Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi (750-850 CE) was a Persian scholar in the House of Wisdom, Baghdad. He was an extraordinary scientist, astronomer and mathematician, who introduced the concept of decimals and is considered the Father of Algebra. The European Latin translation of his name evolved into the term, "algorithm," which in modern day parlance is equivalent to a computer program—a set of instructions carried out by a machine for a definite purpose.
Adam lifted the Louisville Slugger to his shoulder and awaited the next pitch, oblivious to the subtle chain of events about to unfold this warm summer afternoon in nineteen seventy-nine … events that were fated to tear apart the core foundations of civilization itself.
"I'm ready when you are."
The pronouncement stilled the mocking banter of his older teammates. His grip tightened about the partially unraveled friction tape wound about the handle. Tossing back a shock of dirty blond hair, he sucked in his breath and eased his body back in eager expectation.
After a pickup game several of Adam's buddies were hanging out, tossing the ball around and kicking up the usual bragging and ragging ritual. Despite being only thirteen, and perhaps because of it, Adam found himself declaring with no uncertainty to his teammates not only could he hit a ball out of the park, but it would soar over the trees edging left field, continue over the new twelve foot cyclone fence, and make it over the three-story row houses facing the park. This boast immediately caught everyone's attention, and that's how he ended up with the bat.
"Here it comes ya lil' squirt," bellowed the pitcher as he wound up.
The ball flew straight, down the middle, and when Adam struck it, the crack echoed off the dense wall of trees surrounding the field. Heads turned to watch it fly toward the treetops. It was as if a film projector slowed down, moving ahead frame by frame, the camera zooming in as the ball scaled the huge chestnut trees and climbed still farther to clear the cyclone fence. For a moment the ball looked like it would continue on into legend. However, the laws of physics, in particular those describing the unyielding effects of gravity, began to take over. The flight path arced downward, descending to the street.
Elation shifted to terror. Adam stared in horror at the cars trundling through the landing zone. To his relief, a resounding 'thunk' announced the ball's contact with the street surface, however the respite was short-lived, for the next sound was
that of glass breaking, and it came from a house near his own. Self-preservation kicked in. All on the field scattered in every direction but toward the ball's unfortunate crash site.
The pitcher ran to Adam and yanked the bat out of his hands. He slowed long enough to ask, "Wattaya standin' there for?" and then took off toward the nearest park entrance.
Adam remained rooted to the ground as he watched his teammates get swallowed by the surrounding city streets. Fighting a growing sense of panic, he jogged and then slowed to a walk when he reached a side entrance. He headed out to the fateful meeting of ball with window.
I just bought that ball.
At the corner he lanced both ways—no eye witnesses ready to point the finger and slap the lame. Nothing stirred.
He approached the ball's last known whereabouts and began a ystematic check of both his house and next door for the telltale signs of a victimized window—perhaps a large gaping hole framed by jagged shards of glass, perhaps a curtain swaying out of the hole, perhaps even screams of outrage from within. He gave his own house a quick inspection to verify its windows were still intact, and then there was the chief suspect—the house next door. His first pass failed to bring up anything out of place.
He stood for a moment in front of his neighbor's house and stared at the first floor, eyeing each window.
Maybe the ball never hit a window.
And then he saw it. To the left of the wooden stairs leading to the first floor entrance, it was the basement window, or where the basement window should have been. A few daggers of glass remained in the opening, framing the darkness within like the gaping mouth of a sharp-toothed ogre. Adam continued his stroll past the gruesome specter. If indeed the incident went unnoticed, he might be able to retrieve the ball. Like his own house, access to the basement took the form of an inside entry next to the backdoor. He reached it in seconds, pulled at the handle. It creaked open to reveal a wooden stairway descending into darkness. He inched his way down, careful to step to the side of each tread to avoid the squeal of loose boards.
At the bottom of the stairs he peered down the length of the basement toward the front of the house. A grim darkness surrounded him. The light from the stairs faded as Adam crept forward, groping for a switch or a dangling chain. Bumping into musty carton boxes and storage crates, he crept farther on into the gloom. He heard footsteps above, muffled conversation, and the sound of water gurgling through pipes. His stretched out hands touched a metal post. He craned his head to the side and focused on a dim light ahead … the broken window. Below it and to the side, hazy light streamed in from above and outlined a darkly smeared coal bin. Most buildings along his street had been converted to oil heat before he was born. Some sported the vestiges of a former era. He scanned the foot of the window but could not find he ball. When he neared the coal bin, he needed to look no further. The ball sat atop a mound of the dusty anthracite.
