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By Roger Evans
Universe, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Roger Evans
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Chapter OneDENHAM PETERSON
HIS ATTACKS were always the same.
A tearing pain just below the collarbone.
The lack of breath.
Sudden paralysis on his left side.
He thought he'd have gotten used to it over the years. After all, it happened every seven days. But, as he looked up at his frightened lover, as he dragged himself one agonizing inch at a time, it just seemed terribly unfair to Denham that this attack should come when it did. Not that there was any difference in the time; there wasn't. Cruelly, you could set your watch by it.
Friday, 10:29 PM: Finish watching the news. 10:31 PM: Begin cardiac arrest.
No, there wasn't anything unusual about the timing. What was unusual was Denham's sense of abandon. After all, he was a respected scientist, an inventor- not one prone to indulge in frivolous misadventures. But, for the first time in his forty some-odd years, he'd been having fun. Real fun. And he liked this girl ... a lot. They had been inseparable all week. She was unpretentious, bright, beautiful - totally unlike the others sent over the years by the agency. Clearly, as a rule, Denham usually stayed home on Friday nights. But this girl ...
Zing! Another twisting stab to the chest.
Denham halted his crawl across the floor of his penthouse. Lying there, with this terrified woman standing over him, he cursed himself for not paying attention to the time. It was a careless mistake, one he felt depressingly certain he wouldn't be making again. He tried to move one arm- as usual, no response.
What did his doctor call it? A "non-operative, congenital cardiovascular anomaly" or some damned thing. In short, he'd been born with a messed up heart. It seemed like it had been only days since his doctor gave him the news. And, not to put too fine a point on it, in many ways it had been.
His head felt light. He was beginning to drift.
Old memories began to dominate his consciousness: His work. His family. Friends. Places he visited. He remembered a Chinese restaurant - a fortune cookie that read, "The path to immortality is best walked by soles that last forever." Screw immortality! He'd have been happy just to have another seven days. Or how about another seven minutes? Anything! But even in a state of half consciousness Denham knew that, at best, he was a 'Flying Dutchman' destined to live the evening's scenario over and over again as part of some Faustian pact with technology. A technology he had created.
A technology that started with, of all things, a cube of sugar ...
IT WAS LONG, LONG AGO and late, as usual. Even the custodians had left for the evening. Of course, Denham was oblivious to the hour where his research was concerned. And, unlike the cluttered, dark and creaky laboratory common to so many horror films of a previous century, this room was bright, crisp and clean. No mad scientist was Denham Peterson. In fact he was nothing, if not anal, regarding his workspace. The only similarity to the ancient celluloid genre lay in the eclectic groupings of ornate wooden cabinets, desks and files; a reflection of Denham's preoccupation with antiques. A tree outside the lab's second story window blew in the wind of an approaching storm, yet, there was no rain on the windowpane, no lightning to flash menacing shadows on the wall as the dedicated young scientist worked into the night. Everything was quiet, save for the sporadic hum of a somewhat indecisive florescent tube, overhead. If Denham had any say in it they'd all be changed to incandescents. After all, bulbs were good enough for Edison.
Denham peered, intently, through wire rimmed glasses as he entered data in a notebook with one hand and reached for his coffee mug with the other. The youngest son of a master bricklayer, Denham had rebelled at the thought of joining the family business like his older brothers. A man of science - that was Denham Peterson.
And so, after years of academic toil, not to mention virtually all of his late father's money, he had finally found nirvana as head of research for a small, but rapidly growing, bio-electronics lab in Texas. With several patents already to his credit, Denham's work revolved around the electronic analysis of biological material at the molecular level. Years before, his big break came as a student when he published his college thesis on the theoretical expansion and reapplication of M.R.I. technology.
Magnetic Resonance Imagery had been used in the medical field since the early 1980's and on through the turn of the century. By 2011, though, it had been all but abandoned in favor of faster, more power efficient techniques.
The principle was simple enough: By saturating part of the human body with an intense magnetic field, molecules within a patient's tissue would actually align themselves with the lines of force present. When the field was suddenly shut off, the patient's molecules would snap back to their original orientation. This would create a weak, though highly detectable, electromagnetic pulse in the process; much like an electric guitar with billions of vibrating strings instead of only six. The patient's tissue could then be "mapped" by computer using the unique signature of each vibrating molecule as a reference point within a confined, three dimensional space.
