The Equations of Doom

Joey lowered his backpack to the pavement and began to kick it along the line of junior high students waiting for the school bus home.

The backpack maneuver was a favorite trick of his. It allowed him to look down while sidling up to June without anybody noticing. All he had to do was watch for her tiny feet in their white running shoes. There was something unutterably appealing about the feet of June, a pretty blonde distraction in his enriched math class.

He heard the diesel growl as the bus pulled up in a fog of exhaust. Through judicious backpack-kicking he had wound up right next to June, who was talking to May and clutching her loose leaf binder to her chest. Joey could hardly bear to think about that chest.

Instead he concentrated on a mathematical formula. Joey knew that the number of people who could sit in a row of bus seats was three. He had already counted the number of people in front of him and that number was a multiple of three. That meant he’d be the first to drop into a new row of seats and, if May and June were right behind him, they’d drop into place right beside him, completely unaware of his clever scheme.

Joey had well developed math skills for a 13-year-old but his awakening brain, which had just begun to notice females, was oblivious to the complexities of junior high society. May and June were not pinballs falling into bus seats in the order they entered the vehicle. They were thinking, breathing, independent 14-year-olds, perfectly capable of sitting wherever they wanted, even the risque section at the back of the bus.

What really made the formula work was June. She wasn’t a member of Miss Simpson’s enriched math class for nothing. She knew that if she kept a multiple of 3 people in front of her that Joey, who couldn’t have been more obvious if his backpack had been an elephant, would wind up in front of her right where she wanted him.

As they entered the bus, she held her books at chest level and stuck her elbows out. This kept May from moving in front of her, assuring that she’d drop into place, casually, right next to Joey.

June and Joey had been in the same homeroom class for years but had never, in their entire lives, been so close to each other as they were on that fateful bus ride. They didn’t speak, but each was aware of the warmth of the other’s body; their smells and little movements. June held her books on her lap. Joey kept his backpack between his knees. June chatted with May. Joey looked out the window.

The doors closed and the engine coughed to life.

Seats on a school bus are much too small for junior high students. The hormones that had begun to infuse their bodies make them jittery and restless. It wasn’t long before the driver brought the bus to a halt, stood up and glared at his passengers. “If you guys don’t stay in your seats I’ll take you right back to school!”

Joey wished they had their old driver, Mr. Phillips. He just drove the bus no matter what happened even when students threw food at him. Once Dylan had torn off his shirt and paraded up and down the aisle threatening to take everything off. Boys egged him on and girls giggled or pretended not to notice. Mr. Phillips just kept driving.

Joey was hoping Dylan would act up again so he would get a chance to protect June from his horrid behavior, or at least join with her in mocking him, but Dylan was probably suspended as usual. The bus had grown quiet in the last few minutes. Even Craig had stopped singing dirty ditties.

The ride was making him sleepy and he felt June’s thighs pressing against his as the bus rolled over a bump. She brushed her skirt down. Her hand touched his leg. Something in her body had loosened and he could feel her sway with the movement of the bus. He risked a glance in her direction and saw that her head was nodding as if she was sleepy.

Afraid of staring, he jerked his head to the front, watching the road, trying to see where they were. There was a draft from the window and his vision was blurry. He blinked his eyes. He could see the driver in that wide rear-view mirror they used to watch their passengers. There was something wrong with his face. The image wasn’t clear because the mirror was vibrating, but his eyes looked huge and round and there seemed to be a thick hose dangling from his nose.

The driver eased off the gas as the bus approached a stop. For a second the mirror stopped vibrating and the image cleared. The driver actually had a huge thick hose dangling from his nose.

June’s books slid to the floor and her hand fell against Joey’s thigh. His pulse raced and a shock of adrenaline coursed through his body. Was that really her hand? What did he do now?

For the rest of his life Joey would remember his next move. It would have been easy to be shy and ignore June’s overture or act standoffish and turn towards the window. Instead he put his hand over hers and squeezed it gently. June leaned towards him. Her head slowly fell to his shoulder and she nestled against him.

Joey’s heart felt like it would burst. He wanted to leap up from his seat and cheer, but for fear of disturbing the slumbering angel beside him. Instead he looked straight ahead as if this sort of thing happened every day.

Weird. The driver with the bulging eyes still wore his hose. Clearly he wasn’t human, therefore he must be one of those aliens from outer space who kidnaps people and carries them off to his home planet where they become slaves, or the subjects of cruel experiments. Could he stop him? Who would help him? He looked carefully around. All the other students were slumped against each other, mouths half open, drooling and snoring.

Suddenly the truth leapt out. The driver was no alien. He was one of their slaves and he was wearing an oxygen mask like the fighter pilots wore in the movies. He had to wear it because he was gassing the students, that’s why they were all asleep! Only he was awake because of the draft from the window. No doubt they were headed to some horrible destination like a slaughter house where their bodies would be used as fertilizer to grow food for the alien invasion. He’d never see his parents and his adorable baby sister again.

He knew what he had to do: open the window. He could save the students from certain death and foil the alien invasion but that meant disturbing June. She was so cuddly and soft nesting against him and he thought he could feel a soft breast against his arm. He concentrated on the sensation without moving a muscle. Yes, that was definitely a breast. Slowly he tilted his head until it rested against hers.

They would die like that, nestled together for support and comfort while the evil driver sped on his way. Maybe the cops would intervene but it would be too late and the bus would be full of dead students. The TV news would parade down the aisle with lights and cameras. They’d focus on the lifeless bodies of Joey and June entwined together for eternity.

Dimly, Joey saw the driver reach under his seat. He was making a rapid repeating motion. Was he adding more gas? Sending a message to the flying saucer hovering above?

The driver removed the mask. Up ahead a student shook his head. June stirred slightly. Joey dropped her hand and faced straight ahead.

“Oh, that was lovely,” she said. “I had the nicest little nap. Thanks for lending me your shoulder.”

“Oh, anytime,” said Joey. “If you don’t mind sitting next to me.”

