Back-up Your Conscience by Eileen Heintz
A black limousine crawled up to the emptying research building. The chauffer unfolded himself from the front seat, adjusted his cap forward on his head, and took his place at the car’s back door to await his passengers.
A well-dressed young couple with a map of the New York tourist sights paused in front of the tall modern building to argue about directions. The man noticed the chauffeur. “What is this place?”
“Stewart Crowley Research and Development,” the chauffeur replied.
“Oh, honey!” The woman tugged at her boyfriend’s arm. “Isn’t that the company that designed those research subs to explore the bottom of the Mariana Trench?”
“Yeah! And wasn’t there something in the news recently about a new method for heart transplants?”
“And a top-secret project they’re going to reveal soon. Oh no, sweetie! We’re going to be late.”
The boyfriend turned back to the chauffeur, “Say, how do we get to Broadway from here?”
As the chauffer finished directing the tourists, three well-dressed scientists exited the research building, smiling and talking. The chauffeur quickly opened the limousine’s door for the dark-haired young woman in a conservative maroon dress and low heels. A shaggy-haired, blond man in a suit coat and jeans followed her, listening closely as she explained a complicated physics theory. The chauffer reached for the third scientist’s briefcase, but his hand only brushed the man’s tuxedo sleeve as the spotless leather case was swept out of reach. “It stays with me.”
The chauffer tipped his hat and closed the door.
Once inside, the tuxedoed man sat opposite the other two scientists and immediately opened his computer. While it booted up, he produced a comb and ran it through his still perfectly-jelled brown hair. As the limousine smoothly pulled away from the curb, the scientist grabbed his computer protectively to prevent it from sliding off his knees.
The blond man popped open a champagne bottle. “Johnny, our work is done. Let loose for once and celebrate!”
Jonathan raised one eyebrow and adjusted his glasses. “The presentation is not done, Peter, and there is very little time before we present at the conference tonight.”
“We’ll be fine, Johnny. Half the people only come for the free food and booze, and no one cares about computers and presentations half as much as you do.” Peter filled two flutes and handed one to the woman.
Caroline accepted the champagne, but her smile held regret. “Miles should be here. If it weren’t for him, our latest project never would have succeeded.”
Jonathan nodded solemnly. “Miles was a brilliant chemist and an excellent engineer. It is unfortunate his conspiracy theories got him fired.” His laptop hummed, and his fingers hovered over the keys, waiting for the password screen to load.
Peter shrugged and filled a third flute with champagne. “More riches and fame for us.” He handed it to Jonathan. “Have a swig, Johnny.”
Jonathan pushed away the offered drink without looking, nearly spilling it. As he did, a small black object flew from his wrist and landed under Caroline’s feet. She picked it up and rolled it between her fingers, wondering what it could be. It was the size and shape of a watch battery, but had no markings. Though it was small, it had a weighty feel, as if it were very dense. The limousine’s dim mood-lighting made it glimmer blue and purple, like a beetle’s shell.
“Peter!” Jonathan frantically clicked and typed. “What have you done? There is nothing on my computer’s hard drive.”
Peter held up his hands as if to hold back the accusation. “I might kid, but I would never jeopardize our presentation. Besides, I’m a biologist, not a computer nerd. I wouldn’t even know where to start sabotaging your files.”
“Four years of my work entirely gone!” Jonathan frantically restarted his laptop. He whipped off his glasses, produced a silk handkerchief from his pocket, and scrubbed at his lenses.
“Keep calm.” Caroline set aside her half-finished champagne and dug her cell phone out of her clutch. “I’ll have Kathy send the back-ups.”
The secretary answered on the first ring. “Stuart Crowley Research and Development. How can I help you?”
“Kathy, this is Caroline. I need the back-ups; Jonathan’s computer crashed.”
“That’s awful! I’m sorry, Caroline, but I don’t have any back-ups. Mr. Crowley personally oversees them, and I believe he already deposited today’s at the bank.”
“Thanks, Kathy. I’ll give the bank a call.”
The bank also answered immediately. While Caroline waited for the teller to return from checking the deposit box, she absently rolled the strange battery-thing around in her palm. Jonathan hunched over his computer, desperately trying to recover something. Peter had moved to sit beside Jonathan and now hovered dangerously close to him, offering cautious advice that Jonathan ignored.