Of course, this all would happen in a split second. And, in the early days of M.R.I. technology, computers could only process so much information at a time. So, only the parts of the patient under scrutiny, such as the head, neck or extremities, were subjected to the process. Later, as "super computers" became cheaper and more commonplace, the ability to mathematically map the entire human body became possible. But no one thought about actually doing it... except Denham.
That was patent number one.
The comparative mapping and modeling of a patient, from admittance through treatment and release, became standard policy at hospitals throughout the United States. It gave doctors a constant view of the patient, literally, inside and out. Enhanced computer imagery allowed a real time holographic-like representation of every organ, every vessel, to be displayed on a screen next to the patient. The rhythm of the heart, injection of drugs, even the ingestion of food could be observed continuously. Progress could then be tracked, not just by how the patient felt, or by a single doctor's interpretation of the available data on a chart, but by what could be physically seen in three dimensions by almost anyone in the room. Diagnostics became more accurate, along with more precise treatments. Malpractice cases dropped and, along with them, the cost of health care in general. If, after the turn of the century, there had been any Democrats left, Denham would most certainly have been worshipped as their patron saint of health care reform.
To say that Denham's "discovery" had revolutionized the health care industry might seem like an understatement. But to Denham Peterson, it seemed like the obvious thing to do; the obvious extension of an old and forgotten technology already in place. To Denham, the only revelation was that someone didn't think of it sooner.
He lifted the coffee to his lips as his pencil slashed out the last of his calculations. Others in his office often made light of his fixation with paper and manual entries. After all, here was a brilliant man, surrounded by state of the art computers, and yet all of his computations, his notes and all of his research findings were contained in hand written notebooks that lined the walls of his office. What his co-workers couldn't understand was the simplicity of it all: No hard drives to crash. No systems to fail. No virus to invade your mainframe and chew up a years worth of work. And, not to mention, perfect security. Hackers may be good at accessing computer information from long distance. But, they'd have to be absolutely telepathic to read his notebooks from even a foot outside his locked office door. Considering the legibility of his handwriting, or lack thereof, direct examination of his notes might prove to be just as futile.
Of course, nothing gave Denham Peterson more pleasure than listening to the victorious cadence of chalk on a drawing board as it telegraphed the successful completion of yet another complex problem. Standing in front of his staff and punctuating the final equation with a dramatic circle or underline, before resting the chalk, was the spin of the six shooter before being re-holstered or the touchdown dance in the end zone. Surely, such 'completion euphoria' would be impossible to experience, fully, on a mere keyboard. Even the rhythmic grind of a number 2 pencil, with its occasional need for sharpening, would be preferred to the monotonous and antiseptic clicks of plastic inherent in computer interfacing. In short, being a man of science was as much a matter of style as it was genius. Denham Peterson had both.
However, his coffee cup was quite empty.
No matter. Denham needed a break. Making his way to the coffee bar, his attention was drawn to the window by the tapping of a tree branch. Still no rain. In fact, the view was quite clear. Outside, security lighting revealed the ongoing construction of an added wing to the building; nothing special. Actually, it was identical in design to a wing on the opposite side of the research center. The plans were simply reversed - Denham logic in evidence, once again. Piles of bricks and building materials lay in wait for the morning crew.
His mind drifted to thoughts of his father.
If Denham had a fondness for old furnishings, his late father had an obsession with old architecture. In his youth, Denham and his family had the dubious distinction of living in a house that was an exact replica of a summer cottage once owned by the early 20'h century silent film star, Sir C. Spenser Chaplin. Denham's father photographed the cottage for an entire month from every conceivable angle. Then, meticulously counting each and every brick and noting its placement, he drew up plans for an identical structure.
Tracking down the maker of the original bricks was a minor detour, as the company had long since gone out of business. Still, sufficient quantities were found scattered in brickyards around the country to make up the exact volume required ... with eight left over. As duplication of the Murdoch domain required certain flaws, such as cracks, to be artificially introduced into specific bricks, a rather dicey situation developed for the workmen. The surplus of eight had dwindled to one (after a day of creative brick bashing by the crew) and the somewhat reluctant group backed away from the last, small red block prone in the dust. A leper couldn't have been given wider berth, nor a bar of gold more security, as the orphaned brick waited silently for the elder Peterson's personal touch. It was only fitting - they were certainly, each, the last of their kind.
Denham smiled as he peered out the window. In a world gone berserk with technology, it seemed ironic to him that housing such technology required the laying of bricks, one of the few things still done by hand. Perhaps he had more in common with his father than he'd realized. Denham grabbed the coffeepot and filled his mug. Then, as usual, he reached for two sugar cubes. And, as usual, there was only one left, having been all but consumed by an office full of movers and shakers. Denham picked up the lone cube, fully prepared to supplement this with scrapings from the sugar platter.
