A physics grad student discovers that a left-wing pseudo-Party stole a miracle chemotherapy machine from a mysterious, recently-deceased professor. He explores the philosophy of altruism, and meets Pain, Fear, and Guilt.
An elderly woman flashed Lon her ticket and he waved her into the building. The woman's son, Lon's Computer Statistics professor, nodded a hello and showed his ID badge. Lon admitted him into the auditorium the same way. The man was late, and he and his mother seemed to be the last to show up for the event. Lon's increasingly famous physics professor, Dr. Martin Gray, was formally introducing his newest creation.
A shadow fell across the light streaming from the open door. Lon squinted at the dark streets and a figure appeared.
Wrinkles S-ed the old man's face, as if he had smiled for twenty years and frowned for fifty. His eyes showed no guilt or fear, only pain. He didn't seem interested in sharing this pain. He seemed to be concentrated only on remaining conscious. His clothes were shabby and worn, dirty around the edges. He wore a brand new pair of blue tennis shoes with yellow striping. They were Nike's.
He looked as if he had been crying.
"Sir,'" Lon said. "Can I help you?"
"Is the machine here? I would like to see it." The old man was shuddering; Chicago was windy.
"I'm not sure about that sir. Your appearance is more than shabby and you seem as if you have no idea where you are."
"Excuse me?" Lon wasn't sure if the man was mocking him or not.
"Well, the dimensions of the machine-"
"Dr. Gray's radiation machine," Lon said.
"Yes. The machine is nine by twelve, and it is powered by a special hemispherical electromagnetic transformer which prevents internal radiation from escaping through the power input. You may not realize it, but this hemispherical design has implications not just in medicine, but in studying quantum mechanics. Directing such high amounts of radiation simply by using a specific flow of magnetics is something never before done. Also, Dr. Gray's advertisement, which I just saw on my television, say something about six months of treatment. This machine eliminates cancer in three to four weeks."
"Sir," Lon said, flabbergasted. "With all due respect, how do you know this?"
"Because I designed this machine," the old man said simply.
"That can't be true. I have personally seen him, along with a few interns whom I know, assembling the machine. I'm a grad student of his. May I ask your name sir?"
The old man smiled a little. "That's just the thing, son. I don't know."
"I remember seeing Dr. Gray's advertisement and walking here. I don't remember anything else except the fact that I built that machine."
Lon felt many things. He felt worried, because he could hear the presentation beginning and he should be watching it. He felt intrigued, because the old man seemed genuine and also insane. He also felt afraid. Afraid of what it was that could cause this man to be in such apparent pain.
Lon made a decision. "Sir, can I help you back home? Surely someone there can help you."
The old man smiled again and nodded. "No thanks, son. I remember the way back."
Lon watched the man turn and walk away. He looked very cold. His shoes looked out of place. Lon wondered if the man needed help getting home. When he saw the man climb into a taxi, his worry subsided and he made his way into the auditorium.
The event was crowded, but Lon found a seat in the back. Dr. Gray was speaking. Yet he wasn't speaking about the machine, but about politics. He described the effects of the machine on the health care system, on the economy, and the effect of demand on the general public. Lon was bored.
He felt like Gray was speaking in a foreign language. His tone suggested that he was not describing or bragging, but begging. It seemed as if he only wanted the crowd to think him a genius. This was a quality Lon had recognized in Gray before; he worried only about being liked. Gray was a member of various "good guy" groups such as the increasingly powerful Green Party, PETA, and the Society for Ethical Enviromentalism.
Lon stood up and quietly shuffled into the lobby. Something was coming over him. He was thinking about the old man at the door. He felt something he hadn't felt since studying Einstein's General Relativity two years ago.
The old man's shoes were very new looking and, because the streets were wet, Lon suspected that the man had just bought them. He walked out of the building and headed toward the clothing store down the street.
The shop was small, but the items inside were rather expensive. After scanning the room, Lon spotted the blue Nike's.
The woman at the counter was disengaged, reading a magazine. She lowered it and peered at Lon. She looked as if she wouldn't care in the slightest if Lon pulled out a gun and shot her in the head.
"Can I help you?"
"Did a man come in here about an hour ago and buy some shoes? Some blue Nike's?"
"He had on shabby clothes and had a wrinkled face."
"Yep." The woman returned to her magazine halfheartedly.
"Hello," said a voice behind Lon. He turned to see a smiling man, in his thirties, with balding black hair and a red tie. "Is something wrong with the man? Who is he?"
"I don't know," Lon said. "But I would like to." The smiling man was obviously the owner of the shop. He had a look in his eyes that Lon recognized. "He had energy in his eyes. Do you know what I mean?"
The smiling man smiled further. "Yes," he said.
"Is there some way we can identify him? Did he use a credit card or check here?"
"Good thinking," the smiling man said. The smiling man seemed interested, but he paused for a moment. It obviously seemed odd to give out private credit information to a random college kid. Yet the man motioned toward the back room. "He used a debit card I believe. Come back here."
The man led Lon into a back room with a computer on a large desk. The smiling man clicked, and clicked some more. He looked up.
"The card belonged to Elliot Tral. I Google searched his name, and he's a physics professor at Northwestern."
"He was acting rather odd for an intellectual."
"Yes, I know what you mean. Something seemed to be troubling him, something more than his general confusion."
Lon looked at the smiling man. The man had a quality about him that Lon rarely saw. He didn't know how to identify it, but it was as if the man was not afraid of being alive. He thought perhaps the old man, Dr. Tral, had the same quality. Yet Tral was deathly afraid of something. And why did he suggest that he had built Gray's machine?
