This is the third week of our Guest Blog weekend experiment, which we call #StorySatuday, in which we invite people to write something different – fiction, science fiction, personal stories, poetry, or comic strips. We hope you like it.
When Chloe received the hard copy of her degree certificate last summer, she opened the tube, unrolled it, and found a small white unmarked envelope. The next morning, she mailed her CV to a man at Building 18: To the attention of Dan Auckland, Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Auckland,
I recently learned of your work in nonmetal engineering, and would like to take a chance to introduce myself …
Danielle was waiting in line for coffee during intermission at the Schaubühne when she noticed a dull ache in her upper back. The 37-year-old mousy-blonde American expatriate worked long hours managing a boutique casting agency in Berlin; many of them she spent hunched in front of a screen with a phone receiver crunched between her ear and shoulder, one hand on the keyboard, and the other on a not-so-ergonomic mouse. The stress of being in charge had led her to gain a little weight over the past year, but she still saw herself as fairly fit, and the insane price of a pack of ‘reds had forced her down from a pack a day to just one or two, now and then. I should get a massage, she thought as she tapped an unused ticket that was meant to be for her date. Or maybe he could have given me a back rub, tonight. If he had showed up. His text right before the concert read: “Hey sry got stuck w/client dinner mtg ttys.”
Before the café clerk took her order, she drew a deep breath and held it for a few seconds, hoping the ache would go away. “Light roast, with room for milk,” she told him in German. He held up his thumb and two fingers and she put three Euros on the counter. The coffee wasn’t that great, so she poured it in a nearby drinking fountain and tossed the cup as soon as they flashed the lights.
The second half was better, and she was actually kind of glad to have an empty seat next to her. It had been a long week and it was more comfortable that way. She was enjoying the maestro’s strict interpretation of Lincolnshire Posy, but was having a more and more difficult time ignoring the pain creeping down her back and a cold tingling sensation in her finger tips and toes. By the downbeat of Lost Lady Found, she could feel herself turning ashen.
The room spun faster and faster with folk melody’s beat, and Danielle’s consciousness danced on a slice of darkness the color of the principal’s oboe.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down
The northbound ICE was crowded, but after walking through three cars, Chloe and Dan found two open seats. Paar Nur, Bitte, a sign above the seats read. Below the words was a red heart.
“I suppose we’re together now,” Dan said with a slight sarcastic wink. “After you.”
His sense was humor was decent for a scientist – especially for an applied nonmetal materials engineer. In the course of many long, late nights in her advisor’s Building 66 lab, Chloe had heard about Dan – that he was fun to work with. Last year, when she was wrapping up a thesis on semiconducting nanowire arrays, she had no idea she’d end up in Dan’s group. But she was secretly happy she did. He had made her laugh almost every day since she joined his lab. She wasn’t sure if he was seeing anyone, but never asked and tried not to think of her new boss in that way. Outwardly he appeared clean cut, fit, dressed well (sometimes). But she had already seen his messy piles of papers and eccentric handwritten notes, and knew he danced that fine line between genius and insanity. At times, she wondered how some American men could be so disorganized, yet still somehow be productive. Her private British boarding school in Hong Kong had been a holdout for the classics. Rote memorization, penmanship, discipline, and more discipline. Her father, a trader of rare earth futures, would not have had it any other way. He had allowed her to quit ballet, but not math and science.
For that, she was glad. Chloe Chen at times had moments of doubt about whether the years she spent studying in the Barker stacks would pay off. Eventually she began to relate to a couple Asian friends on campus who were also raised in families where work and family were totally separate life silos. That helped.
There was something slightly thrilling to her about speeding through the German countryside from Frankfurt to Berlin, sitting next to an engineer who had taken her under his wing. As the excitement of Dan’s project assuaged some of her doubts about becoming a research engineer, she had a feeling her personal life and work were beginning to converge in a way that would be difficult to explain to her parents, and hard for them to accept. Which fellowships in China have you applied for so far, her dad asked her some weeks after she handed in her thesis. None.
“So, the non-stop ticket from Logan to Berlin was too much?” Chloe asked.
“They didn’t have any non-stop tickets,” he said. “Plus, this was like half the price, even with the train fare. You know, the prototype is going to eat up over half our grant, so we have to be careful this first year. I had to convince my administrator that this trip would be worth it.” He would suddenly get serious whenever she mentioned anything about money.