“For sure,” she said. “This is my stop. My name’s June.”

“I’m Joey.”

“Bye.”

“See ya.”

For the next hour the bus rumbled around its route. Joey kept close to the drafty window and watched his fellow students slumber and wake as the driver turned the gas on and off. At one point May slumped against him and nearly put her head in his lap, but he pushed her away. Craig fell to the floor and rolled around until the driver came back and hauled him to his feet. After that he didn’t turn the gas on anymore.

Finally it was Joey’s stop. When he reached the front of the bus he pointed under the dashboard at the cylinder of gas. “What’s that?” he asked.

“Just something to keep you guys in your seats.”

“Cool. Going to bring it tomorrow?”

 

—-2—-

 

The last equations written by Dr. Hans Fogelborg were still on the blackboard in his office at the University of Waterloo’s physics department six days after he had jumped out the window on the 18th floor.

“Drop that brush!” shouted Chancellor Virginia Snoith, as a janitor approached the blackboard with a view to erasing the strange scrawls. “Are you mad? This is a priceless objet d’art, as mysterious as the Lascaux Cave paintings or the Rosetta Stone. Look at those lovely swirls and the little Greek symbols.”

Dr. Snoith, an expert in romantic poetry and a secret fan of soap operas, may not have understood the equations, but she loved dramatic exhortations. With this one, historians would later argue, she may have saved the planet. At the very least, she tore away the veil of ignorance in higher mathematics, revealing new vistas for humanity.

“We may decide to frame that whole blackboard and put it on display. At the very least the head of the physics department should evaluate it. Perhaps he can tell us what it means when he gets back from that conference in Switzerland. The one about the high energy collider. All that mumbo-jumbo about bosons and dark matter.”

Already the equations had been seen by hundreds of people. A police detective had stared at them for 15 minutes looking for a hidden suicide note. Dozens of Dr. Fogelborg’s colleagues and students had gawked and furrowed their brows, but they’d struck out like little-league batters facing a major-league pitcher. The most informed study was made by Emily Jones, his secretary and former grad student, as she recalled how excited Dr. Fogelborg had been after he made his final scratches on the board.

“Miss Jones! Miss Jones! Miss Jones! Eureka! Eureka! I say! I have truly done it! This is the most important discovery in theoretical physics since the black hole! We are going to do things that have never been done before!”

But Miss Jones wasn’t thinking about scientific advances in the days after Fogelborg’s death. The Chancellor had been kind but firm. “We’ll keep your name on file,” she’d said in that eternal bureaucratic euphemism that really meant ‘go away and don’t come back.’

Miss Jones had come back if only to clean out her desk bringing her son Joey, a shy and skinny 14-year-old. Perhaps exposure to the great man’s office would inspire him to work harder at school. She had enjoyed working with Dr. Fogelborg. He had brought energy and enthusiasm to a dull department of the university ruled by the dour and authoritarian Dr. Wilhelm DeGroot. Dr. DeGroot didn’t like research. It was unpredictable and disorderly. And now, with no Dr. Fogelborg, there would be no research and no job for Miss Jones.

Joey hung back at the entrance, instinctively concealing himself as always. He stared at the window where Dr. Fogelborg had jumped to his death, but didn’t cross the floor to look out.

He glanced shyly around, at the jumble of books and papers, the framed certificates and photos and the model of the International Space Station, hanging from the ceiling. At last his eyes came to rest on the equations. He read them as easily as you or I could read a comic book.

Joey knew he was pretty good at math. Miss Simpson had even asked him to join the math club at school. He had devoured his entire math text like a dime store novel. It had never occurred to him that math wasn’t easy for everybody. Joey wasn’t just good at math, he was a world-class genius and he didn’t know it. If he had, he certainly wouldn’t have told anybody.

“Zonk!” said Joey. “Kablooey.” He had a lot in common with the drama-loving Chancellor Snoith. He liked his theoretical concepts to have character, as they moved around the chess board of his mind. To him, math was a conversation, a discussion between friends. The equations said things like “well, if we just suppose this is true, then this other thing might happen provided we factor in this thingamajigger over here.”

Joey didn’t like what the blackboard was saying. He argued with it, speaking quietly to himself “no you can’t build your gizmo if your whatsis can’t slip by the thingamebob” and words to that effect.

Joey’s mother sighed. She was worried about her only son. He talked to himself a lot and got beat up at school a lot. She was worried that Joey was turning out like his father, a promising physicist himself who had suddenly disappeared two years earlier. He had never been violent but she was afraid of him for other reasons.

Joey was doing quite a lot of talking just now. “You’re out of your friggin’ mind,” he told the blackboard. “If this thing zooms in here, then that other gizmo should have zonked right out to infinity. You’re left with nothing. Nada. Zilch.” Joey tended to use colorful language when he got excited.

Despite his silly terminology, Joey’s understanding of the equations was sophisticated. Even better than Dr. DeGroot’s.

No one knew that DeGroot had already seen the equations over a glass of sherry with Fogelborg himself the same afternoon the good professor had run screaming down the halls shouting Eureka!

DeGroot had been appalled and not just because his only theoretical researcher was running around making a spectacle of himself. He could tell enough about the equations to know Fogelborg was onto something. He was going to shake things up. There would be press releases. Visiting dignitaries. News conferences. Speeches. More visitations. Maybe a the Nobel Prize. Most untidy. The man must be stopped.

And DeGroot hadn’t become a top university bureaucrat without knowing how to stop innovation in its tracks.

“I know just how to get your paper published,” he told his giddy colleague. “We’ll get some top experts to read it and sponsor its submission to the Journal of Theoretical Physics.” Dr. DeGroot chose carefully. His referees came from Finland, Mongolia and Botswana. And they expected to be addressed in their native languages: Karelian, Kazakh and Setswana. From there it was easy. As science representative on the university budget committee, he threw his support to the English department’s plan to translate Beowulf from Middle English to Mandarin, a project that would gobble up translation funding for years, ensuring that the university would never have the funds for the physics department’s modest translations. And as all good administrators know, the use of English on a sensitive matter like this would have been quite improper. Fogelborg’s referees would remain in the dark.