He scaled the blackened wooden planks and landed softly at the base of the coal pile. The mound gave way with each step. He clambered up, slipping and kicking up sulfurous dust, blackening hands and knees as he scrambled to the top. He lunged for the ball, grasped it with one hand, and glided down the rocky heap in deep satisfaction. Dust settled around and on him, fading in and out of the light. Adam found his other hand clutching a few nuggets. He was about to toss them back into the heap when a sparkle of reflected light caught his eye. He opened his fingers, releasing one black lump at a time, until all that remained was a fist-sized chunk. Even in the muted light he saw the oddly-shaped golden glimmer. He rotated his upturned palm, bringing it closer. There was something metallic embedded in the coal.
The sound of footfalls on the staircase broke his reverie. There he was, reclining in a dusty coal bin at the far end of an unlit, unfamiliar and cavernous cellar—ball in one hand and a mystery lump of coal in the other. The vaguely silhouetted figure reaching the foot of the stairs was about to discover an intruder. Tucking away the coal in his dungarees pocket, he rolled off the brimstone mound, careful to avoid dislodging a 'here-I-am' mini-avalanche. He slipped over the side of the bin and then felt around for some potential cover. The lights came on just as he squeezed between a stack of cartons and the damp wall. Shuffling feet with loose slippers dragged themselves along the cement floor, slapping their way toward him. As they approached, Adam fought down a strong urge to jump up and run. He was sure that he was not entirely hidden from view.
I bet my ass is hanging out for all to see.
The shuffling and slapping drew to a stop.
That's it, he's got me.
Adam recognized the voice of his neighbor, Mr. Kurtinaitis—a gravelly, ancient and grinding timbre, which even with such a short phrase, retained its distinct Lithuanian origins. Every neighborhood had its curmudgeon, some old geezer that never got along with anyone younger than thirty, the community warlock whispered about by the children unfortunate enough to have encountered him. Definitely to be avoided at all costs. Mr.
Kurtinaitis fit the description, having the required indeterminate advanced age, the bent-over posture, gnarly limbs, the grizzled, unkempt look, an obscure foreign accent and gruff demeanor required for a fully-fledged wizard of the dark world. He was staring at the broken window of his beloved, dreary cellar domain. Adam imagined a deeply furrowed brow framed the evil eye searching him out, maybe already locked in on his exposed posterior. He was about to stand and beg for mercy, when after a
few more shuffling sounds, Mr. Kurtinaitis muttered, "Damned kids."
He's seen me for sure. He's probably sneaking up on me now.
Instead of getting hoisted by the scruff of his neck, Adam heard a deep and profound sigh of disgust, a kind of snort a dragon might issue, and the shuffling sounds slowly headed away to the back stairs.
Fighting an overwhelming urge to sigh out loud, Adam concluded he would not be turned into a toad today. The Dark Lord proceeded to shut off the lights and uttered several nasty sounding phrases in the Lord's native tongue. Adam heard him ascend the stairs, grumbling at each step, and slam a door. A full five minutes of complete silence went by before he extracted his prostrate form from behind the boxes and quietly made his way out through the same door, all the while certain that Mr. Kurtinaitis was actually hiding just out of sight at the entrance.
He slinked outside, tip-toeing along the back wall of the building, holding his breath lest it give away his position. After reaching the security of his own backyard next door, he parked himself on the wooden stairs and waited for his adrenaline levels to subside along with the thumping in his chest. When he resumed normal breathing, he placed the ball in the recess of his backdoor entry, and with a satisfied exhale, reached into his pocket.
As he held the lump of coal to the waning afternoon sunlight, he beheld an odd metallic gleam, appearing as a golden slash in the side of the black rock.
Maybe it's gold!
