Say You’re Guilty by Kit Shepard

Chapter 1

Zella

to me, Zella,” Vaughn moans. “I deserve better than this.”

Vaughn’s massive body leans against the black lab benchtop. His head rolls back. Normally over-gelled hairs fall out of place. He stares up at the drop ceiling and groans. The jaws of the instrument snap around the fabric sample. My shoulders tighten as I dial in the tension on the instrument. I’m jealous of how un-tense the machine is. My whole body wishes I didn’t have to be on hour ten of my day, with the CEO of Northern Enigma Aerospace wallowing about the quality test lab. I press the start button and jump back. I hold my hands up as the jaws of the instrument destroy the sample by peeling the layers apart.

For the first time in an hour, the lab is free of Vaughn’s peanut gallery comments. I still hold my hands up. I glance over at the beast I’m forced to call my boss. His deep brown eyes are still fixed on the ceiling.

“We still have time to fix this,” I force out around the lump in my throat. I choose my words carefully. I want to calm Vaughn down and show confidence without giving a definite answer. The last thing I need is my boss thinking something is definite and assuming we solved the problem. Even if I am ninety-nine percent confident in a solution, I will not tell Vaughn that. The sample hangs in two jagged pieces. The exposed inner glue layer glitters in the shitty LED lights.

“Not if this piece of shit doesn’t spit out a result this century,” Vaughn says and looks across the lab at me.

“If we were allowed to use a different test, we would,” I sigh. “We are at the mercy of the regulators.”

“Fuck the regulations.” Vaughn’s eyes narrow. “If this liner fails, the electronics won’t stay at the operating temperature. We can’t have another failed rocket landing. The money I could lose is bigger than the fine we could get. Do you think a regulation has ever stopped us before?”

I rub my upper arms and keep my eyes focused on the readout. I shake my head. Vaughn likes to play his stress off as boredom by letting his attention wander. He likes to be in the trenches with his engineers. It looks great to the public. Not great for us. Whenever he shows up to “help” everything falls apart. Vaughn is not a big listener, but he is a doer. Vaughn zones in and out of meetings, picks up random keywords, and jumps to conclusions. Having him doing actual engineering is a nightmare and a half. I always tell myself he means well. He just wants his company to be successful. But the more times I tell myself that mantra, the less I believe it. The instrument beeps and displays a reading. I curse under my breath.

“What?” Vaughn is now next to me with his hands on his hips. I look down at his feet. He’s not wearing safety shoes. He’s got a shiny pair of navy dress shoes on instead of his normal matte black boots. PPE is required in all non-carpeted areas. He’s generally good at following safety rules. Something is up. “Is that failure? I’ve already forgotten all the other numbers.”

I wrote the other test results on the whiteboard above the instrument earlier. He knows what it means. Vaughn wants me to tell him. He wants to hear someone say it out loud so he can flip out. Someday he might need to tell his investors he had no clue the adhesion between layers was failing. He wants an excuse to lie to them. He needs a defense to explain why millions of investors' dollars are blown up monthly.

“It’s not passing.” I grab the dry-erase marker and update the board.

“Motherfucker!” Vaughn yells and stomps down the center of the lab. He continues to screech curses and kicks a trash can. I ignore his outbursts. It’s just another day here.

“Don’t scuff your shoes,” I shout over my shoulder.

Vaughn pops around the corner. He smooths his suit coat down. “I wouldn’t dare.”

“We’re close enough to passing. It might not cause a rocket to fail. I think if we raise the bonding temperature during manufacturing and increase the-” I start.

“I’ve got a date tonight,” Vaughn smiles, showing off his perfect veneers. For a man in his late forties, he looks ten years younger. His cheeks move less than they did the last time I witnessed him smile. He’s changing the subject and leaving his demands unspoken. Vaughn is not big on coaching us engineers on what to do. He just wants it done and expects us to figure it out without instruction from him. “I’m hoping she’ll want to come along with us to the spacecraft showcase.”

Oh boy, here we go again. After a few drinks at a holiday party, he claimed he physically cannot sleep alone. He claims he just isn’t capable. He notoriously drunkenly admits this to anyone who will listen to him. You can always tell how his relationship is going by how dark his under-eye circles look. They never really disappear from his face, but when they fade to a light purple, you can tell he’s had someone in bed the last few nights. As soon as his new paramour scampers away or stops spending the night consistently, the dark circles deepen back to their normal state.

