John gone, p.5
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       John Gone, p.5

           Michael Kayatta
 

  January 31st, 1972:

  With each left step, Felix absently dragged the bottom of his foot across the floor as he made his way toward room B13. The friction of his sole against the freshly polished tile caused a choppy vibration that hummed down the corridor between his footsteps. The noise was a welcome one and, for him, oddly calming. He’d never liked the quiet, and certainly wasn’t likely to find much else down the long, lonely halls of Harvard University during this time of night.

  He took a moment to look down at the partially cracked face of his wristwatch. In three minutes it would be precisely one thirty in the morning, which meant that come three minutes from now, he will have missed the entire class he was supposed to be arriving at one hour and fifty-seven minutes ago. He wasn’t particularly sure why he was still on his way to the soon-to-be-empty classroom after its dismissal, but assumed that he’d figure it out by the time he arrived.

  Felix heard the professor speaking in his head: What’s the point of participating in the program if you refuse to apply yourself and take part in our discussion? It was the same tired objurgation he’d heard many times before. He could recite it backward by now and decided to do so in his head as he walked farther down the way.

  A foreign noise echoed from the stretch of corridor ahead of him, interrupting his train of thought. Felix stopped for a moment and listened; it was a pair of footsteps trotting toward him, followed by a second. It wasn’t long before the soft light of the hallway’s faded bulbs revealed the culprits, Jenn and her boyfriend Bradley. At least, he thought Bradley was her boyfriend; they certainly spent enough time together. Since meeting them both at the start of the program three years ago, Felix had never been able to pinpoint the precise nature of their relationship.

  He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose toward his eyebrows and peered out at the pair. He wondered what sort of person goes by “Bradley.” “Brad” seemed so much more efficient.

  “Felix!” Bradley shouted. The muscular, blond nineteen-year-old chuckled a bit before jogging ahead of Jenn to meet Felix head on.

  “Why is it that no matter what the conversation, you always laugh before you speak?” Felix asked, not expecting an answer.

  Bradley complied with the assessment. “What’s going on, bud?” he asked. “Where were you tonight?”

  “Oh, you know me, Brad,” he replied. “Just busy, per usual.”

  Bradley smirked. “It’s Bradley, actually. As I know you already know.”

  “Well, if you’ll excuse me, Bradley,” Felix replied tiredly, “as you yourself have pointed out, I am quite late for class this evening.”

  Bradley chuckled. “Late? You’re a bit more than late, pal. Class ended just a minute ago.”

  “Then I suppose,” Felix said, “I am exceedingly early for tomorrow’s. Either way, if you’ll excuse me.”

  “Huh?”

  “I am trying to ... ”

  Felix paused his response, interrupted by Jenn’s noisy approach. He looked past Bradley to her feet and watched her clonk briskly toward their conversation in those purple high-heeled shoes she so often wore. She strolled up to Bradley’s backside and parked herself directly behind him, peering from over his left shoulder at Felix. Her slender body was completely concealed by Bradley’s large frame, giving Felix the illusion that Bradley now had two heads, albeit one much more attractive than the other.

  Felix had always found Jenn appealing, but her physicality was where any thought of interest halted. She was attractive enough--good complexion, light eyes, athletic build--but something was off.

  What’s wrong with this one? he wondered. It’s the way she always says my name, he immediately decided, like she’s spitting out something unexpectedly pickle-flavored. Or perhaps it’s simply that insufferable Bradley who’s always hanging from her bodice like a vestigial appendage. And the hair, he added. Yes, her hair is just a bit too short. Five centimeters, perhaps.

  “Felix?” Jenn asked, a puzzled look on her face.

  “Oh, sorry,” Felix stumbled. “Did you just say something?”

  “Yes,” she said, a smile forced across thin lips. “I was asking where you were tonight. I would really have liked to hear your input on the relationship between the quantum state and cellular mitosis.”

  “Is that so?” Felix wasn’t sure whether to feel complimented by the comment or annoyed about the delay that came packaged with it. He wasn’t sure why but, at that exact moment, he felt an increasing urgency to speak with the professor. He had no logical reasoning behind the impulse, but didn’t like to be stopped from doing something he wanted to do, even if he didn’t know why he wanted to do it.

  “Well, I’m sure the professor had much to say on the subject. Perhaps if I hurry now I can catch him before he turns in for the evening.”

  Jenn spoke quickly, seeming to take the hint. “Yes, well, I truly hope to see you next class. I expect you understand how much everyone benefits from full attendance by all members of Curriculum B. Especially you. It would be good of you to think about the rest of us every once in awhile, and what we’re trying to accomplish in there.”