Eager to crack it open, he struck the coal against the slate walk at the base of the stairs a few times, which only resulted in leaving a few black scars along the slate's surface. He was about to try and crush the lump beneath his feet when he heard his parents returning from shopping, parking their car in front of the house. He grabbed up the chunk, put it back into his pocket and entered through the backdoor to greet his mom who was carrying groceries.
"Hey, mom. Need some help?"
"Dad'll need a hand. There's more in the car. How on Earth did you get so filthy?"
"Aw, nothin'… I just fell."
Her eyebrows rose and her head bent downward, giving her the glaring look with which he was all too familiar.
"Help your dad with the bags from the car, get those clothes off, and take a bath. You do remember we have an appointment to see Dr. Wujciak this afternoon? Hurry up, you have fifteen minutes."
"OK, mom," Adam replied.
He had forgotten about the physical.
Summer was nearly over and St. Harold's Preparatory School required a physical for all new students. Adam was thrilled about the prospect of starting a whole new phase of his life. As he thought about the doctor's office and his mystery rock, an idea emerged which got him even more excited.
Adam sat in Dr. Wujciak's crowded waiting room with his mother at his side. Although they had arrived on time for the appointment, he was certain there were at least a hundred people ahead of them. After he read and re-read the same worn out, three month old issue of Life magazine, Adam's name was called. He leaped up to follow the nurse, giving his mom a quick wave. He was finally old enough to undergo a physical on his own.
After the usual weight, height and blood pressure routine, the nurse left him in a small inner office to await the good doctor's arrival. Adam unconsciously checked for the lump in his pocket. He wandered over to the corner of the office and stared at a dusty old instrument that he knew from previous discussions with Dr. Wujciak was a fluoroscope.
An x-ray machine.
It looked like a vertical washboard with some dials and switches at its base and would allow the user to see through objects using x-rays. He was staring at it when the doctor came in.
Dr. Wujciak went through his standard prodding and jabbing routine, interrupting with an occasional request to say, "aah" or to breathe deeply as he moved an icy cold stethoscope along his bare back. In the end, everything was in order, and Adam received the usual congratulations for being so healthy and growing so quickly. Dr. Wujciak was about to escort him out to the reception area, when Adam stopped, pointed and asked, "Is that thing back there still working?"
Dr. Wujciak hesitated a moment and then answered, "You mean Old Flora? We don't use it anymore, Adam, because it generates too high a level of x-ray radiation to be safe."
"Oh, it's not for me. I was wondering if it, Old Flora, still works, 'cause I have something that I was hoping you could check out."
Adam took out a little ball of tissue paper, unrolled it, and held out the chunk of coal. Dr. Wujciak brought it up in his hand and flipped it over several times. He stopped when his eyes caught the
metallic gleam, a sparkling golden band embedded in the black rock.
"Aha … So you want to see what's in this coal? Why don't you just break it open?"
"I plan to do that, but maybe it's something that might break. It's gotta be really old, being in coal. Do you think that Old Flora can see inside it?" he asked with a broad grin.
Dr. Wujciak looked as intrigued as Adam. "I haven’t fired up Old Flora for years, but there should be no problem spending an extra minute or two in trying her out. Besides, it is a very curious piece of coal."
He rolled the stately antique out of the corner, plugged in the frayed wiring and dimmed the lights in the office. "I've been thinking about donating it to a museum."
He riffled through one of his desk drawers, and handed a pair of red-lensed spectacles to Adam, while donning a pair himself.
"We'll need the glasses to see the image. Newer models have more sensitive fluors. They produce brighter images."
A faint buzzing sound followed the flicking of a few switches and the washboard began to emit an eerie glow. Dr. Wujciak made a few more adjustments to the machine and asked, "So where did you find it?"
"In the park," Adam lied without hesitation.
Dr. Wujciak pulled his red spectacles down to the tip of his nose, propped up the lump of coal on a stand behind the washboard and said, "Come over to this side, Adam, so that we both might see what's
"By the way, where'd you get the name Old Flora?" asked Adam.
"Just a nickname. I've had this baby around for most of my professional career. They used to be very popular back in the forties and fifties." His head lolled to one side as he added, "She's kind of like an old friend."