“Wasser?” A steward held out a tray of paper cups and an open plastic bottle of seltzer. Sure! They both took a cup. “Is this your first time traveling in Germany?” Dan asked, cracking another slightly devious grin. “Hope you have a taste for mineral water.”
It was Dan’s first time being a Principal Investigator. He had achieved a lot for someone in their mid-30’s, but it was his first time writing a National Institutes of Health RO-1 grant. It took nearly six months of going back and forth with the NIH’s Office of Rare Disease Research committees before he submitted a final proposal. That he had almost no background in applied medical research was mostly to blame for the hassle. Eventually the NIH saw the merit in his project and awarded his lab $150,000 a year for three budget years.
The end goal of his proposal was simple: to do something that would help make harvesting the rare element Xenon less expensive. Overwhelming evidence coming out of Europe pointed to the benefits for cardiac patients.
His engineering colleagues who had known him for several years were at times amused by his obsession with Xenon. Over pints of spring maibock on late Friday nights in Harvard Square, his freakish volume of knowledge about Xenon and all the industries it touches probably drove women away, but made for the kind of great theoretical pub banter you only hear in Boston.
He can remember really getting into it one night with a Boston University anesthesiology resident. “I’m telling you, it’s good stuff. Why aren’t we using it in the U.S.?” Dan asked. Because it’s too damn expensive.
The noblest of noble gasses, Xenon represents the scarcest gaseous slice of air we breathe. Its many uses and inert stability make it the fillet mignon of air. From 15,000-watt arc lamps that power Imax theaters to Star Trek-like “ion” engines that drive deep space probes, the stuff is very useful. Dan had been reading about it since grade school science class, when he asked his teacher how neon bulbs worked. Now he had a chance to play with it, but not as much as he would have liked – the resident that night was right. It is expensive and scarce. At 0.000009 percent of air, your entire bedroom contains about a marble size measure of Xenon.
Dan’s NIH grant project was inspired by renewed interest in Xenon for one of its most notable uses: surgical anesthesia. He never really had an interest in medicine, but as a scientist he found reading about the field of anesthesiology fascinating, because much of the research is based only on observable outcomes. A patient will never remember having their chest cracked open, but even the best anesthesiologists still don’t exactly know why. They sort of do, but they don’t. That sort of science can make an engineer cringe. Dan was the kind of man who needed to understand exactly how and why the Brooklyn Bridge never falls down.
He was staring out the window as a train zooming in the opposite direction shot by in a 2-second gray blur. “I’m really glad they’re going to let us watch a surgery,” Chloe said. “Not something I’d ever get to see.”
“Me too. Please remind me to ask the doctor if it was difficult to get Xenon on their hospital’s formulary. Since it’s a cardiac center I’m guessing not, but I’m just curious.” It had been a long time since his only surgery, a wisdom tooth extraction in high school. He remembered the experience was almost painless, but never really stopped to think more about it until Michael Jackson died. Propofol. Hey, I think I had that weird white stuff.
He turned to face Chloe, who was reading an Atavist story about hibernation on her e-book. “Have you ever had surgery?”
She looked up. “No, have you? Hope I don’t ever have to.”
“If you count wisdom teeth, then yes. Mine were deeply impacted so they had to use general anesthesia. I was just thinking about that the other day when I was reading some papers on PubMed about Xenon for our project. You know, a lot of patients don’t perceive time when they’re under. I definitely did. I woke up, felt like it had been 45 minutes, looked at the clock and I was off by only about a minute. Weird, huh?”
“Yeah, definitely,” she said. “Do you think they’ll let us talk to the patient before and after the surgery?”
He wasn’t sure, but he hoped so. If the project worked out as planned, having more anecdotal evidence on the benefits of medical Xenon might inspire the FDA to quit dragging their heels on approving clinical trials in the U.S. He didn’t know for sure, but he suspected that there were those in Washington whose personal interests were served by keeping new, more expensive treatments out of the U.S., even ones proven to be more economically effective in the long run. Maybe a Medicare thing. Maybe a FDA thing. Whatever. Accepting that government moves slowly would be part of the job, he figured mid-way through grad school. It took 15 years after the first proton beam therapy facility opened at Loma Linda University before the medical community expanded use of the technique. Distilling air was a problem on the orders of magnitude simpler than creating football field size facilities that accelerate cancer-zapping particles to a fraction of the speed of light. So he hoped his machine would make the elusive Xe atom more accessible.