  So much for subtlety, thought Felix. “I’m just a colleague, Jenn. A peer, nothing more,” he said aloud.

  “I know.” She nodded and turned her attention. “Come, Bradley.” Jenn lifted her arms behind the muscular teen and gave him a gentle two-handed push forward. Bradley said goodbye and Felix watched the two of them as they walked off down the corridor, speaking about something or other, with about half a meter between them.

  This was the sort of thing that bothered Felix. He was almost sure that they were a couple, but if so, then shouldn’t his arm be around her shoulders, or their hands be held together? Shouldn’t they be doing anything other than just walking half a meter apart?

  I guess it really doesn’t matter, he thought. I won’t see them again anyway. Felix stopped walking. Won’t see them again? Why did I just think that? he pondered. Maybe I subconsciously want to leave the program. Is that why I feel like speaking with Professor Linus tonight? Felix continued his walk down the hallway toward room B13.

  A few minutes later, Felix passed another group of students leaving the classroom. Some ignored him, others shot a quick and disapproving glance.

  It’s not like the institution is paying me, Felix thought. I should be the angry one.

  Soon, Felix arrived at B13’s door and knocked against its old thick wood three times. He wasn’t surprised by the, as he presumed, intentional lack of response. After all, the professor had to know it was he. Who else would be arriving at this hour?

  He sighed and cracked the door open slowly. As predicted, Professor Linus was standing on the other side, well within audible range of the earlier knocks, erasing various equations from his oversized chalkboard.

  Linus was an extremely tall man, only a few inches short of Felix himself. He looked enough like what one might expect from a prominent Ivy League professor, except for, perhaps, his infamous hairdo. The gray-speckled brown mane he sported looked more like the nesting place of an Amazonian bird than the quaff of a prominent academic. Yet, somehow, as many students had pointed out to the professor in the past, the look oddly seemed to fit him.

  If the professor heard Felix enter the room, he didn’t betray it.

  “Professor,” Felix said. He waited patiently for a response before trying again. “Professor Linus, I’d like to speak with you.”

  “And I with you,” Linus quipped, “about two hours ago.”

  “I know. You have my apologies.” Felix entered the room and walked toward one of the desks at its center.

  “Pressing business at eleven thirty on a Wednesday, have we?” Linus asked without turning to face his absentee pupil.

  “No, it isn’t that.”

  “Then,” Linus took on the voice he normally reserved for lectures, “would it be safe to assume that we’ve made an active decision to not attend class tonight?”

&nbs
p; “I suppose that would be a practical assumption.”

  “Of course it’s a practical assumption,” Linus quipped, “but is it accurate?”

  Felix lifted his glasses above his forehead and rubbed his eyes between his right index finger and thumb. “Yes,” he admitted.

  “I thought so,” Linus said, quieting. “And would it then also be safe to conclude that the only reason you would be coming here tonight at one-thirty in the morning, after class has already concluded, is to ask me for permission to leave the program at a time when I’m clearly exhausted and therefore less likely to have the stamina to try to talk you out of it?”

  “Yes,” Felix responded curtly, “that appears to be the long and short of it.”

  Linus finished erasing the board and turned to face Felix for the first time since he’d arrived. “Good,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for it.”

  “A little harsh, don’t you think, Professor?” Felix asked, slightly annoyed by the man’s reaction.

  “No, no, don’t misunderstand me.” Linus took a step toward Felix and gestured at the chair behind his desk. “Take a seat.”

  Felix, unsure of what to make of this unexpected line of discussion, cautiously sat in the professor’s puffy leather chair. Linus walked to the other side of his desk and pulled one of the loose plastic chairs from the main classroom to the front of it. He sat down.

  “Listen, Felix,” Linus said, “you aren’t a humble man, but you aren’t a prideful one either, so this might be a slightly awkward conversation for both of us. I’m going to be completely honest with you, and I would like you to take what I am about to tell you seriously.” Felix nodded, his curiosity rising with each of the professor’s words.

  “There are three things important to any scientist who wishes to affect his or her field. The first is breadth of knowledge, a collection of facts, theories and equations that exist in your brain-space instead of your textbooks. It’s the ability to answer relevant questions on the fly and reference your memory like an encyclopedia.

  “The second is genuine ingenuity. This is something that can’t be achieved through mere hard work. It’s a raw talent that most people show before the age of four if they have it to begin with. If you weren’t born with it, then there isn’t anything you can do to achieve it.”