Adam wriggled closer and Dr. Wujciak covered them both with a heavy lead-lined blanket and turned off the room lights. When he turned off the office lights, the spectacles gave the washboard glow an eerie look, as if they had just opened a crimson window to another world. The two were drawn in as they became mesmerized by the bright, translucent outline of the stone. The doctor twiddled with several dials and a second image appeared within the glimmering shell, denser and even darker than the rock which encased it. Unlike the irregular outline of the coal, the image of the encased object appeared rounded and smooth. Dr. Wujciak reached behind the board, rotated the coal and the two investigators both uttered a whispered 'wow!' almost in unison as they made out what looked like a coin or medallion having a hole in its center. Their noses were nearly touching the screen when a blinding flash of light filled the office, followed by the unmistakable stench of burned rubber. For a moment they continued to stare into the darkness. Dr. Wujciak reached up and switched on the office lights. "I'm afraid that may be it for Old Flora. I think the flash came from her power supply."
Just when things were getting really interesting.
"It probably wasn't a good idea to keep the power up for very long. That's quite an interesting find, Adam."
Dr. Wujciak returned the enigmatic object to Adam. "What are you planning to do with it?"
"I don't know."
I'm going to crack that sucker open. That's what I'm planning to do with it.
"The object inside might be valuable. It could have historic importance. Perhaps you may consider having a scientist look at it. It really is unusual to find something like that stuck in a piece of coal. I know someone in the geology department at Rutgers that I could contact if you like."
Adam realized the doctor was trying to be helpful. "Thanks for the offer. But I think I want to wait on that. So … could we keep it a secret, sort of between you and me?"
"That's okay, Adam, just let me know when you're ready and I'll arrange for you to visit the university."
Adam smiled and nodded.
Dr. Wujciak patted Adam's back. "Now, put your shirt back on. You're in tip-top shape. Good luck this coming year at St. Harold's. And, just remember to let me know if you need any help with your discovery."
Ben Wujciak and Adam shared a love of science fiction and both were avowed Trekkies. As the doctor was leaving the examination room, Adam threw him the splayed finger Vulcan hand greeting. The tricky salutation was ably returned with a wink. Dr. Wujciak stepped out to let Adam's mom know that all was well.
The next morning Adam woke alone. Both parents were at work and the opportunity for discovery had finally arrived. Still in his pajamas, he grabbed the lump of coal and flew downstairs to his father's workshop in the cellar. There were tools everywhere, laid out on the workbench and hovering above it on the pegboard. Adam grabbed a screwdriver from the pegboard, holding both it and the coal in one hand, and wedged it against the bench top. The other hand reached for a hammer.
He tapped the coal. His micro-archeological dig seemed to go on for what seemed to him way too long, cleaving off chip after chip until at last, the coal split. The two halves shot off in opposite directions, launching a gleaming, golden coin-like object flying in an arc across the workshop. It landed on the concrete floor with a high-pitched ping and rolled under some wall shelving. Adam scrambled to the wall, reached under the bottom shelf, and closed his fingers around a half-dollar sized mystery. Holding it between his thumb and forefinger to the light bulb dangling in the center of the workshop, Adam's eyes gleamed as he saw that the object was indeed the size and shape of a half-dollar. It had a peculiar golden sheen, changing in intensity with every movement, however slight. There were several odd symbol-like indentations running along the edge. It had a perfectly round quarter-inch hole in its center. Adam knew he had come across a unique find, something that a university or museum would love to have. There would be no way he could keep the object if he made it public.
This treasure is mine and I'm going to keep it.
He never did keep his promise to get back to Dr. Wujciak, nor did he ever tell anyone else about it for the next twenty years.
Traveling at nearly the speed of light, a slate gray cylinder traced a path along the inside of the Milky Way's Orion Arm a dozen light-years from Earth's solar system. Its exterior, covered by
numerous gashes and impact craters, spoke of a journey of an extensive length of time. The rounded ends provided no distinction between forward or aft sections. Buried within its body a complex array of machines sat in silence with the exception of one. A muffled hum from its bowels was followed by the appearance of an amber light embedded in an instrument panel. Several exterior engine mounts rotated into position, becoming visible as they emerged from the body of the cylinder. A series of colorful short bursts from conical elements of the engines resulted in a slight alteration of the cylinder's trajectory. The engines returned to their original, cloaked poses within the otherwise unremarkable exterior. The amber light faded into darkness.