Thank you.”
“No one has only one chance to change the world,” she whispered