A sample Chapter - The Breakthrough
In the back, as usual. Closest to the exit. Separated by at least three seats in every direction but to his left. The girl sitting there had placed herself only two seats away. Her somewhat flattened face was leaned forward, her eyes pulled into a squint as she stared down at her notebook. A notebook, not a tablet. The writing utensil in her hand was not a stylus but a normal pen. It wasn’t unheard of, of course, to plunge oneself a decade back like that. The tactile experience and learning comprehension, the usual reasons.
George turned from the girl and leaned back in his small, uncomfortable seat. The flimsy wooden back of the thing bowed outward under his weight, creaking from the strain. The movement went unheard. George could have been much louder and still have been drowned out by the droning monotone of the man at the room’s front. Though he was well over 40 meters away from the man, and steeped quite a bit higher by the room’s upward slant, George could not escape the voice. It was amplified all around the room, acoustically engineered so not one of the 200 plus students in the wooden-backed desks could claim ignorance.
George didn’t bother stifling his yawn. The professor would have said nothing even if he had seen it. And through his thick spectacle lenses, the man surely could have seen it. George let his gaze wander across the desks ahead of him. The lecture hall was filled nearly seat for seat at the front, then grew more sparse the farther up the ramp. Even those near the back, nearest to George some three rows ahead, tapped furiously against their touch screens or keyboards. A few, like the girl, scribbled their notes onto old-fashioned note pads. From George’s vantage point, he saw no one whose expression suggested understanding. In their defense, however, the material of the day’s lecture, projected in giant figures on the room’s front screen, was quite complicated.
“He said this will be on the final.”
George looked away from the front of the class. The girl next to him had paused in her frantic scribbles. She cast George’s barren desk surface a disapproving look.
“You should be writing this down,” she said.
George glanced at the screen. The figures were coming faster than ever now, preceded by the wrinkled fingers and stylus of their droning professor.
“I don’t think I should,” said George.
The girl snorted, then turned back to her paper. She picked up writing where she left off. “You should if you want to know how to do it,” she said.
“If I wanted to know that, I definitely wouldn’t be copying the wrong method.”
The girl looked up at him again, frowning. George waited for a moment, then sighed. He pointed up to the screen.
“There,” he said. “Fourth line. The domain he’s integrating over is undefined - the function isn’t continuous. He’ll have to treat the set as a Cauchy sequence if the proof is to be generalizable.”
The girl followed his gaze up to the screen. Her lips moved, soundlessly, as she mumbled something under her breath. After a pause, she dropped her pen and turned back to him. “Where did you have that written down?” she asked.
George only smiled. He sank a bit lower into his seat and propped his head up with his right arm. He could leave, as he often did - the doors were only a few desk-lengths away - but the desks could be oddly comfortable. Their wood, though brittle and cheap, never quite lost its comforting scent. It pulled at George, for some reason, urged him toward sleep. But before he could doze completely, the door at the front of the room exploded inward so it slammed against the inside wall. The professor turned from his invalid proof.
“Excuse me we’re in the middle of a-”
The intruder, a gangly wide-eyed student with clothes just a half size too big, ignored the professor completely.
“George? George?” he called out again.
The girl to George’s left turned to him. George sunk a little deeper into his desk.
“Young man,” said the professor, voice still amplified, “I will not have my lecture interrupted. You will leave at once.”
“I’m sorry professor,” said the gangly student. “I’m looking for my friend. It’s important.”
The student still hadn’t fully acknowledged the professor. His eyes were scanning the desks up the ramp, knowing, it seemed, to look toward the back.
“I don’t care what you think is important you can’t just-”
The student’s eyes had come to a stop on the last row, on George. Knowing it was no use hiding - especially when his friend was in this kind of mood - George stood.
More excited now than ever, the student came hurtling up the stairs three at a time, more than once coming dangerously close to a trip.
“What are you doing, Al?” said George when his friend was close enough.
“We did it,” said the boy named Al. He was panting by the time he got to the back row. “I fixed the glass.”
George raised his brow. Al seemed on the verge of embracing him. “What glass?” he said.
“The glass,” said Al. “It’s not plastic; it’s glass. We can do it, George, I know we can. After we get the patent no one else will be able to-”
The usually feeble, pitchless voice of the professor rang out from everywhere at once. George turned back to the front of the class. The students in the frontmost desks were staring back. Behind them, the professor was standing under his wall-sized screen, fuming.
Al looked down at him, then at the projected scratch work. He frowned. “Does he know his integral is-”
“No,” said George. “Forget that. How did you do it? Where did you find the-”
“This is your last chance!” the professor called out. “If you do not sit down this instant, you will fail my course.”
George glanced down at the professor. The man looked ready to hurl the stylus up at them. But Al’s excitement was infectious.
“Come on,” said Al. “I’ll show you everything. We need to go to the lab.”
George turned to him, then back to the professor.
“Let him fail you,” said Al, dismissively. “It’s just an elective.”
“Elective?” the girl next to them chimed in. “You’re taking this as an elective?” She looked down at her notepad, at the rows and rows of Greek letters spaced with mathematical symbols. George looked down at it as well. She hadn’t fixed the integral.
“It would be interesting if we had a real professor,” said George, offhandedly. He turned back to Al. “Ok,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Al smiled at him, then led the way toward the exit. The amplified voice called pointlessly after them.