But DeGroot wasn’t finished yet. He snuck into Fogelborg’s office, photographed the blackboard and, using a computer in a local cybercafe, emailed it to a contact in China. Three days later Dr. Sing Wong Chen, an internationally recognized theoretician who headed up a state-run lab of 500 scientists in Peking, shocked the world by announcing an innovative approach to the problem of travelling faster than light. “In a few years,” said Dr. Chen, “we will build a rocket ship that can travel to the remote corners of the universe and return within one hour.”

Fogelborg, convinced he had been beaten to the scientific punch, become a bloody smear on the parking lot three days later.

Which meant that there was only one person in the Western Hemisphere who had a good understanding of Fobelborg’s equations, and he wasn’t interested. Joey was thinking about a girl. Joey couldn’t quite bring himself to say her name but he pictured lovely red hair, tamed to silky perfection and a delicate long neck. Joey couldn’t quite get below the neck. She floated bodiless and nameless in his dreams.

But she wouldn’t be floating when she came to the bicycle shop this afternoon, Joey knew. And he really would have to get over his inability to say her name. He took a deep breath. “J-J-J-June,” he sighed under his breath. The tiny hairs on his legs prickled. Someone held a blowtorch to his ears. His mouth went dry. He looked down to conceal the bloom of blood that colored his face. He had to be on time to meet her. His life absolutely depended on it. He seethed with impatience.

“Hurry up, Mom,” he cried, trying to keep the tension from his voice. His mom looked up.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing! Just want to get home! Please! I have to work this afternoon.”

“Oh, right, the bicycle shop, I forgot. Joey, it’s sweet of you to take that job but we’ll be alright. I’ve got some severance pay and UIC will kick in right after that. We don’t have to worry. Dr. DeGroot said there might be something part-time in a few months and there are loads of jobs on the job bank. I might even quality for a free training course in WordPress for the department’s web site.”

“Mom! Mom! Mom! I have to get to work! Dammit! Dammit Dammit!”

“Alright!” said mom. She was worried about Joey. He was silent for hours at a time, then exploded when things didn’t go his way. He was spending much more time in the bathroom and wearing those pathetic headphones everywhere.

The headphones terrified her. They weren’t connected to anything. She fervently hoped Joey was just using them as a means of avoiding conversation but the alternative was more likely: Joey heard voices through the headphones. His father had heard voices too, before he disappeared.

“Alright, son,” she said gently. “We’ll be home in a jiffy.”

 

June brushed her hair in the bathroom mirror. It shone with the extra attention she had been giving it lately. As usual she had been thinking about Joey but she had no trouble saying his name. She was beginning to regret becoming his friend. Everybody knew he was crazy. Her friends made fun of her and May had stopped sitting with her on the bus even when Joey had been delayed and wasn’t riding on it.

Just a week earlier she had defied the social order of junior high with an outrageous statement to a gaggle of giggling girls around her locker: “I like Joey. He’s weird and interesting and I like weird people.” The girls were shocked into silence for almost three seconds.

But Joey could be so irritating, she thought. He talked to himself. Then went silent as if she wasn’t there. He invented words and whole sentences in a language nobody could understand. He wrote strange symbols in a secret notebook.

It would be too humiliating to just back out of their friendship so she braved appearances with him before the junior high social elite. They walked in the playground at recess, she sat with him in the cafeteria and studied with him in the library. Joey sometimes ignored her completely, or stuttered so badly that she could hardly understand him

She knew he was bright. He was calmer in their library study period and she tried to draw him out by pretending she needed help with quadratic equations.

But she dropped the pretense when he started talking about differential calculus. He fired her imagination by making it sound like a powerful way of predicting what could happen in the real world under whatever conditions she could dream up. She hounded him with questions. With his earnings from the bicycle shop he’d bought a Schaum’s outline of Calculus with Analytic Geometry. They solved problems together. He let her take it home. She pored through it for hours, enjoying the gradual accretion of skill and discipline.

And she loved to watch Joey work on the bicycles at the shop. He had a physical authority that suprised her, easily flipping bikes upside down and slamming them into the bicycle stand. His hands became covered with oil as he tightened and adjusted chains and she could see the muscles of his forearms work like little machines of their own as he tightened spokes and brake cables. She loved to watch his hands and arms, the dirty fingernails moving with speed and precision. She remembered how those hands had enveloped hers on the bus the day they had first spoken. Something had passed between them in his sure but gentle grip. His hands were much bigger than hers.

So despite the junior high gossip she arrived at the shop early and waited for Joey. She could see him almost tripping over his feet as he lurched along the sidewalk. He had his head down and his headphones in place so it would look like he was singing instead of having a secret conversation with himself, with that other Joey she would never meet. June put her hand over her mouth to hide the grin that took over her face. At times like this she wondered what falling in love was like. Certainly not like this and certainly not with Joey, she hoped. He could hardly speak a complete sentence and never talked about anything other than math. She didn’t believe he’d ever even spoken her name let alone said anything about how he might like to be friends and maybe could go out for a coke or something together. At an age when boys gave girls rings and bought tickets to concerts and held hands all Joey could do was loan her a math book. “Fuck!” she said, out loud for the first time in her life. She had been practicing that in the bathroom mirror.

Joey took off his headphones and looked up: “did you hear? This old guy, my mom’s boss, jumped out his window!”

June rolled her eyes: “Oh! My! God! He’s not talking about math!”

She might have slapped him he looked so hurt and bewildered. She blundered on, hoping he’d recover. “Whaddya mean? Who jumped? Is he dead? Why?”

“Don’t know. Mom says he got all excited about some equations on the blackboard, but I saw them. There was something wrong with them. Maybe he just gave up.” The death of a remote college professor, no matter how spectacular, was of little interest. “Are you coming inside? How is that front wheel? Do you want to me to adjust it again?”

“How did you know there was something wrong with the equations?”