  Felix skillfully internalized a yawn. This discussion was turning out to be a lot less intriguing and a lot more clichéd than he’d previously hoped. After all, it was almost two in the morning; almost time for bed.

  “The first two,” the professor continued, “are something that everyone who was invited to participate in Curriculum B share. Each student who attends this private late night course is one of the brightest scientific minds alive in the world today. But you, Felix, are something more. You are the only one of my students who shows the third quality, the ability to synthesize that wide knowledgebase with ingenuity on an enlightened level: true, genius-level thinking and comprehension. And I’m not talking about some six-year-old with an early penchant for chess. What I reference is the combination of a genius thought-process and a practical understanding of science. It’s the ability to produce and manipulate what we like to call ‘super science.’”

  Felix stood out of Linus’ chair and stretched his lengthy arms toward the ceiling. “Very well, Professor. You’ve convinced me to stay. No need to keep us both awake any longer for the needless coddling of my ego. We’ll see each other tomorrow.”

  Linus jumped from his chair and confronted Felix before he could move.

  “You aren’t listening to me, Felix.” Linus placed his hands on the sides on Felix’s arms just below his shoulders and guided him back down into his seat. “I’m trying to say that your abilities are beyond anyone’s in the classroom.” Felix started to stand again, but was stopped once more by the professor’s grip, this time, pressing him down into the chair with more force than before. “Felix, your aptitude in quantum biology, theoretical and applied both, surpasses even my own. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it surpasses anyone known to us here, in Europe, Asia, or beyond. And I have an offer for you.”

  “An offer?” Felix asked. The professor sharply released his hold on Felix’s arms and took a step backward. The hook was set.

  Felix shook out the wrinkles Linus had caused in his shirtsleeves and brought his glasses back down to his face. “What sort of offer?”

  “An offer from the funders of this program,” Linus replied.

  Felix squinted and straightened his spine. “I thought Harvard funded this program,” he yawned.

  “Harvard doesn’t even know about this program,” Linus continued. He walked back toward the chalkboard and absently gazed at the equations unwritten. “At least not all of it. The person, well, the company who finances this is interested in finding people like you, Felix. We’ve had absolutely no luck with it for the past two years, but this year we are going to make up for that with you.”

  “We?” Felix asked.

  “Well, I do accept a stipend from them for my own research. Did you think I ran this class out of the goodness of my heart and a blanket love of academics?” Linus laughed. “Everyone needs money, no matter what one wants to do with one’s life.” Linus whirled back toward Felix and stuck his index finger at him poignantly. “And it’s not like I’m doing anything illicit or immoral. Just moonlighting.”

  Felix chuckled at his professor’s defensive explanation. “So, tell me, Professor, what’s this offer of yours?”

  “Do you remember when you first made the decision to attend this school? It was an investment of four years of your life. An investment that was made so you could leave with debt, hoping to recoup it somehow, and get back into the black with whatever it is you hypothetically gained from these self-described hallowed halls. And what are you going to gain exactly? A scrap of paper from a recognized institution proving something to the world that you yourself already know?”

  “No special insight there,” Felix responded. “I think that’s what you’ll find in the O.E.D. when you look up the word ‘college.’”

  “What I am offering you is the chance to make one more investment, four more years of science. And this time, when you finish, you won’t have any debt. In fact,” Linus said slyly, “you’ll come out on top.”

  “How much on top?” Felix asked.

  Linus answered rapidly, his voice like a hammer against a board. “Six million dollars.”

  Felix tried to look unimpressed by the mention of such a figure, but containing the reaction welling inside of him was difficult. “Can I finish my doctorate first?” he asked, more weakly than he’d have liked.

  “Yes,” Linus answered easily. “In fact, all of your school loans will be paid, additional to the six million.”

  Felix let out a small hiccup of a laugh. “Is that so?”

  He sat quietly for another few moments before letting the inevitable suspicions catch hold of him. “So what’s the catch then?” Felix asked. “And if you say ‘no catch’ like they do in film, then I’m forgetting we had this conversation.”

  “The catch,” Linus said, “is that for these four years that you work for them, you will be owned by them. You will live on site, follow their regulations without question, and have no contact with the outside world while you’re there. You can tell no one where you are going and give no explanation as to where you were when you come back.”

  “Come back from where?” Felix asked, leaning forward and bringing his eyebrows closer together.

  “I don’t know,” Linus answered. “Wherever it is that they put you.”

 
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