Monday, January 30, 2012

Extreme Makeover - Part 13 of 42

© 2008 by Henry Melton

Chapter 13: Symptoms
When the class broke up for lab activities, Deena was startled to see Luther wave her over. She looked at Bryony, puzzled. The blonde looked away.
Oh dear. I bet she’s mad at me. But if Luther wanted to share a lab table with her, rather than Bryony, she couldn’t refuse.
He smiled as she brought her workbook over.
“Hi,” she said. “Do you want to use the magnifying lens first?”
“Oh, forget optics. I want to try a different experiment. Can I get you to do your trick again?” He was talking quietly.
Deena’s bubble of cheer burst. He’s not interested in me. I’m just a puzzle to be solved.
She sat down. She whispered back, “Sure. What do you want me to do?”
He was all smiles. From inside his workbook, he slid out a white envelope.
“I have three coins inside here. Without looking, reach inside and tell me about each of them, one at a time.”
Her smile was a little forced. But as he slid the unsealed envelope over toward her, she did as he asked.
Looking at him, rather than at the envelope, she pushed the flap aside and reached inside with one finger.
“Hmm. More zinc.”
“Just give me the elements.”
She took a breath. “Okay, it’s mostly 29—copper. It has about one part in eight zinc. Then there’s element 25/55—about one in fourteen of that. Then about one part in twenty-five of element 28. Do you need the isotopes?”
He was frowning. “No. Anything else?”
She shook her head. “No. Just a few odd elements in traces. Oxygen and stuff.”
He nodded. “Okay, can you tell what kind of coin it is?”
She felt for texture. “No. Not really. I haven’t been into coins much. It’s a big one, like a quarter, maybe bigger.”
“That’s okay. Let’s go onto the next coin.”
She reached deeper into the envelope. “Oh! Another gold coin.”
“Another one?”
“Yes. This one’s different from the one this morning. It’s not pure like the other one.”
“How much of it is gold?”
She felt it. It was like feeling a texture, but the numbers came to her. “About eleven out of twelve.”
“And the other elements. I don’t need their ratios.”
“Um. Twenty-nine. That’s copper, isn’t it. And forty-seven.”
“Silver.” He nodded. “Okay, just move on to the last coin.”
She shrugged and felt to the side. It was another big coin. But it wasn’t gold.
“Element 78. Pure, but maybe not quite as pure as the coin this morning. Do you want the isotopes?”
“Just give me the numbers.”
“In the 190’s. There are several. 195, 194, 196.” She frowned. “And 198, then 192. Oh, and then just a whisker of 190.”
He leaned back, and stared up at the ceiling. He didn’t look happy.
Deena looked over at the Periodic Table of Elements chart. Down and in the middle was 78. She gasped softly.
“What?” he asked.
She whispered. “Platinum is 78. I’ve never seen platinum. Can I look now?”
He glanced around the room. Five or six people were looking in their direction.
“Okay, but keep them hidden. I don’t want anyone to know I have them.”
She fished the platinum coin partly out of the envelope. It had an eagle flying, under the words, ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’, and ‘.9995 Platinum 1 oz.’. At the bottom it said $100.
“Wow. A hundred dollar coin. I didn’t know we made them.”
“It’s a bullion coin. The dollar amount is just for tradition. It’s really worth more than a thousand dollars.”
The gold coin was very similar, also a US coin with an eagle. She frowned.
“Why aren’t US gold coins as pure as the Canadian ones?” It offended her national pride.
He shrugged. “They both have one ounce of gold. The American Eagles have the extra metal to make them more durable. The coins are worth about the same.”
The first coin was one she had seen before. “A Sacajawea Dollar coin, like the post office uses in their stamp machines.”
“That’s where I got it, just this morning.”
She pushed the coins back out of sight, and he made the envelope vanish into his workbook.
There was no doubt about it now. Luther was rich.
If I had just one of those gold coins, I could replace my whole wardrobe with some decent clothes.
He was still frowning. It seemed like every time she gave him a right answer, he seemed more depressed.
“Okay, what’s wrong?”
He leaned back in his chair. “I’m just trying to figure you out.”
She shrugged. “What’s there to know?”
He leaned toward her, his face intense. “Deena, you are doing impossible things. Don’t you know that?
“I set up this experiment to prove you were faking it. I was wrong. You aren’t.”
She frowned. “I’m not faking anything. I wouldn’t know how.”
“I believe you, now. I just don’t want to.”
“Like I said, you’re doing impossible things. Analyzing those metals like that would take expensive machines. Just getting the elements right would be difficult, especially instantly like you seem to do.
“And the isotopes! That would take high-powered lab equipment.
“You just do it with a touch.”
He tapped his fingers on his workbook—thinking hard.
“Deena, let me see your penny.”
She pulled her arm in closer, protectively. She didn’t want to give up her zinc.
“Don’t worry, I’ll give it right back.” He held out his hand.
Deena slowly crooked a finger under her watch and removed it.
He peered closely at the coin, then snapped it down on the table.
“Hang on a minute.”