The teller returned, sounding breathless. “Still there? I’m so sorry, but we have no record of any back-ups ever being stored here.”
“What? That’s impossible! This is the only bank Stuart Crowley Research and Development uses!” Caroline hung up without listening to the teller’s reply.
“They don’t have the back-ups, do they?” Peter asked.
Caroline shook her head. Jonathan blinked rapidly at the ceiling and began inhaling and exhaling deeply.
Caroline patted Jonathan’s knee. “Keep it together, Jonathan. I’m calling Crowley.”
Crowley answered on the third ring, shouting over the noise of the conference crowd. “Crowley here!”
“Crowley, we need the back-ups.”
“Right now? Relax, Caroline; tonight we’re making history! You can sort out whatever’s wrong when you get here. If it really can’t wait, call Kathy. She takes care of the back-ups. Oh! The President just arrived.” Crowley hung up.
The limousine stopped suddenly for a red light. Caroline snatched up her champagne before it spilled.
“Caroline,” Peter’s voice held uncharacteristic seriousness, “You need to see this.”
When Jonathan made no move to turn his laptop to face her, Caroline leaned around his screen to see what was wrong.
The laptop’s screen was black except for the glowing green words: Congratulations. Your latest research will destroy life as we know it. It’s too late for your company, but you have one last chance to save yourselves. Find the back-ups.
Jonathan’s nostrils flared and his lips pinched together in a thin line. “Hacked? This is impossible! I designed the firewall myself.”
Caroline swallowed and sat back. “Could someone have accessed it manually? Maybe while you were changing?”
“No. My computer does not leave my side.”
Peter snorted. “That’s impossible.”
“I assure you, it is not an exaggeration. My briefcase never leaves my sight.”
The light turned green, and the limousine accelerated. Jonathan pulled his planner up on his cell phone and opened his mouth to read it out loud, but Caroline spoke first. “Gentlemen! Right now we have three questions to answer: why did our presentation disappear, who is contacting us, and where are the back-ups?”
Peter tossed back his champagne. “Which do we tackle first?”
“The back-ups–which also have the presentation.” Jonathan scrolled through the entries in his planner.
Peter grinned and poked Jonathan’s arm. “I’m surprised you didn’t back-up the back-ups.”
Jonathan glared briefly at Peter before returning his focus to his cellphone. “I back-up my personal computer multiple times daily, but that is primarily for my software and my personal contributions to our research. Crowley assured me he would personally handle the back-ups of everything else. While he is not quite as careful and organized as I am, I trust the man providing our funding to properly value the security of our research, since it is logical that he would properly protect a valuable source of his income.”
Peter poked Jonathan’s arm again. “You should have backed them up anyway, Johnny; Miles would have. He was paranoid like that.”
Caroline frowned at Peter and steadied herself as the limousine reached another red light. “Miles was harmless. He just let his imagination run away with him.”
“I knew it!” Jonathan stabbed his cellphone’s screen with one finger. “My computer never left my side.”
The computer whirred, revealing a new message: Bigger things are at stake than your computer, Jonathan.
The scientists exchanged troubled looks. Caroline absently rubbed the battery-charm against her cheek.
“What’s that, Caroline?” Peter asked.
Caroline stopped playing with the strange charm and held in it flat on her palm so they could see. “It’s Jonathan’s.”
Jonathan raised his eyebrows. “That is not mine.”
“You dropped it when Peter offered you champagne.”
“I have never seen that in my life.”
As Peter reached over, the light turned green. The limousine jerked forward and the object flew from Caroline’s hand. However, instead of falling to the limousine floor, the object snapped onto Peter’s cufflink.
“A magnet?” Peter asked. “Let’s test it. Johnny, hand me your phone.” He grabbed the cellphone without waiting for Jonathan’s answer.
Jonathan snatched his cellphone away before the magnet could touch it, but it was too late. “Impossible! My cellphone is completely wiped.”
Peter whistled. “This is one super magnet.” He mimed booting up a laptop. “It must have stuck to your cufflink and wiped your computer when you started it.”
Jonathan’s nostrils flared again. “Gold cufflinks are not magnetic.” With two fingers, he pushed his glasses to the bridge of his nose.