Lon caught the tail of Gray's presentation, and shook his hand afterward. He thought about the crazy Dr. Tral all night, and barely slept.
While in Dr. Gray's Quantum Mechanics class later in the week, Lon wondered what type of physics the Dr. Tral specialized in. It was odd to him that Gray, a theoretical physicist, would create a chemotherapy machine. Perhaps the old man was right. Lon checked his internet connection in the classroom, then searched the internet for Elliot Tral.
"Dr. Elliot Tral was a theoretical physics professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. He made minor breakthroughs in the field of radiation waves and helped build the largely unsuccessful Manta Cray, a water-powered supercomputer. His funeral will be held at 11:00am on Friday at the northwest Marigold cemetery."
Lon scratched his head. The old man was dead? Maybe it was a different person. He spent the rest of his week deciding, and he elected to skip Computer Statistics class for the funeral.
Lon wore the same black dress clothes he had worn at Dr. Gray's ceremony. The funeral was modest. He counted thirty-two people including himself. He watched the girl at the front. She had blonde hair and a long nose like Tral's. Lon assumed she was Tral's daughter. The old man seemed to have no other family.
The girl standing next to Lon at the back of the crowd was crying silently. He decided to speak to her at the end of the funeral ceremony.
"How did you know him?" Lon asked.
"I have...had...a job taking care of him," the girl said. "How did you know him?"
"I, um, I'm a fan of his work. I didn't really know him."
"He has some type of mental illness that prevents him from retaining most memories. I took care of him every afternoon." A tear ran down her cheek. She had a round face with dimples and short, dark hair and dark eyes. Lon's stomach churned; she seemed very hurt, and he was attracted to her.
"Was he working on something?"
She laughed. "Yeah, for about three years. Some type of radiation machine. It was really cool." Lon's curiosity increased.
"How did he die?"
"They just found him dead across town in an alley. He had a bump on the back of his head. We don't know how he got there." She sniffled. "Oh, by the way, I'm Cate."
"I saw...oh, sorry. My name's Lon. Anyway, I saw him. A few days ago. He was at a University of Chicago auditorium. I was the doorman, and I didn't let him in without a ticket. "
"They found his body near there."
"So why did he go there? What type of illness did he have? Did it cause his death?"
"I think so," Cate said. "He told me once that he thought that his illness would eventually kill him, that something was wrong in his brain. Yeah, sometimes he was aware of his illness." She seemed to be crying less as she spoke. Lon thought her rather brave to have this conversation in these circumstances.
"The boy taking care of him was in the bathroom. They said he walked out of his house. Then he just turned up dead."
"Is there someone else I can talk to about him?"
"Just some of his grad students, maybe his daughter."
"Cate, is it okay if I call you Cate?"
"That's my name." Lon felt awkward.
"Cate, would you mind getting some coffee or something? I have a lot of questions."
Cate told him that there were several coffee shops around, and she directed Lon to her favorite. It was very small, but it was empty of customers and full of the smell of coffee beans and vanilla and cinnamon.
"Order me something. I'll pay," Lon said. He had the thought that this was a very weird way to meet a girl. But he wasn't too worried about hooking up with this random Northwestern chick. He really wanted to find out more about Dr. Tral. He was obsessed.
"Does he have any family?" Lon asked.
"His wife is dead. He has a daughter, and she goes to school a few hours away. She takes care of him on the weekends. I don't think he has any more family. I have classes in the mornings, and I take care of him from lunch until dinner. Three of his physics students take care of him at night and in the mornings."
"Cate, what does his radiation machine do?"
"I think it's medical."
Lon froze for a second, then reached for his coffee. It was warm.
"I think his machine was stolen by my professor," he said. "The event that I met Dr. Tral at was a formal introduction of Dr. Gray's precision radiation machine. Is there anyone who can defend Tral's right to his invention?"
"I don't think so. Northwestern seems to have it out for Tral these days. He doesn't interact with other professors or contemporary scientists, and a lot of people are convinced that his radiation machine caused his memory loss."
"No. His daughter told me that he had been suffering from it since she was a little girl. But the college thought that it was caused by the machine, and they were already planning on cutting funds to it."
"But if Dr. Gray makes millions from this machine, Northwestern wouldn't act?"
"I don't think so," she said. "No one really knew anything about it, other than Tral and a few of his grad students. No one would know it's stolen."
"Do you know if Tral knew Dr. Gray."
"No idea. Is he the guy from the Green Party?"
"Yeah he's the head of science for the Green Party, he's in their stupid commercials."
Cate sipped her coffee. "Well is there anything we can do about this?"
"Maybe others that knew Tral's work will hear about Gray's machine and say something. I don't know if either of us have any credibility to make a claim against someone as big as Gray."
"So how did you get the job with Tral?" Lon asked.
"I was developing leukemia when I transferred to Northwestern from Memphis. He someone heard from the admission staff, and he offered me a chance to test his machine. He cured me in three weeks."
"The machine can do that?"
Cate was crying again. "Yep." She sniffled and looked at Lon. "You're making a decision right now aren't you?"
"About whether or not your professor stole his machine and whether or not you should tell anyone."
"Yes." Lon was a little uncomfortable that this girl could see straight into him.
"He told me this story all the time. He was a grad student here at Northwestern and an English major, Meredith, lived in the same dorm as him. She was a poet, and Elliot made fun of her for it. He began writing poems as a joke and bringing them to her. She would always say that they were terrible. One day, Elliot wrote a real poem. When she read it, she cried. They were married a year later. Lon, Meredith died eleven years ago, just before he started building the machine. She died of lung cancer."