“They didn’t look right, I’m not sure why. What about those spokes?”

“My spokes are fine, thank you.”

Again the hurt look. Joey really didn’t know what was going on, June realized. She’d either have to walk away from this affair or help him. They hesitated outside the bicycle shop door. June was a brave girl. She liked taking risks. She took a deep breath: “Joey, I don’t care about spokes. You don’t have to fix my bike or even teach me math. You can just talk to me anytime.” Another breath. “I like you.”

 

At that exact instant Dr. Sing Wong Chen was supervising a meeting of his chief researchers at the Insitute of Revolutionary Phyiscs in Peking, China. It was 2 a.m. but the lights were ablaze anyway as they had been every night for a week. The meeting was not going well. “Perhaps comrade Zang could enlighten us as to why he can’t simply implement the equations I have developed,” he said icily.

Zang had 30 years’ experience with the Chinese communist bureaucracy. He knew when to bluff and when to blame. The equations were flawed. But he dared not tell that to the illustrious Dr. Chen, the acclaimed author. Or at least the alleged author, thought Zang. He didn’t share his cynicism with his colleagues, but it would serve the Party right if the whole venture came to nothing.

Zang reserved particular contempt for Comrade Wang, the Party representative on the scientific committee who had joyfully proclaimed a scientific breakthrough. “It’s an epic victory for our socialist scientific progam” he wrote in the People’s Daily Worker. “We’ll be leaders of the world for the next generation. Faster-than-light drive. Imagine!” Now the institute was beseiged by high-ranking Party cadres trying to get their pictures taken with anybody wearing a lab coat.

Now even Wang was beginning to wish he’d tempered his claims. The Party had embraced his news story with an almost desperate enthusiasm. Communism was under attack. Revisionists and their capitalist lackies lurked everywhere, preaching the sacrilege of individualism and independent thought. Just in time, so Wang had written, the people were striking fear into the hearts of the imperialist running dogs with their socialist scientific reasoning. Even the Great Helmsman himself was said to be following their progress.

Except there had been little progress to report. Wang met weekly with his fellow Party officers and it had taken all his skill to create projections based on wishful thinking and unverifiable facts. The Great Helmsman was expecting progress and Wang was working harder than a capitalist public relations expert to give it to him.

Chen was more philosophical. At 70 he’d hoped the equations would be his final legacy, but it was not to be. He barely understood the documents and neither, unfortunately did his disciples. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Chen, the Shining Light of Socialist Scientific Thought, was a plagiarist. For the first time he was glad of the cancer eating away at his innards. The doctors had given him only a few weeks and, at his request, had even supplied him with pain killers designed by bourgeoise western pharmaceutical companies.

It was time to write his final report to the Party, with copies to Dr. DeGroot and the Associated Press stringer he knew through a disenchanted colleague. Then he would find out how effective those western pain-killers were. The Party would be humiliated. Not a bad legacy after all.

DeGroot peered from behind the curtains in his office on the University of Waterloo campus at the TV trucks clustered in the parking lot below. He hadn’t been sleeping well. Chen’s suicide had been a bombshell that caused a tidal wave of media requests. His home was surrounded by TV reporters and cameramen patrolling just outside his property line. They shouted questions as he drove, with a police escort, to the university where he and several beefy officers ran a gauntlet of microphones, camera flashes and more questions. Security guards patrolled every door checking credentials and opening briefcases. A visiting expert in romantic poetry was patted down. Academics were outraged. Students demonstrated. It was most untidy.

 

Joey was utterly oblivious. “I like you anyway,” she had said. He thought of nothing else. He attached a set of handlebars backwards at work, sang without wearing his headphones and smiled at his former tormentors at school. She liked him. She liked him. She really liked him.

They were walking together in the playground when she told him the news. He had been trying to orchestrate his body movements into the casual dance he’d seen other boys execute with their girls. First, match his step with hers then float slightly closer and behind while slipping his arm around her shoulders. Such activities required the maniacal focus of an advanced problem in astro physics, so naturally he hadn’t been listening. “Joey, I’m talking to you!”

“Sorry! What?”

“Your dead professor. He’s been in the news.”

It took a long time for Joey to come back to earth. June waited, indulgently. She loved the effect she seemed to have on him. He had been transformed since the big event, which she thought of as The Declaration at the Bicycle Shop Door. Now Joey’s eyes lit up when he saw her. He wrote silly notes to her in class and phoned her, actually phoned her at home! They’d shared Cokes at McDonalds and even talked about subjects other than math. She liked his smile. He was pretty good looking when he met her eyes.

Her Declaration had surprised her as much as him. She had been ambivalent for the longest time, but now was committed. Where she had been embarrassed, she was proud. Where she had been naive she was wise. He had no idea how much she loved him.

“You are such an idiot! How can you not know your mother’s boss was such a big deal? Did you actually not know he was the guy who thought up those rocket ships they were going to build in China? The ones that would fly all over the universe and come back in five seconds?”

“Well, they wouldn’t actually fly, they’d sort of transform or something. That’s the part I can’t figure out. The math kept jumping all over the place– I really couldn’t follow it.”

“Do you remember the equations on the blackboard?”

“Sort of, but I’ve been kind of distracted lately,” he said with a sly grin.

“Glad to hear it. But don’t you think you should tell somebody? After all, all the people who could read the equations are dead.”

“So maybe I shouldn’t say anything. They’re the equations of doom!”

“Will you please shut up and take me seriously? Send the physics department an email or something. Tell them what you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll listen to a 14-year-old.”

“Joey, you’re an idiot savant. You can barely function as a human being, but you’re a screaming genius at math. Please tell these people that you understand these equations. You don’t have to tell them how old you are. It’s an email!”

“I’m sure there are lots of people who understand that stuff.”

“I don’t think so. Joey, I’ve seen you do math. You don’t just solve problems, you make friends with them. It’s almost like a conversation, or something. I love math but I”m still only halfway through that book you bought me. You read all the books in the series in a couple of days.”