Only this time, he froze.
Something had caught his attention.
It is the rare individual that finds himself at the right place at the right time and, most importantly, with the right vision. The "Eureka Moment" they call it, where everything all comes together; where the vague becomes the obvious. In the world of science, many researchers work a lifetime without hitting upon one single discovery. Their anonymous efforts are buried in reams of files; the files buried in stacks of boxes. The boxes line the walls of basements and warehouses, forming the cardboard tomb of, yet, another federal grant with nothing to show for it. Left to any other scientist, the moment at hand might have ended as a minor entry in one of those files. Or, it might have simply dissolved into the blackness of day old coffee.
However, Denham had seen the vision.
It presented itself in the crystalline form of a sugar cube, but ... only for a second. Then, it slipped away towards the shadows of his intellect, taunting him to follow. Denham had played this game many times before. Fortunately, he was good at it. The sugar cube gently clutched between his index finger and thumb, Denham remained transfixed on the small white square as he raised it close to his face. He concentrated, trying to regain the vision of the cube and what it meant. His eyes darted to the platter from where it came, only to find the powdered remains of its brethren. Strangely, that seemed to fit. His eyes intuitively shifted focus through the window ... to the distant bricks stacked on the ground below, then ... back to the sugar cube. Suddenly, it all made sense.
Perfect, logical, sense.
By the time Denham burst through the lab doors, he had already finished the primary calculations in his mind. So sure his idea would work, he didn't bother stopping at his beloved chalkboard to work out verifications or variables. The idea was too simple. In fact, Denham was operating in half delight and half panic. It was as if he feared someone else might actually be attempting the same experiment and, at any moment, could beat him to the finish line.
He made his way to the Micro M.R.I. Processing Lab. His mind was racing as he flung open the electrical closet, throwing massive breakers that would send refrigerant to the magnetic coils of the imaging chamber, plunging them to sub-zero temperatures. The Micro M.R.I. was the latest addition to Denham's list of patents. Unlike large scale M.R.I., with its tendency to skip detail in favor of general contours and shapes, this prototype was designed to work on a microscopic scale, just short of the quantum level. That is to say, it could map the placement of a single atom in a drop of blood, though not the internal structure of that atom.
Not that such a thing was impossible to achieve with the system; simply unnecessary. Primarily, it was designed to rapidly detect and identify chains of DNA molecules for use by law enforcement agencies ... or anyone else that would pay for the technology. Having been cheated out of royalties from his first venture into M.R.I., Denham had made sure this project was his and his, alone. It seemed the lab's owner had recognized Denham's talents and realized that sharing 25% of a potentially major breakthrough was better than owning 100% of only mediocre achievements. Though salaried by the lab, Denham's patents were his to keep.
No university would steal his thunder, this time ... or his profits.
Fishing a security key from a string around his neck, Denham unlocked the small, safe-like chamber of the Micro M.R.I. unit. Gently, he reached in his pocket and withdrew a folded paper napkin, unwrapping its sweetened contents in the process. He stopped to catch his breath and dry the perspiration from one palm on his shirt. Cupping the napkin in one hand, he reached for a glass slide with the other. However, his hands were shaking so much with excitement that he dropped it on the counter top, unknowingly chipping one corner of the slide. Upon retrieving it, he felt the sharp sting of cut glass on his index finger. His obsession won out, however, and he ignored the bleeding cut, wiping it on his pants leg. Then, not even bothering with forceps, he slowly took the sugar cube from the napkin and gingerly placed it on the glass slide. This he placed in the chamber.
Just as he was about to close the door, his eyes caught a glimpse of crimson on one edge of the sugar cube. He paused, contemplating what effect this might have on the experiment. Then, absently sucking the wound on his finger in acknowledgement, he slowly closed and locked the chamber door.
Back at the M.R.I. control station, Denham quickly calibrated the sensitivity levels to account for the difference in the material about to be scanned. That was the easy part - simply type in a few parameters on the computer. Of course, pecking away at a plastic keyboard adorned with someone's "Smiley Face" stickers, Denham couldn't help but wish there was some huge, menacing lever that he could pull to actually start the whole process. Oh, well. He finished typing in the commands, paused, and hit "enter" as dramatically as he could.
Excerpted from THE RAZZ by Roger Evans Copyright © 2010 by Roger Evans. Excerpted by permission.
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