“Miles!” Caroline gasped. “Miles wanted to develop a magnet that could attract any metal. He also believed it was possible to design tiny magnets so powerful they could instantly wipe a computer’s hard drive!”
“You think Miles sabotaged us?” Peter’s cheeks puffed up as he blew out a breath. “I wouldn’t have thought revenge was his style.”
“Nor could Miles get the back-ups without access to either the labs or the bank,” Jonathan said. He half-heartedly punched at his cellphone, attempting to get his information back.
Caroline braced herself as the limousine slowed for another red light. “Something else is troubling me. The bank had no record of back-ups being stored there, but Kathy told me Crowley personally brought the back-ups to the bank. When I called Crowley, though, he said it was Kathy’s job to handle the back-ups. So who is lying to us?”
“Why would either of them lie to us?” Peter rolled the magnet around his palm. “Man! I knew we needed a psychologist on this team.”
Jonathan’s computer hummed. A message appeared: How does this fit your theory?
A picture slowly loaded. It was time-stamped two hours ago and showed the bearded, smiling Crowley shaking hands with a short, thin man in an expensive gray suit. The two men stood in front of a thick tree trunk. In the blurry distance behind them was a lake surrounded by tourists and runners.
Jonathan pointed to the short man. “Andrew Sterling–multi-millionaire, captain of five different industries, and suspected terrorist.”
The three scientists swayed as the limousine slowly turned right and picked up speed.
“Isn’t he in prison?” Peter carefully refilled his champagne flute.
“He was accused of funding terrorists, but there was no proof.” Jonathan squinted at the image. “At first glance this is not photo-shopped, but to be absolutely sure I would need to run a few tests. Unfortunately, all of my programs have been deleted from my laptop.”
Caroline sighed, but didn’t respond to Jonathan’s indirect complaint.
Peter shrugged and attempted to sip his too-full glass without spilling. “So Crowley knows the guy. That doesn’t mean anything.” He managed to slurp enough champagne to bring the liquid to a safer level.
A new picture loaded, also time-stamped earlier that day. In the park, Crowley was handing Sterling a slim manila envelope, perfectly sized for compact disks. A rapid succession of similar images appeared on the screen, each showing the two men in secluded public places all over the city, time-stamped almost daily. In some pictures, Sterling was giving Crowley a thick white envelope.
“Crowley sold our back-ups?” Caroline’s voice trembled.
Peter set down his champagne and ran both hands through his shaggy hair. “In Sterling’s hands, our project could start World War III.”
The limousine was silent as the scientists considered the implications of what they had been shown.
Jonathan broke the silence, carefully choosing his words as he looked from Caroline to Peter. “Without Crowley’s support, we lose everything. Our current projects, our lab, our funding … our reputations. Who will hire scientists responsible for their last funder’s arrest?”
Peter and Caroline looked at one another and then back at Jonathan. Peter nodded slowly.
Caroline picked at her dress. “But can we live with ourselves if we do nothing? How much responsibility do we have for how our research is used?”
Jonathan removed his glasses and cleaned them. “We have to weigh our options, Caroline. We also do a lot of research that saves lives. Will the good we have done–and will continue to do–outweigh the effects of this one project in Sterling’s hands?”
Peter chewed his bottom lip as he rolled the magnet between his thumb and index finger. “Whatever we decide, it has to be unanimous.”
Caroline and Jonathan murmured their agreement.
The limousine rolled to a stop at the conference center. Cameras flashed, ready to record the scientists’ triumphant arrival. Crowley waited at the top of the steps, wearing a proud grin. He said something to the President, who laughed.
Inside the limousine, Jonathan closed his laptop and returned it to his briefcase while Peter tossed back the rest of his champagne. Caroline smoothed her dress and hair, staring out the window with dread.
The limousine’s partition buzzed down.
Behind the wheel, Miles adjusted his chauffer’s cap and cleared his throat. “Well, folks, what have you decided?”
Eileen Heintz Bethany alumna of the class of 2014. She is a mystery and phantasy writer interested in the difficult decisions ordinary people face in extraordinary circumstances. She lives in Minnesota when she’s not visiting one of the many worlds of her stories.