He finally reached for her hand. “Do you really think I’m that smart?”

“Yes.”

 

DeGroot stared at the email. The sender’s name was familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

Please accept this email in application for work at solving the equations put forward by Associate Professor Dr. Hans Fogelborg, PhD.

I was fortunate enough to have had an opportunity to examine his equations and believe I may have detected some errors of a mathematical nature.

I would be happy to consult further in this matter and am able to make myself available at your convenience.

Please feel free to contact me at my coordinates below any time.

Sincerely

Bernard Jones Esq.

Joey and June had worked at the letter together. Being inexperienced in the adult world they had taken some time with it. Finally they had asked Joey’s mother for help, telling her it was for a class project.

She had been too worried about their family finances to take much interest but showed them a file of appicaitons she had made to several businesses soliciting freelance work. They had used her letters as a model.

June was amazed that Joey’s real first name was Bernard. She’d always liked that name.

 

DeGroot was not impressed. He wanted the fuss to die down so he could get back to running a clean and tidy department. But he couldn’t just trash the email. He must be seen as leaving no stone unturned to solve the problem. He composed the following reply:

Dear Mr. Jones:

Thank you for your communication re an error in mathematical reasoning in the so-called ‘Fogelborg euqtions.’ We have received many similar offers as you will appreciate and are requesting expressions of interest in forming an evaluation committee to review them and make recommendations. The deadline for expressions of interest expires June 1, after which an adhoc organizing committee of the universty will review expressions of interest and make recommendations regarding the establishment of such a suitable body. It is up to the evaluation committee to act on the offers of generous people like yourself so I have forwarded your email to the appropriate people. If they decide your proposal is worthy, they will contact you.

It is the position of the university that the Fogelborg Equations are the property of the Physics Department as they were developed by Dr. Fogelborg while in our employ.

Legal representations have been received from several universities and foundations claiming ownership or part ownership of these equations based on their alleged roles in the training and experience of Dr. Fogelborg and his assistants.

We also have received representations from several of Dr. Fogelborg’s graduate students who claim to have made substantive contributions to the scientific ideas outlined in the equations.

As well the Waterloo Police have informed us that the equations are considered part of a crime scene as it has not yet been determined if there was foul play in Dr. Fogelborg’s death. Therefore further progress on evaluating these equations must wait until these legal and police matters have been dealth with.

I appreciate your consideration in this matter.

 

Sincerely,

 

Wm. DeGroot, PhD

Head of Physics Department

Waterloo University.

 

Degroot pressed the ‘send’ button on his laptop.

He knew what to do next. From his suit pocket he pulled a pair of protective laboratory gloves and opened the bottom drawer of his desk. He pressed the back of the drawer with his fingers and forced it up. Behind it was a glassine specimen envelope. Inside was the key to Fogelborg’s office. The physics department was deserted. Unobserved, he crossed the hallway to Fogelborg’s office, still sealed with police tape.

He removed the tape and slid the key into the lock. Once inside he crossed the office to the blackboard, still covered with cryptic equations. A blackboard brush was still lying in the chalk gutter at the bottom. Erasing the equations would take just a second but he hesitated. They represented the work of a lifetime, the pinnacle, however imperfect, of a distinguished scientist’s career.

DeGroot had a better idea. As an administrator his math skills were not equal to Fogelborg’s but he could follow most of the equations. Suppose he made a few changes, nothing large but enough to throw the whole process into doubt. The few scientists capable of evaluating the work would dismiss it as flawed. Fogelborg’s equations would appear to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

He could anticipate how news reporters would handle it. The pompous young men and women would comb and spray their hair and stand before their TV cameras with the campus in the background and tell the story of a small school with big dreams. “For a brief, heady moment it looked like Waterloo led the world in the field of theoretical astro physics,” they’d say. “But top scientists in the field say there are enough errors in Dr. Fogelborg’s equations to entirely dismiss his ideas. The dream of faster-than-light drive remains just that, a dream.”

Degroot erased a line of Fogelborg’s equations and replaced it with some equally cryptic notations of his own.

Then he closed the door, replaced the police tape and retreated to his office. He put the key and the gloves into his sandwich bag to be disposed of later and got ready to drive home to his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

 

Joey ran a finger lightly down June’s bare shoulder all the way to the elbow. She shivered as his hand dropped to her naked hip. He slowed his movement, feeling how her flesh softened as his finger progressed from the iliac crest to the hip bone. He felt her soft breath in the crook of his shoulder and sensed the quickening of her heart.

The phone rang: “did you hear? The equations are no good!”

“Oh,” said Joey. “Yes. The equations.”

“Hello!” said June. “Are you there? Where were you?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Were you having fun?”

“I was. So were you.”

They had made remarkable progress as a couple for people who’d never kissed.

June had given Joey lots of openings and though he had been too shy for that fateful teenage moment she knew it would soon arrive. In the meantime they were practicing. They teased each other about more intimate encounters and June loved to embarrass her shy boyfriend. “You don’t just grab someone, you have to persuade them,” she’d say with an affected expertise. “Use just your fingers, like you’re caressing a small, soft animal.” Clearly, Joey had been doing his homework.

But there were more pressing matters: “there was some guy on TV who said the equations were totally bogus. Then DeGroot got on the news and said it was all a big mistake.”

“Who was on TV?”

“Some guy,” head of CERN, that physics lab in Europe? Apparently a bunch of them flew in last night and looked at the blackboard where he wrote his equations. They were like, ‘my kid could do better than this’ and all that stuff.”

“Oh… shit. Too bad.”

Joey coulnd’t disguise his relief. The equations had served their purpose. They had brought him closer to June. But they were useless. He could see that himself. Now, he would be spared the effort of trying to figure out where they went wrong and trying to correct them.

It’s a little-known fact that great scientists don’t always enjoy their work. Sometimes they’d rather play video games or daydream about their girlfriends. Joey had another reason. June had been right that his approach to math problems was more like making friends than solving for unknowns. But some of the inhabitants of that theoretical world were anything but friendly.