Fortunately for him, someone at the NIH saw the potential value in finding a way to increase the supply of Xenon in the market. Historically, cardiothoracic surgeons in other countries have lauded Xenon anesthesia for its superior safety, seeming harmlessness, and even its potential to protect the heart and central nervous system during long procedures. And environmentalists praise it for not being a greenhouse gas. Though rare and difficult to capture, its medical use will never “endanger” it because it is not used up; it enters the cells and it leaves them with its 54 protons per atom still intact. There are ways to make compounds out of Xenon, but they involve temperatures and pressures far more extreme than anything found in the human body.
They had only landed four hours ago, so fatigue of jet lag had not yet set in. He pulled a manila folder, a small aluminum metric ruler, and a mechanical pencil from his laptop bag. He had already submitted drawings of the prototype to a grad student in his lab who was more CAD-savvy than he, but he still liked to go through the pages and layers to look for possible problems before the expensive building process began. The machine shops at MIT were great at accepting last-minute changes, but he really hoped to nail it the first time.
“There I am,” Chloe touched the spot on the page he was looking at where her semi-conducting laser element was slated to go. The prototype had been on the drawing board for almost a year, and Dan was eager to see it in real life. The cylindrical device, about a meter in diameter and two meters tall would be as elegant as the Xenon atom itself.
It would essentially be a high-tech still. The bottom of the device would have a port for liquefied air. The liquid air would travel into a vacuum sealed helix made of three layers separated by only a millimeter of space. The first, the layer actually in contact with the liquid air, was to be made out of a highly conductive copper alloy. The 1-millimeter space between the primary tube and the insulation tube was the heart of Dan and Chloe’s experiment. The exterior of the copper tube would be covered in a lattice of nanowires made of a gold alloy blended to absorb a precise wavelength of light that would be shot into the thin space by a laser diode. The interior of the insulation tube would be plated with a polished reflective surface like the Cloudgate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The ring of precise, powerful lasers would be a guided into the space by a computer adjusted semiconducting magnet – the design of which would be made easier because incoming liquefied air would make the ambient temperature at the base of the machine close to what the magnet would need to operate. An on-board loop of liquid nitrogen, also computer sensed and controlled, would make up the difference.
The integration of nanowires as microscopic heating elements and a wave guided laser diode would represent a leap forward in the 100-year-old craft of air distillation. Dan planned to optimize the machine completely for capturing Xenon. Nitrogen and oxygen would be sent outside as exhaust gas, and the other noble gasses in the order of their respective boiling points, Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon and Radon would be captured from the still at exact points along the machine’s helix where they would boil.
If Dan and Chloe could master the waveguide apparatus, they could achieve just the right temperatures along the distillation trail to capture the gasses in a pure enough form that they wouldn’t need lots of extra processing. Versions of the machine scaled up for industrial use could be located in cold climates for an extra measure of efficiency, much for the same reason several prominent glass factories make their home in Norway and Sweden.
Chloe went back to her e-book and Dan leaned against his seat back as far as he could. “I think I’m going to get some rest,” he said. He put his drawings in his briefcase and slid it beneath his seat. They woke up a couple hours later leaning against each other’s shoulders when the ICE came to a gentle stop at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
“What happened next?” Dr. Ekkehardt asked.
Danielle had been awake for a couple minutes, confused at first, but quickly figured it out. She could feel an IV needle in her left hand. She lifted her head slightly and looked down at her chest. The orchid silk blouse she had been wearing was gone, replaced by an ugly gray hospital gown. There was a desk and chair to the left of her bed. Light was shining through the window onto the alternating light-teal and off-white patterns on the wall. She could feel bed linens against her bare back.
“That’s okay, relax, everything is going to be okay. You collapsed at the Schaubühne Theater last night and they brought you here. You are at Deutsches Herzzentrum,” he said.
“Where’s my …”
“Right here,” Dr. Ekkehardt lifted her iPhone from the pocket of his white coat. He smiled. Patients always want to know if their phone is okay before anything else. “This is not to alarm you, everything will be okay. But you are probably going to need surgery.”
