Denton Harold Fulbright was pissed. Dr. Fulbright—Dent to his friends—had served with distinction as Chair of the University’s Electrophysiology Department for decades. He had rescued this moribund part of the Physics Institute, secured unprecedented levels of funding, shot its national ranking skyward, and recruited a vibrant, young faculty.
He had recruited too well. He didn’t imagine the hotshot he had wooed away from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to be his own replacement would take his office and station quite so quickly.
That did not mean he would ever be happy about it.
It had begun without warning. He had heard tales that these things tended to happen late on Friday afternoons when the aggrieved would then have no professional recourse until the following Monday morning. He would be left to stew in his own emotional juices all weekend, alone, in light of his wife being away visiting their grandkids.
“What are you doing?” the Physics Institute Chair barked into Dent’s cell phone at 4:20 P.M. this particular Friday.
“I just finished the last of the faculty evaluations and was headed home,” said Dent.
“Come to my office right away,” said Dr. Bartholomew Rubinsky, severing the call.
Replaced as Chair by his own recruit, accused of poor leadership, and a victim of not even thinly veiled age discrimination. He was demoted. He would lose his office and move into one barely bigger than a broom closet. The vagaries of the bureaucratic dismissal system would allow him to remain employed and paid for the remainder of the year.
Dent, gobsmacked, had been blindsided. He had followed his therapist’s advice, if not his lawyer’s. He had written the full story. The writing was cathartic. It might even serve as the basis for the lawsuit his attorney so wanted to initiate. Dent, however, had no stomach, nor the bank account, to sue the monolithic university. No, he was content with the writing—the grieving process was over—and he was at peace. His therapist would be proud. He hadn’t cried—he was not wired that way—but his emotions roiled in the telling of the tale: anger, surprise, shame, depression. The story’s details were gathered, recorded, and tied up with a neat little bow. It was time to move to the next phase. What was it the Klingons said?
Today was the 8 month anniversary of that lousy Friday. He had cleaned out his tiny office weeks earlier. All that was left on this crisp, autumn Thursday afternoon was to clean up his computer’s hard drive, leave his university-issued iPhone, keys, and ID badge on his desk, and lock the door behind him.
That extended to his hard drive. There was nothing much to wipe clean. Every file, link, bookmark, e-mail, and instant message was above-board and work-related. He shut down all but one of the apps. He had a final task to complete.
The program was called CTRL_ALT_DELETE. It was installed on his local drive and did not exist on the University’s computer network. He had perfected—he imagined it was perfect—CTRL_ALT_DELETE on his own. He had been in an administrative role for a very long time, but he had not forgotten his software and electrophysiology skills, honed so well over years of training and a storied early career.
CTRL_ALT_DELETE included code from various grad students’ projects; Molly’s sodium channel disruption studies, Ravindra’s electro-transmission subroutines that Dent embedded into Microsoft Outlook, and Raul’s meso-voltage amplification work. Dent stitched together the details. He could not test the dangerous software; if it worked, as he suspected it would, it would of course prove fatal. Why had he created it? He imagined the protagonist in his work-in-progress novel using it in all manner of espionage scenarios. A never-spoken part of his thought process wondered if he could interest the CIA in the software. But, if he was going to be honest with himself, he had written CTRL_ALT_DELETE just to see if he could. It was his Mt. Everest; “Because it’s there,” George Mallory had offered to a New York Times reporter in 1923 when asked why he yearned to climb the peak.
He copied CTRL_ALT_DELETE to a thumb drive, deleted it from his computer drive, logged off, and logged back on as his whippersnapper replacement. Everyone in the department was lax about passwords, and Dr. Loretta Abalone flaunted her disdain for password security by displaying a picture of her pet on her office wall; the feline was named Cupcake Cat. A few spins around her networked drive and Dent’s password decryptor returned: CupcakeCat7777. Dent chuckled inwardly: if the software could have rolled its eyes at the amateurishness of her password choice, it would have done so, complete with a healthy dose of bored disdain.
He ignored her inbox. He skimmed a few of her email folders and found the smoking gun: the “ToppleDent” folder. There’d be no profit in reading any of the stored emails. That, he was sure, would only cause his emotional wounds to rip open and begin bleeding again. No, best to execute the matter at hand.
He clicked on the COMPOSE EMAIL icon and put Rubinsky’s email address in the TO field. He typed the address carefully. He had no quarrel with Dr. Brianna Rubinstein in the English Lit Department or Dr. Branson Robins in Kinesiology.
Thank you for your trust in me these last few months. ToppleDent has been completed. Dr. Fulbright cleaned out his office yesterday, and I expect that he has honored his last professional responsibilities and left his ID badge, phone, and keys inside his locked office. The Security Team and I will retrieve these on Monday morning. Now that he is out the door, I can complete our plan to purge the department of those of a more—shall we call it—“mature” age. I’ll meet you Saturday night at 8:30 at Table 75, and then we can head across the street to the Tudor Hotel for our usual fun… can’t wait.
Dent fired up CTRL_ALT_DELETE from the thumb drive. He embedded it in the mail transfer protocol. The mail transfer agent would notice nothing amiss and deliver the message to Rubinsky’s inbox, bypassing the “suspected spam” folder where attachments went to be scrubbed. He proofread his handiwork once, added a few typos—he smiled at the eventual tiny embarrassment that would accrue at no extra charge—and added a time delay for the email to be sent shortly after Friday’s workday began. He shut down Loretta’s Outlook, ejected his thumb drive, logged off, and powered down his PC.
He placed his things on his desk and left his office for the final time.
Early the following week, Dent was luxuriating in his newfound, unhurried morning routine. He contemplated a second cup of coffee but decided first to visit the university website. He had been allowed to retire in good standing and was still able to log into the Physics Institute’s portion of the university intranet. The headlines in the newsletter filled him with a deep satisfaction.
Physics Chair, Dr. Bartholomew Rubinsky, found dead in his office; suffered sudden cardiac arrest
The story reported: An autopsy was performed. The pathology report concluded the cause of death to be cardiac dysrhythmia, a sudden and catastrophic disruption of the electrophysiology of the heart. Dr. Rubinsky was found slumped over his computer terminal by his secretary last Friday morning, the victim of an apparent unfortunate electrical short circuit delivered through his still-smoking keyboard.
The story continued…
Unrelated to the unfortunate demise of Dr. Rubinsky, the email he had been reading at the time of his death has led to an investigation of Dr. Loretta Abalone, who has been chair of the Electrophysiology Department within Dr. Rubinsky’s Physics Institute for less than a year. A University spokesperson would not comment further beyond saying, “The University takes allegations of age discrimination very seriously.”
Dent got up from his desk and moved toward the kitchen. He opted against more coffee and started to gather the makings for a pitcher of mimosas. He asked Alexa to open his “Party Music” playlist.
“Turn volume up,” he ordered.