June wasn’t so easily discouraged. “Do you think there was ever anything to them?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying much attention at the time. I could follow the math but the reasoning didn’t seem to make sense. They seemed to jump all over the place.”

June was surprised how disappointed she was. She hadn’t been able to keep up with Joey but she’d been gaining on him. Without telling him she’d bought Book II of the Schaum’s Outline and had immersed herself in problems every tnight. She was closing in on Stoke’s theerem.

There had been something satisfying about her progress along this abstract pathway. Here was a place where only her brain mattered. Math didn’t care who she was, what she looked like or even what she thought. She could have been a crazy homeless lady foraging in a dumpster or, more likely, a lonely spinster who sublimated her disappointment in love with this strange hobby. No doubt her theorems would be discovered years after her death to the shocked befuddlement of the stupid other people in the world. She liked her heroes humble with a touch of tragedy.

So as in other times, they went to the playground where Joey pushed June on the swing. He loved to push her higher and higher until she flew out of reach, her heels almost over his head. Then he’d pretend he’d forgotten she was there and wander into her path as she hurtled towards him shrieking with delight and fear. At the last possible instant he would discover his perilous situation and, with a terrified shout, leap for his life.

Normally June loved the screaming and shrieking but this time her heart wasn’t in it. They sat together on adjacent swings.

“I don’t think we should give up. I think there’s something to those equations. I mean Fogelborg was a big shot. The university was lucky to get him– remember those articles? You even said your Mom was bowled over to get to work with him.”

Joey dug his toe into the mud. “Nah, she wasn’t. She just needed a job. That was just after my dad got sick.”

Sick? I thought you said he walked out.

No. He went crazy. Started hearing voices. Wouldn’t take his meds. Said Fogelborg was the mastermind behind a conspiracy against him.

Holy shit! How do you know he was crazy?

Because when he took his drugs he was my dad. When he didn’t he was weird, okay? I hate talking about it.

Sorry, I didn’t know.

Joey’s stomach felt like it was full of lead, pinning him to his seat. He wanted to run away from June’s nosy questions, but he couldn’t move.

“I hate math. I’m done.”

“What? Are you cr— why?”

“I’m sick of it. I’m good at it, but that doesn’t mean I like it. I’ll try something else for a while.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. I think I’ll join the football team”

A good research scientists sometimes develops an itch when an accepted theory doesn’t fit the facts. Detective John Smith was no scientist but he had learned to trust his intuition and to scratch any available itch even if it meant reopening an investigation. He had been the officer in charge of the Fogelborg death and, until yesterday, had been convinced it was a suicide.

And then he saw the equations on the news over a lonely TV dinner.

“These are the cryptic scrawls that fired the imaginations of scientists everywhere” intoned a reporter as the camera panned Fogelborg’s blackboard. “But top scientists from the prestigious CERN institute in Switzerland have just concluded the work was fatally flawed.”

Smith had been thorough in his examination of Fogelborg’s office. He’d stared at the equations for 15 minutes looking for some kind of coded message. He stared hard at the image on the TV monitor. “Holy shit,” he thought.

Half an hour later he was in his office looking at the pictures the evidence technician had shot of the blackboard. The ‘inscrutable scrawls’ in the police pictures did not match the image pulled from the TV news video.

He stuffed the images in his briefcase and headed to the physics lab. It was late evening but the campus was crowded. The heavy security detail had been dismissed. Smith had no trouble walking straight up to Fogelborg’s office.

It was locked. He looked through the tiny mail slot but the lights were off. He caught a whiff of cleaning fluid through the opening. Had the janitors beaten him to it?

It took two hours to get a security guard, jangling keys and grumbling about overtime, to let him in the door.

Smith rushed to the blackboard.

The janitors had done an excellent job. The blackboard showed only an immaculate black surface. Even the chalk gutter had been wiped clean and the lonely blackboard brush nearly glowed with freshness. The room reeked of cleaning fluid. Gone were the framed photos, the books from the shelves and the model of the space station which had hung from the ceiling. Even Fogelborg’s Darth Vader lampshade had been replaced by a tasteful desklamp from the building amenties department.

It took another two hours to find the crew that had cleaned the office. They swore they had been ordered to sanitize it by Chancellor Victoria Snoith, the same academic who had so fiercely protected the blackboard only a few days earlier. “We don’t want people getting upset,” said Snoith who had been summoned to help police with their enquiries. “After all, Dr. Fogelborg had a family and many colleagues in the university who would be much happier if this incident was put completely to rest. I’m sure that’s what Dr. Fogelborg would have wanted. We’re just complying with his wishes. It’s all for the best. We’re going forward.”

Snoith had never been to Peking and was completely unaware of the existance of Dr. Wang, Party cadre and thought leader at the People’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, but she’d have understood him perfectly.

Smith stared at Snoith carefully during her explanation. Aside from nervous hand movments, she didn’t seem to be lying. It seemed she had succumbed to the same public relations virus targetted the brains of high ranking executives and bureaucrats. She had been quick to order the blood stains scrubbed from the tarmac where Fogelborg had perished and had been equally efficient in removing all evidence of his existence from the office.

He ordered Snoith out of the office on the grounds that it was a crime scene once again. “We’ll find out what really happened” he told the chancellor as he escorted her to the door, one hand firmly on her elbow.

It wasn’t until Smith returned to his seat that he saw what had eluded him and everybody else up to that point. The cleaners had been thorough. Their scrubbing had restored the blackboard frame to its original colour. And along the bottom edge were the faded impressions of two small handles.

Smith used a metal office ruler as a pry bar along the bottom edge of the blackboard.

It moved.

There was a second blackboard underneath and it was full of mathematical notations.

Smith dialled the duty sargeant on his cell phone. “I need an evidence photographer right now.”

 

It had taken all Joey’s courage to sign up for the football team on the first day of practice. “What do you play?” asked the coach.

“I don’t know sir, I’ve never played,” said Joey.

Coach shrugged. “Well get out there and see if you can catch something”.