He explained to her what an esophageal echocardiogram was and told her that she would have to have one that morning. After he left the room, she just laid there for a few minutes, trying to piece together what happened. I was starting to feel sick. Started to get up to use the rest room toward the end of the concert.
The test confirmed what they suspected, based on the chest ultrasound they gave her when she arrived at the emergency room. She had an ascending aortic aneurism. The crucial pipeline that transports blood from her heart to her brain had expanded over the years partly as a result of a bicuspid aortic valve – two leaflets that open and close releasing fresh blood from the heart instead of the normal three. They suspected her longtime smoking habit led to high blood pressure, which caused her ascending aorta to expand and tear at an earlier age than it would have otherwise.
“So you’re saying I should quit smoking?” she asked Dr. Ekkehardt after he explained the result of her echo test.
“Let’s worry about that later,” he said. “I’m going to explain how the operation will work. This is an emergency, so we have to do it tonight.”
A cardiac physician’s assistant was by his side as he walked her through the steps of the operation on his iPad. The colorful images were beautiful, but inside she was having a difficult time accepting what was about to happen. She had no family in the country, no close friends in Berlin, and the guy who was supposed to see her the previous evening was not turning out to be reliable.
“I have a question for you,” the doctor said. “I know this has been a lot to think about very suddenly today, but we have a couple American researchers visiting Herzzentrum today, and with your permission, I’d like to introduce you to them. Their names are Dan and Chloe. Dan is your age and Chloe is 31. She just finished her Ph.D in engineering.”
Danielle had always associated the word “research” with “experiment, so she was at first taken aback by his question. What would they want with me? But she thought about it for a few moments, and without even knowing any details, she said, “Yes I’d love to meet them. What are they doing here? I have no family in Germany.”
He explained that Dan and Chloe were engineers looking for a cheaper way to produce the next-generation general anesthetic Xenon. They wanted to figure out how to make the substance more abundant and less expensive so the FDA in the U.S. would approve it and heart patients there could benefit from its milder side effects and faster recovery time.
“Is that what I’m getting? Not that I would have ever known the difference,” she asked. “I’m pretty nervous about all this happening at once. How long will I be here? How much is this gonna hurt?” As he continued to explain how his team would repair her dilated, slightly torn aorta, she thought it was some sort of relief that Americans her age wanted to see her. Even if they were just researchers who didn’t really care about her.
But they did. Dr. Ekkehardt’s pager vibrated and he leaned over to her bedside phone. “You know what,” he said. “This actually might be them.”
A nurse practitioner came in a few minutes later with a release form on a clipboard. Danielle had already decided she was okay with it, so she signed, allowing Dan and Chloe to come in and meet her. Meanwhile, another nurse at her side slipped the needle out of her hand and was rubbing iodine on her inner forearm with a Q-tip to place a new IV.
“They’re here.” Dr. Ekkehardt poked his head in the door and asked if it was okay for Dan and Chloe to visit her. She didn’t exactly know what to expect, but felt a sense of relief when she saw them. The attractive research pair were the only normally dressed people she had seen since awakening. “Hi! I bet you guys know what’s going on more than I do,” Danielle said.
“Not sure about that, but nice to meet you. My name is Dan and this is Chloe. I know you’ve been through a lot, but we’re wondering if you’d allow us to observe your surgery.”
Danielle paused for a moment and turned her head to the window. Outside she could see the tops of trees beginning to turn orange and red. Dan kept talking, not sure what to do in the situation, given that he was a scientist – not a doctor – who had never talked to a hospitalized patient before. She tuned out his awkward rambling on about interviewing anesthesiologists about the economics of their formulary. She turned her head back toward him and lightly touched his left shoulder with her right hand. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m okay with it. I’m actually glad there is someone here besides all these doctors. I don’t have anyone else.”
Her candor caught Dan off guard. Chloe tried to say something supportive, but also felt awkward and just gave him and her a half nod and smile. “Well we really appreciate it,” Dan said. “I’m sorry you’re going through this, but this is really special for us – special for our project. They are so strict about this sort of thing in the U.S. It really can be over the top.”
With another light knock on the door, Dr. Ekkehardt came back in the room and told her they would need to start preparing her for surgery right away. Her torn, dilated aorta couldn’t wait any longer. With each passing hour the risk of a life threatening hemorrhage was increasing. She wasn’t having much pain, and that was typical of patients who have dilated aortas. “Well it was a pleasure meeting you, and if you don’t mind, we might come back to talk to you tonight after you get out of surgery,” Dan said.