Minutes later, they were across the small campus in an old, poorly kept chemistry lab. But for the lingering echo of the door behind them, the place was utterly quiet. They were alone - the whole building had been condemned. It was the perfect place for their makeshift headquarters. After George had convinced the dean, of course.
“It was one of the strains we had thrown out,” said Al. He stepped deeper into the lab, between tables heaped high with beakers and homemade packets of hazardous looking powder. George followed.
“I was working with them today,” said Al. “It was the strain we thought would be too brittle.”
He came to a stop next to a table with a setup even more elaborate than the others. The powder from one of the packets had been emptied into a dish, under which a small flame was lit. And the area around it was scattered with test tubes of thick, toxic looking liquid.
“I don’t know why I started playing with it,” said Al, eyes locked on the now bubbling dish of powder. “But I started altering it. Combining it with some of the other strains. And it’s perfect.”
George looked down at the dish as well. He noticed the array of small packets surrounding it, each torn open and emptied only partway of its contents.
“In the lecture hall,” said George. “You said something about glass. What were you talking about?”
“This!” said Al. “The material is a synthetic. It’s a plastic-glass hybrid. I don’t know what made me try it. I just…” He looked down at the dish, at the half empty packets around it, at a loss.
“But glass hasn’t been used for a hundred years,” said George. “And for good reason. Besides everything else, the heating process destroys the chips.”
Al grinned. “We’re not using the chips,” he said. George titled his head, questioning. “I wasn’t going to tell you until I was sure,” continued Al, “but a couple weeks ago I was going through our process again…”
George rolled his eyes. Al’s “process” was on - and perhaps past - the border of neurotic.
“…and I just knew it wouldn’t work,” he said. “Here. Let’s do it again.”
“Al I already know what they-”
“Just trust me.”
George opened his mouth to protest, but stopped. Al had already turned away. He was starting toward the front of the room, retrieving the usual small box from the desk there. George waited by the small flame, shaking his head.
“Just like always,” said Al, returning, “the plastic first.” He reached into the box and removed the first set of contact lenses. When he handed them to George, his hands trembled all the way down to the fingertips.
“Al,” said George, softening his tone a little. “When was the last time you slept.”
Al placed the box on the table and put his hands in his pockets. “The plastics first,” he said.
Sighing, George lifted the contacts over his eyes and dropped them over the surface. He blinked several times until his eyes had acclimated.
“What do you see?”
“Al we’ve done this a million times why-”
“Just tell me,” said Al. George sighed again.
“The same thing I always do,” he said. “I see the lines of the chip. It blocks certain things. And it all has a greenish tint. Barely noticeable, but still green.”
“Right,” said Al. “They’re terrible. Now…” he reached into the box again and handed George the second pair. Rather gladly, George removed the plastic pieces from his eyes. He took the glass version from Al and dropped those in instead.
“And those?” said Al.
“It’s much clearer,” said George. “I can still see the lines of the nanoweb, but only barely. If I weren’t looking for them, I might not notice. But they’re crazy uncomfortable. I feel the glass every time I blink.”
When Al nodded in agreement, George took out these second contacts as well.
“What’s this about, Al?” he said. “We both know the limitations. The nanoweb is ideal, but it can’t be made without glass, and glass is too uncomfortable. So that leaves some kind of plastic, but in the plastic we have to use chips, and those won’t be small enough or powerful enough for at least another ten years. The market will be gone by then.”
“Exactly,” said Al. For some reason, his excitement hadn’t faded. “That’s why I stopped working on the chips months ago.”
George’s jaw dropped. “You stopped working on the chips! That’s our only way to…” George trailed off when Al held up a second box. This one wasn’t made of cheap cardboard like the other, but of some harder kind of plastic, and not cubic in shape, but round and elegant.
“What is that?” asked George.
Al flipped open the thing’s top. “The third option,” he said. “Our option.” He held the case out in front of him.
“What are you talking about?” asked George.
“Just try them,” said Al. He motioned down to the case. Frowning, George reached inside. He grabbed the third set of contacts there and placed them over his eyes. He glanced around the lab, testing them. Al watched him, anxious, hands still shaking. George breathed out, heavily, then removed the things from his eyes.
“You need to get some sleep, Al,” he said. “They’re just normal contacts.” George rubbed a hand over his own eyes, somehow fatigued himself by his friend’s sleepless effort. He tried to put the contacts back into the case, but Al pulled it away. He was smiling.
“Look closer,” he said.
“Al I need to get back to class I can’t afford to-”
The word echoed loudly off the walls of the lab. Al had raised his voice. George looked up at him. His eyes were wide, his fragile, pointed features pulled into a stubborn, uncompromising look. Frowning once again, George raised the contacts up to his eyes. He didn’t put them on; he just brought them close enough to see the surface where, now, up close, he could see the thin, spindly strands of the nanoweb. He looked up at Al. Al was smiling once more. His eyes were glassy with tears.
“What do you think?” he asked.
George felt the hair on his arms rise, his heartrate quicken. He looked back down at the contacts in his palm, at the undeniably present lines of the nanoweb. He pinched them between his fingers. They had a give to them, but not too much. They were thin and light, but firm. He looked up at Al, but Al had eyes only for the contacts. His breathing had deepened, and his hands had grown oddly still now.
“It’s our product,” he said. He looked up at George. “I call them Lenses.”