He had been ignored for at least five minutes as other boys, all members of the junior high jock crowd, ran in a furious melee on the muddy field. It took him a while to realize that only a few boys were actually throwing footballs and that some of the runners were actually trying to stop the others from catching them. The idea seemed to run clear of the crowd so somebody would throw the ball at him.

 

Joey was a good runner and the others were ignoring him anyway so he ran to a clear spot and turned around as he’d seen the others do. His his face exploded as a ball rocketed into his chin. His vision went black as he tipped backward into the freezing mud.

Joey heard the coach: “you okay?”

“Yessir,” said Joey, blinking to restore his vision. He knees shook as he rose from the mud, covered with dirt. He tasted blood. His mouth throbbed where the ball had hit. The field was alive with laughter.

“Next time look around a bit sooner,” shouted one of the players.

Joey ran slowly away, stretching his arms out and looking backwards. “Like this?”

“Yeah!” Again the ball rocketed towards him, but this time over his head.

“Don’t throw so hard, hotshot,” yelled the coach. If your receiver can’t catch the ball, you’re just throwing it away.

Next time the ball floated towards him, gyrating in a long, lazy arc in the blue September sky.

It was the first time Joey had caught anything since his father had played catch with him on a sunny fall afternoon not unlike this one. Dad had whooped as Joey, five years old, managed to clasp the fat rubber ball between his pudgy hands. He had been giddy with delight. Dad had been clear-eyed, wise and powerful.

He played all afternoon with the high school jocks, getting muddier by the minute. He caught some passes, dropped others, then switched to defence, trying to keep others from catching the ball.

He regained that simple pleasure of his first fall afternoon. He loved the bruising tackles, the heart-bursting runs and the climax of a good catch. He was surprised at the easy way the boys had of touching each other. He loved the playful slaps and punches, the occasional hand that lingered on his shoulder. He felt like he belonged.

“I should tell June about this,” he thought as he changed into street clothes in the locker room. Someone snapped a towel at him, cracking it like a whip. How quickly things had changed! How glad he was that he’d found the courage to join in. He sat on the bench grinning. I’m on the team!

June. She barely talked to him any more. She didn’t come to the bicycle shop and often skipped the study period where he had introduced her to calculus. The few conversations they’d had were filled with awkward silences.

He had been used. June had only pretended to like him. She had wanted his math skills and nothing more. When he’d stopped helping her she’d dumped him. Now she was hanging around with Mickey, the drippy clarinet player with the peachfuzz goatee.

She and Mickey would go to the sock hop together. They probably played on the swings when he was at football practice or working. He hated Mickey. He hated June. He hated math. Especially math.

Alright Math, see if you can solve this problem: Person A and Person B are doing a certain piece of work. Person A hates math, Person B loves it. Person C plays clarinet and has a fuzzy beard. How long before Person A punches Person C right in his fuzzy face and walks away with Person B?

Joey was not surprised to hear the voice of Math amid the locker-room clamour: “depends on how close you are to Person C.”

Math seemed to have an acerbic wit to go with his voice, which was that of an older male, aggressive and mean.

“Where have you been? Did I scare you off with that last set of equations? Are you afraid you can’t solve them? Why can’t you solve them? Are you stupid? Yes, you’ll be a stupid boy. Can’t teach anything to a stupid boy.”

“Shut up Math. I don’t need you.”

“You need me if you’re going to get June back.”

“I don’t care. I can play football. I’m on the team. I don’t need June.”

“June doesn’t need you either. She’s got a new boyfriend and she’s studying calculus at home. She’ll figure out those equations by herself.”

“She can’t do that. Nobody can do that. Everybody tried and nobody could do it.”

“You can do it.”

“I won’t.”

“You’re talking to yourself. Didn’t we go over this? Do you want people to think you’re crazy as well as stupid? Where are your headphones?”

“Joey. Where are your headphones?”

“You’ll never amount to anything without me you know. You can’t do anything by yourself. You’re too stupid. You can’t even be friends with June.”

Joey pressed his hands to his ears and stared fiercely at the puddles on the concrete floor. The room was nearly empty.

Had he been talking to himself again? Could he still part of the team? He heard the echo of laughter in one corner. Were they laughing at him? He listened for whispers.

He replayed the wonderful afternoon in his head. There was leaping for the ball, catching it. Slapping high-fives with other boys. Here he was carrying the ball, swerving around a blocker, hitting the dirt after a flying tackle, skidding into the mud. Somebody was helping him up. Somebody was throwing a towel at him as they entered the locker room. Somebody was squirting water at him as he soaped himself shyly in the shower. Somebody was snapping a towel at him as he dried off.

More than anything Joey wanted to be part of that team. He clenched his jaw. He’d never speak again if that’s what it took. He finished dressing and strode from the locker room, a football hero: quiet, solitary, determined.

Math was shouting at him now. Answer me! Answer me! You stupid, stupid boy!

 

June wanted to cry but she didn’t know how. Most of her friends growing up had been boys and she’d simply never got the knack. Crying was for girls, she thought, ignoring the inconvenient fact that she happened to be one.

She threw herself on her bed, buried her face in her pillow and waited for the tears to come. Nothing. She tried snuffling. Nothing. She hated Joey for leaving her like this. He was having a great time playing football while she pretended to admire Mickey’s music. His clarinet stylings, as he preferred to call it.

She rolled over, still holding the pillow, pressing it to her chest. She remembered how his voice became authoritative and confident when dealing with a subject he knew. He’d been so patient explaining derivatives and integrals. But she’d been good to him too. She’d ignored his stutterings, his twitchy movements, his lurching, stumbling walk and his silly headphones.

She’d never thought of Joey as a boyfriend. He’d been a clueless nerd, a puppy-dog who fell over himself in his eagerness to be with her. She’d tolerated him until he seduced her with his math, this wonderful tool for unlocking the secrets of the universe. She was amazed at what a mind could accomplish by just thinking. She imagined them walking together, thinking their way through one problem after another, teaming their intellects and laying waste to the mysteries of the universe.