The nurse put the bed rails up and started pushing her bed toward the door. “I’m craving a cig right about now,” they heard her mumble as she disappeared into the hallway.
The observation room of the newly renovated hybrid cardiac surgery suite was cramped. Room for two, and maybe three at best. Dan and Chloe sat on stools in front of a 4x6-foot window that gave them a view of the head of the operating table, which was about 12 feet away. It was cool in there, which didn’t bother Dan, but Chloe folded her arms, holding her clipboard tightly against her chest. “I didn’t actually start thinking about his much until now,” she whispered. “I’m not totally sure if I want to watch the, you know …”
“Yeah I know what you mean. I’ve come this far for this, though, I have to watch.”
Danielle remembered lying on the operating table and shivering as the nurses pushed equipment around and double checked her IV. Those O.R. nurses didn’t seem quite as friendly. Maybe they had a lot of unappreciative patients. One of them finally got a stack of warm blankets out of a heating cabinet and covered her feet, legs and waist. That felt better. Sounds of suction and a cold upward breeze reminded her of the dentist’s office.
“So they’re giving her Xenon?” Chloe asked.
“Yep, they prefer it for heart surgery here. We got lucky today to see our atom in action,” he said, ignoring her slight ‘Oh here he goes again’ eye roll.
“Are you ready?” Dr. Ekkehardt asked Danielle. She nodded and looked to her right, where a nurse anesthetist was touching colored boxes on a screen. “We’ll see you in about six hours.”
She almost immediately perceived a medication taste in her mouth that reminded her of the time she had to receive contrast material before an MRI on her knee. The line between consciousness and amnesia is thin, and she couldn’t remember exactly when it was. No one can, it seems.
Another nurse uncovered a tray that had several instruments, including one that reminded Dan of a diamond edged rotary cutter he had seen in his dad’s shop when he was a kid. They watched the nurses begin to paint Danielle’s chest with giant cotton swabs dipped in iodine. Chloe looked back at Dan. “Is this … really relevant to our project. I don’t think I can watch.”
Dan looked back into the suite. One nurse placed a face shield over Dr. Ekkehardt’s head as another picked up the cutting device and placed it in his purple glove laden hands and backed away from the table. He turned it on and the cutting wheel spun up to a blurry fast speed. The research pair faced each other in unison just before the spinning blade reached iodine stained peach fuzz atop her sternum.
“You know what,” Chloe said.
“Me neither. Let’s go. We can visit with her tonight,” Dan couldn’t watch either. They flicked off the fluorescent light in the observation booth as they stepped out into the hallway. The rush of normal room temperature air felt hot at first compared to the operating suite. Later that night as they were reading and catching up on the news in one of the hospital’s signature archway adorned atriums, they heard footsteps coming down the hallway. Chloe saw that it was Dr. Ekkehardt, so she grabbed the remote control on the coffee table and muted BBC America on the TV. He looked fatigued, understandably, as he had been on his feet in Danielle’s surgery for the last seven hours.
“Everything looks okay,” he said as he greeted them. “She has to lie very still tonight and probably won’t want to talk, so you should come back tomorrow.”
They spoke with him for a few minutes about he and his anesthesia partner’s use of Xenon so they had some notes, in case Danielle changed her mind about visiting with them after morning rounds. “The patients do seem to recover faster,” he said. “I can’t speak for docs in the U.S., but I can tell you if the price comes down and the stuff becomes less scarce, we’d use it for almost all of our patients. The German Health Ministry will be very happy. And we’d like to conduct more trials on patients in our cardiac ICU who we think might have better cognitive outcomes with Xenon than with Ketamine-induced comas.”
“Adjoining rooms?” asked the man at the front desk of their hotel. They looked at each other briefly, shrugged, and said yes. He handed them each a key card and a lukewarm chocolate chip cookie. “Wow, the cookie thing has spread to Europe. Look what America is doing to the world,” Chloe joked. After a long day and smelling like plane, train and hospital, she was more interested in a warm shower than a warm cookie.