“I hope your date goes better than this test,” I say and pry the instrument’s jaws apart. The destroyed sample flies across the room and lands in a backlog of QC samples.

“It will,” he huffs. “My dates are never like this shit show.”

That is a boldfaced lie. Vaughn has made the news multiple times for explosive arguments with women in public. He lives in his own little perfect world.

“What are you up to tonight, Zella?” he asks.

I freeze. He rarely asks me about anything outside of work. Twice a year he seems to take pity on me and ask a personal interest question. “I’ll probably go to Kaleidoscope for a drink on the balcony.”

“Oh, I always forget about that place,” he says. I know he’s not telling the truth. They banned Vaughn from Kaleidoscope for arguing with his date in a bathroom stall. He’s lucky no one leaked it to the paparazzi. He’s twice as lucky I didn’t leak it to the media and make a pretty penny. The more money I make from selling stories about messy billionaires, the sooner I get out of this engineering hellscape. I want to be anywhere else but here. Sometimes I think I would rather be locked up.

“I just want a glass of expensive wine to close the week out,” I say, and open my laptop to prep the next trial. I will be back in the lab tomorrow. Trying this all over again. There is no such thing as weekends or time-off during a project like this. You work until it is done and then you might get half of your personal time back.

“Don’t relax too much.” He pulls his phone out of his front pants pocket and starts typing away.

“I don’t think you know me too well,” I snort. I tuck a loose strand of ginger hair behind my ear. I’m too burned out to even relax. It’s all work or nothing right now. I can’t even muster up the energy to find some new gossip to sell. Tonight is the night I need to find something. I need to stick my nose in someone’s business and collect dirt. My salary is good enough to live off. But not if I want to get out of all the poor choices I made with credit cards and student loans.

“I just don’t want us to lose focus here,” he says, still tapping away. His face emotionless. “The showcase is soon, and I don’t want to let my fans down.”

His fans. Not Northern Enigma's fans. He is in the business of selling and marketing himself. Prostitutes could learn a lot from Vaughn Lyon. He needs to sell his ideas to keep this place afloat. He somehow always pulls through, no matter how shitty the rocket. Vaughn stresses every time he needs to ask for investor money as if the investors are not sucked into his cult of personality.

“I understand.” My fingers run over my hairline to smooth out the frizz forming in the lab’s humidity. “We can fix this. I think we can figure out a better adhesion method for the heat sink material.”

“You’ve been saying that off and on for weeks now.” He’s still not looking up from his phone.

“Yes, because I know we can do it. We’ve got it to work in the past-”

“Then why is it suddenly failing? We’ve gone through nearly eight grand in shit material.”

“I don’t know yet,” I fight from sighing. Shouldn’t a quality or R&D engineer be down here working on this project? Why does he have a production engineer in here doing this work instead? “Why don’t you go get ready for your date while I handle this.”

“I want a report on this during the Monday stand-up,” Vaughn says and points his phone at me. Every morning stand-up meeting for the past month has been about the failing insulation fabric. I already know what he wants.

“Absolutely,” I nod. “Now go enjoy your night.”

And get away from me. Never come back, in fact. Run away to a new state and start another company. I want to encourage him, but there is no hope. He doesn’t listen to anyone.

“I will. Enjoy your wine and trial writing,” he yells out as he leaves the lab. The door closes behind him with a soft snap.

Not once during that conversation did I bring up writing a trial. But I suppose he knows me well enough to know how I will spend most of my weekend.

The quality lab is quiet. Almost peaceful if it wasn’t work. The quality technicians powered down the other instruments and left hours ago. I do my best to clean up the space we used and shut down the instrument. I don’t want to walk in to a nastygram from the lab supervisor again. It is the last thing my psyche needs right now. I don’t want to need wine, but I do.

Or maybe I need a night in a pretty dress with sparkly make-up surrounded by people who don’t know when to shut up. Billionaires and billionaire-adjacents are an odd bunch. Some of them will tell you their whole life story and some of them will never meet your eyes or say a word to you. Both will sneak a peek down your dress.

I gather my laptop and samples and leave the lab behind. Work can wait until tomorrow. I need to go make some real money.