“Damn you, Joey,” she thought. Her eyes were wet. Her nose was running. A bubble of snot puffed from her nose. Crying was supposed to be decorous and feminine. Snot was not part of the picutre. And it didn’t make her feel better anyway.

She sat up. At times like these, when she was bored or lonely she turned to the one thing she was good at, the way a musician wants to practice or an athlete wants to train. The Schaum’s Outline was waiting at her desk, open at the last problem. She sat at her desk, feeling better right away. She didn’t need Joey. Math could be the friend she needed. Math was reasonable, predictable and deeply satisfying.

She wondered if Joey thought that way, about Math as if it were a friend. “Hey Math,” she thought playfully, “are you friends with Joey?”

“Not any more,” said a voice, precise, dismissive, female.

June froze. “Omigod!

 

—3—

 

June knew that Math didn’t really exist, at least not in the way we humans thing of something existing. Math was just a language, developed by early humans thousands of years ago as a means of counting objects and manipulating information.

But she’d heard a voice that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Was this the voice that Joey sometimes heard?

She closed the Schaum’s Outline and backed away from her desk, not willing to tempt the voice again.

She knew Joey sometimes heard voices. It had taken her a while to realize that. Sometimes he just shut his eyes and held his hands over his ears as if he didn’t want to talk to her. But there were times when he’d answer them, mostly with that hoarse sing-song whisper he’d developed that sounded like he was singing to music. Really he was saying “Shut-up!” over and over again.

Joey had never admitted that he heard voices. “I get ideas,” he’d say. “That’s all.”

If this was how it felt to get ideas June didn’t want anyting to do with it. That voice had sounded so real she’d looked around to see who was in the room with her. “Please don’t,” she thought. “Don’t come back. I’m not good at this, not like Joey.”

The voice didn’t return, she began to think it was a nightmare, a dream. Perhaps she’d dozed off? Was real? “Oh, Joey,” she thought. “I’m sorry.”

Thee book remained. Schaum’s outline of Mathematics with Analytic Geometry. Even the title was scary. How many 14-year-olds were interested in such obscure subjects?

Only June.

She knew for sure. Math was for her. It wasn’t just the ridiculous posturing of the social order of junior high student. She could have deciphered that. Teen magazines told her how. She could have had the boy, the dance, the parties, the make-out sessions. She could go to college. A degree. A career as an elementary school teacher.

A nice young man, a nice house. Nice kids, nice life.

And, oh my God, a copy of Schaum’s Outline on her bookshelves. The constant challenge. The voice that got in the way of dinner parties, play dates and soccer games. The marriage.

Two people are trying to solve the mysteries of the univerese. How long before one of them jumps out of their goddam office window?

June knew where she fit in that equation. Joey might drive himself crazy and he might drive June crazy too, but she didn’t have a choice. She that talent. She could work with him. He needed her. No single person could expect to prevail at the task they had before them. Thinking is a social activity. Conversations don’t happen in a vacuum and neither do ideas. It takes two.

His number was on speed dial of her cellphone: “Hey. How are you? Are you okay?”

1 thought on “The Equations of Doom

  1. I agree with you that this has the potential to be a full-size novel, or at least a novella. I’d even go as far as to say that it needs to be a substantially longer story or else be scaled down and simplified. As it is, there’s a lot going on, many interesting thoughts and ideas, characters I want to know more about. But they seem to be going off in various directions, which can be confusing.

    I think this is exacerbated by the fact that, much as I’m intrigued by both the equations and the Joey/June relationships, I don’t really have a sense of any stakes or character goals, so it feels a bit meandering at times, lacking momentum. Not all stories need clear stakes and goals; some are more like character studies, glimpses into someone else’s life – Dream Girl, for example, is a bit like that – but these pieces generally work, I find, because they’re short. Longer pieces often benefit from a sense of direction and movement.

    Of course I don’t know where you’re thinking of taking things, but one thought I had based on what I’ve read is to perhaps structure the story around the mystery of Fogelborg’s death. Instead of explaining DeGroot’s involvement and motivation from the offset, make finding out part of the narrative, whether through the detective character or Joey and/or June nosing around.

    On the subject of DeGroot and his motivation: maybe it’s because my experiences at universities only come from being a student, but I’m not sure I buy it. Why wouldn’t DeGroot want academics to make important discoveries? I get that he’s in admin and not a dean or somesuch, but it just seems counterintuitive to me, an over-the-top reaction to avoid ‘untidiness’.

    On the other hand – in this is me typing as I think – I’m getting that the tone you may be going for is more quirky and humorous than your other stories so far, a bit satiric perhaps? In places the narration reminds me very much of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I especially enjoyed “DeGroot hadn’t become a top university bureaucrat without knowing how to stop innovation in its tracks.” In that case it’s fine, even desirable, to be a bit silly with characters and motivations. You may even wish to lean into it a bit more, as at other times the tone comes across as more serious and conventional. I wonder if you perhaps haven’t quite decided where to take it?

    I like Joey a lot by the way! Though I’m also a little worried about him and his over-active imagination/mental health issues. I like the juxtaposition of his mathematical genius with his lack of people skills. I love the way we meet him; his calculations with regards to seating, the narrator pointing out that people aren’t pinballs, and then the fact that it works anyway because June thinks in a similar way.

    The title hints that something is going to go wrong with these equations and Joey seems to know as much, even he can’t explain it. There’s a sense of foreboding mixed in with it all, and I’m wondering what’s going to happen. Very intrigued by where you’re thinking of taking it and how all the strands can end up fitting together! Do let me know if you’d like to discuss it further and bounce some ideas around.

    Stray observations
    • With regards to DeGroot erasing some of the equations, I find it difficult to believe that no one would have photographed the board, seeing as it was part of a potential crime scene and was suspected of containing a hidden suicide note.
    • I’m still not really sure about the whole gas thing in the first section and whether it happened or not. It’s never referenced again and apart from the introducing Joey and June it doesn’t seem connected to the rest of the story?

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