Dan got to his room and changed into running shorts and a MIT “2008 One Pound Battery Competition” T-shirt. He was pleased that it was a non-smoking hotel. The smoke everywhere annoyed him last time he traveled to Europe. He sat on top of the bed and slipped the prototype file out of his briefcase. He had gone over it time and time again, and had a feeling he was missing something key. But he always felt that way, and that may have been why he had found success at such a young age. His thesis on non-rigid transformations applied to the tensile dynamics of an experimental earthquake-resistant foundation joint material raised eyebrows both in academia and industry.
He began to slip into that lost-in-thought mode, obsessing about details. The computer modeling of the evaporation points along the helix was … he heard a soft knock at the door, so he got up and peered through the peep hole into the hallway. No one was there. Another knock as he was walking past the softly humming mini fridge. It was the door to the adjoined room – Chloe.
“Hi, you’re still up,” he said. Chloe walked past him into his room, looked at the papers sprawled on his bed and asked what he was working on. “You know, same. Couldn’t sleep yet. Still feels like afternoon.” She skimmed the messy scene with her eyes and recognized a corner of one of the sheets that she had drawn.
“My laser is buried,” she said as she pointed at the page. This time it wasn’t the regular point, but the kind where a woman touches the thing she’s pointing at just hard enough that her index finger bends back slightly. Dan had been so buried in academia in his adult life that he was only just beginning to recognize signs of flirting. He had seen the bent-finger-point twice before, once when he was the tutor for an undergraduate physics lab, and another time late one night in the library.
She was wearing smooth blue yoga pants and a matching top. “Yeah I’ve been meaning to go over some of the numbers with you on that,” he said. “Do you mind?”
“No, not at all. I’m not tired at all.”
On the flight back to Boston, they discussed their interviews with Danielle’s doctor and anesthesiologist. “Do you think that was worth it?” Dan asked her.
“I don’t know, I mean they were obviously happy we’re doing some work on the economic part of this,” she said. “I think you were right. If our prototype works well this year, that, combined with the anecdotal evidence from these guys – we err I mean you should have a good case for a bigger grant to scale up the machine.”
The pair were stuck in the middle of the middle of row 41 on an A330. The flight attendant tried not to spill Sprite on the guy sitting next to them as she passed them their drinks and nuts. “I’m glad they brought back the nuts. Pretzels are cheap,” Dan said. “But anyways, yeah I hope you’re right. Haha you’ll still be in my lab. If I don’t fire you.”
She smiled and hit him lightly on the shoulder. “Hey do you have your laptop? Do you wanna split wifi for the flight?” she asked. He gave her his laptop. “Thanks! Hey what’s your password? They haven’t issued me a laptop yet.”
“Oh sure,” he said. Dan scribbled his password on a Post-It from his briefcase and stuck in next to the trackpad. The wifi service helped the seven-hour flight go by faster. Dan logged into MIT to check the status of his machine shop work order. “Pretty cool we can do this in flight. Hey it looks like they will be delivering the prototype in just a couple days.”
They got in to Boston mid Sunday morning. The maple and cherry trees had turned noticeably more orange in the 72 hours that they had been gone. Both of them felt like they had been out of town for a week. The weight of jet lag in both directions drove them home and begged them to sleep the day away. They woke early Monday morning with that unshakable malaise that is the guaranteed gift of jet lag.
It was an exciting day, for Dan, at least. Techs had arrived at Building 18 before he did. When he got there, six of them were wheeling the machine into the corner of the lab where it would live for the next two years. They had not yet affixed the sound dampening jacket around the cylinder, so he could see the shiny new helical backbone of the machine. He was on his hands and knees shining a pocket LED flashlight into the structure, admiring his work when Chloe got there. “Beautiful,” she said. “So that’s our $90,000 baby.”
In the days that followed, they continued to configure the machine, painstakingly attaching the temperature and pressure sensors that would allow their computers to compare the results of their virtual prototype with the actual machine in action. Chloe flushed liquid nitrogen through the semiconductor and calibrated her array of laser diodes while Dan wrote a poster that they would present at the upcoming AAAS meeting in Vancouver. University engineers had been working to connect the building’s shared supply of liquefied air to Dan’s lab.