Luther jumped up and walked over to Mr. Fenner. They conferred for a second. Luther smiled and gestured over at Deena.
She felt every face in the room on her. What was he doing?
Mr. Fenner unlocked a cabinet and let Luther extract a microscope.
He brought it back to their table and plugged in the little light. Her penny went on the stage. He adjusted it then motioned to her.
“Take a look.”
Deena moved over to the eyepiece. “What am I looking at?”
Bright and shiny under magnification, she saw the silvery zinc formed like a honeycomb or an egg crate. Lots and lots of shiny pits.
Luther explained. “Just this morning, I exposed the zinc by scraping it on the sidewalk. What we should see would be the long scratches left by the concrete. We shouldn’t see pits, like a chemical might make.
“Deena, you are consuming the zinc. Digesting it. No human can do that through her skin.
“Are you an alien?”
“I am not....” Deena began, in a loud voice. People looked at her and she stopped.
Mr. Fenner frowned at them. She lowered her head and voice.
“I am not an alien,” she whispered. “I’ve never been to Roswell and I wasn’t born in a meteor shower. I’ve seen my birth certificate, complete with the little baby footprint. I’ve met all of my grandparents. My father’s mother is still alive in Texas, where they came from. My mother was born in Idaho, and I’ve seen her school pictures.”
He was listening with a straight face.
“Then something has happened to you. Do you know what it is?”
She sagged. “No. Just last week I was perfectly ordinary. Just plain fat Deena. Now there are...symptoms. More symptoms than you know.”
He began putting the microscope back in its case. “We need to talk more about this. Someplace private.”
She nodded. “But why are you interested in this?”
“I have my reasons. For one thing, we still have to get all these rumors stopped, and another ‘symptom’ popping up at an unexpected time won’t help.
“I can’t have my friends turning into aliens or werewolves—people would talk.”
He carried the microscope over to Mr. Fenner and they put it back in the case.
Am I his friend? She didn’t know. She felt like a bug under that microscope.
Has he really done anything for me, or has this all been about his own reputation? He’d never claimed anything different.
He wants to talk, to dig into my secrets, but he is tight-fisted about his own. How can I trust him?
Class ended, and Luther left with a cluster of chatting students. Deena packed up her workbook, watching Bryony walk back to talk to her.
“Well? What were you two fighting about?”
“What do you mean?”
Bryony shook her head. “Don’t play stupid. I saw the envelope. What were you two doing?”
It wasn’t drugs! Deena shook her head. “Just coins. We were talking about coins. He borrowed the microscope to show me some marks on a penny.”
Bryony looked hurt that she would try to lie to her.
Deena closed her bag with an angry snap. “Bryony, it wasn’t drugs and it wasn’t romance. He’s just a strange kind of geek. He’s trying to make me part of some kind of science project and I don’t really want to talk about it.
“If you want to get closer to him, be my guest. But I’m warning you, he’s hiding something and if you get too close, you’re likely to get burned.”
Math class was another dozer. Deena struggled to stay awake while Mr. Schiller tried to spruce up the day with interesting math stories. Well, at least, he thought they were interesting.
Luther was right. I’ve got symptoms of some strange disease. 
She opened her notebook and started to make a list.
Super smell. Although that seemed to be fading away.
She stopped. Checking under her watch, she realized the penny was gone.
I didn’t even notice. I probably left it back in the last class.
Did that mean her zinc addiction was gone?
Gleefully she scratched off the last line of her list.
That’s one less symptom.
“Deena, what is your answer?”
She looked up at Mr. Schiller. He nodded toward the diagram on the board.
A STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN was the title, with a fanciful drawing of a stair stepped pyramid reaching to the top of the clouds.
Deena read the instructions.
1,220,428 years. The answer popped into her head. It almost bubbled out of her mouth, but she stopped herself.
“I don’t know. I’m not done yet.”
He nodded and then turned to another student.
If I gave him the right answer, he would want to know how I did it.
With a sinking heart, she added another line to her symptoms list.
Instant calculator.
Mr. Schiller, after getting several wrong answers and many blank looks, described how to use several tricks to make the mountain of calculations turn into a couple of easy equations. On the board he went through the steps and wrote out the answer; 1220428.
That’s not how I did it. Deena knew that much. She felt it happen. Her instant calculator did it the hard way, crunching through thousands of steps.
Hesitantly, she made up a test in her head. What is the sum of all the numbers one through a million?
When the number popped up in her head, she remembered that there was a trick for doing those kinds of problems too, but she had forgotten it. This was another brute-force calculation.
So, I’ve got a computer in my head now.
 What will happen to me next?

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