The day finally came. They were ready to separate air and map the results. Dan, Chloe, and their two graduate students wrapped the cylinder it the heavy Velcro insulation jacket that the shop had created for it. They double checked all of the machine’s contact points, and everything appeared ready for them to begin flushing the helix with liquid air while slowing tuning the laser diode and ramping up the temperature of the nanowire lattice. Several screens on a nearby bench visualized the sensor data input in three dimensions, thanks to the computer savvy of one of the graduate students who had custom coded the control station.
“Do you want to do the honors,” Dan asked. She said no – that he should get to fire it up for the first time. He closed the Plexiglas door in front of the machine, pulled the safety lockout key, and an electromagnetic lock sealed the machine’s stall with a dull thump. He clipped the key to the edge of his right trouser pocket, clicked a dropdown box on one of the workstation’s screens, and selected “warmup flush.”
A faint whining of the air valve opening was lost in the dull rush of liquid filling the machine and a hiss followed, as high pressure gas shot into the lab’s special steel chimney that led to an exhaust port on the roof. Dots along the 3-D rendering of the helix on the screen changed colors to represent plummeting temperatures. The four of them stood with their arms crossed, staring at the screens and not saying a word at first. Chloe sat on a stool in front of another screen that was displaying temperature and pressure stats of the laser diode array. She clicked on a similar menu item that started the flow of liquid nitrogen into the magnet. Numbers in boxes along the side of the screen rapidly changed, and she took note of them every few minutes on a clipboard. The pencil she was using broke, so she went into her purse to find another one. She reached into the inner side pocket and felt the flap of an envelope. Her stomach dropped and she froze for a second, then peered in Dan’s direction. She had read the contents over and over again and called the number on the bottom more than once. But it had been awhile since she thought about it.
Time had been flying so fast and so much had happened since summer. She had thought about shredding the envelope a couple times after her trip to Germany with Dan. But she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. There was a lot at stake and she didn’t know what was going to happen.
“Look,” Dan said. “Everything is going exactly as planned. Are you ready give it some heat, Cloh?”
The magnet had reached its target temperature. Chloe, with her grad student looking over her shoulder, applied power to the magnet and laser and started the program that would automatically tune the beam so the geometry of the helix would propel laser light to just the right spots. The next hour was the culmination of almost a year of work. They watched as the valves and sensors worked in concert, their software programs the director. The valve at the top of the machine slowly closed, elevating the pressure in the helix as the gold nanowires at the evaporation points created just the right environment for each of the noble gasses to separate and slip into the the gill-like funnels, where they were blown into tubes the diameter of automobile break lines. Sensors confirmed each of the key points were producing gasses. Precious Xenon was flowing at a rate that would allow the machine to pay for itself in the first year.
They were thrilled, especially Dan. The grad students watched the screens and listened to the steady muffled jet flow sound that was a work of aural beauty. “We have our first liter!” he exclaimed. “We’ve harvested our first $10 worth of Xenon.” He put an arm around Chloe and hugged her without thinking about it. She smiled up at him and made quick, furtive glance back at her purse sitting on an empty workbench. It sat there like her father and mother sat in the back of her mind, beckoning her to come home; to come back to her culture.
Dan couldn’t take Chloe to the AAAS in Vancouver. Funds were going to be tight in the lab for the remainder of the year. But he wished she could have come with him. The thrill of inventing something as part of a team for himself, for the university, and for the benefit of the health care industry had not yet worn off. There would certainly be bugs to work out, and there would certainly be infrastructure hurdles in scaling up the new distillation method. Creating liquefied air still took an enormous amount of energy. There were places in North Dakota and northern Minnesota where land was still cheap and the average temperature would make the process more viable from an industry standpoint.
By the time wheels touched down in Vancouver, Dan was tired – and slightly annoyed that he had to check and pay for his project tube as a piece of baggage. The stunning bayside vista and warm chocolate chip cookie upon check in made up for it.
Considering the thousands in attendance, he had hoped more people would come to the “Scales of Economy” breakout session, which was the only one where he appeared as a panelist. The few who were there, though, seemed to enjoy the brief Flip camera video he had cut together of the machine being delivered, tuned, and turned on for the first time. Initial data from the first couple weeks of distillation indicated that the design had the potential to reduce the cost of Xenon worldwide by at least 50 percent. That was yet uncertain and more research was an order.
That evening at the 5:30 p.m. reception, a man who identified himself as a pharmaceutical consultant approached Dan and asked him if he’d like to go out for dinner. “I know of a place that has true fresh caught wild salmon,” The Man said. “It’ll be on me, of course.”
The idea of a free dinner sounded great, regardless of what the guy wanted to talk about. A Towncar picked them up in front of the conference center. The place rivaled the best seafood restaurants in Boston. Two glasses of Argentinean sangiovese and a plate of sheep’s butter fennel risotto into the meal, The Man asked, “So, Dan. What are your plans after you finish this RO-1.” How did he know what kind of grant I was working on? Dan thought. Being approached by someone in industry was a first. At times he dreamed of what it would be like to earn an industry salary and be able to pay off his loans in a year.
“My client might be interested in an exclusive contract for the blue prints of your still,” The Man said. Dan looked across the round table at the The Man. He was wearing a conservative cut dark blue Italian wool suit coat and a neatly pressed light cream colored pinpoint oxford. He had taken off his maroon silk tie and unbuttoned his collar on the ride to the restaurant. “Well I really appreciate this,” Dan said, not exactly knowing what to say, as The Man was topping off his glass. “You know, I don’t really …”
“You know what,” The Man said. “I’m just going to give you my card. My car will take you to your hotel, and you can call me sometime after you get back to Boston.
The next morning, Dan woke up to two missed calls and a text message. It was from his administrator at Building 18.
CALL ME ASAP.
“Someone broke into your lab,” his administrator told him. “We need you to come in as soon as you get back tonight.” She went on to tell him more about what happened, and he sat on his bed and listened while staring blankly at the crumpled cookie envelope on the nightstand. Someone had taken the control workstation computer tower and removed several parts from the machine. “Whoever it was, the university police say they knew what they were doing,” she said. “Please call your team and have them meet us tomorrow morning at the lab.”
Dan was still shocked, taken aback, and confused. The news was so sudden and unexpected; he didn’t know how to process it. He thought back to the previous night’s wild caught salmon and got a sickening feeling. Who was that guy? I should have never accepted dinner. And what on Earth would anyone want my machine. It’s just not that exciting.
The flight to Boston was unpleasant, because there was nothing else to think about. His grad student assistants were shocked at the news, too, but they opted to stay for the final day of the conference. Before takeoff, he left a voicemail for Chloe and told her to call the administrator. He didn’t include any details, because he wanted to be the one to tell her in person that a piece of her work had been stolen, or was missing, at least.
As soon as the flight hit the ground, he turned on his phone and checked to see if she had left a message. There was a message, but it wasn’t her. “Come straight to campus when you land,” his administrator said. “We’ll talk when you get here. Say, have you ever let anyone use your network password?”
As he approached Building 18, he could see that all of the lights in his lab were on, and shadowy figures were moving about. Still in a state of raw fatigue and utter disbelief, he entered the lab, where two men in dark blue FBI windbreakers were knelt beside his machine with brushes and a jar of white power. Were they dusting for fingerprints?
“Dan, this is Agent Stephen Mankad,” his administrator said. “He’s here from the FBI.”
Agent Mankad shook Dan’s hand and asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee. “Let’s sit at one of your empty workbenches,” he said.
“How long have you known Ms. Chloe Chen?”
Eighty meters below a desolate, rocky landscape 32 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang, North Korea, technicians in white coats and hoods and steel-tipped boots wheeled a cylinder of liquid nitrogen into a concrete reinforced test chamber. The chamber’s 8-meter thick walls were designed to channel explosive energy up a chimney that led all the way to the surface. One tech with thick rubber gloves removed the lid while the other lowered a hook down into the foggy cauldron. He pulled up on the cable and withdrew a soup can size stainless steel cylinder. They put the cylinder on the floor, in the center of the test chamber and dropped a temperature sensor into the side of the small cylinder. At the bottom of the cylinder was a crystalline cube, about the size of a thimble. The cube sat atop a thin layer of cellulose dust.
Techs outside the test chamber monitored the temperature reading from a control panel. “How long before the Xenon trioxide reaches 25 degree?” their supervisor asked.
“We’re about to find out.”
A man from a nearby village was walking his family’s goat to the market on the outskirts of town, when he heard a dull thump somewhere off to the west. He looked up and saw a small plume rising. Against the deep orange sunset, the plume had a beautiful purple hue. He and his goat kept on walking. ♦