by Michael Barnett
He was dying. He knew that. It made him happy. His ship was a floundering hulk, the air leaking out into the vacuum. He was too far from civilization to get help; the radio was a twisted wreck anyway. He looked out of the window and saw the stars. They were unusually bright. He looked at them with love. It would not be long now. The pressure gauge on the instrument panel was steadily lowering. All he could think now was that he was happy.
It was not too long ago that this man was known as Franklin Saunders, hero of humanity, winner of countless awards, prizes, and honorary degrees for the Saunders Effect. He had shown the way to a utopian future. Families named their children after him; the man on the street spoke his name as a slang expression - Saunders this, you don't have to be a Saunders to understand... There was no rest from the publicity, the public dinners, celebrations, speeches...
Breathing was difficult now. He pulled himself over towards the couch. It would be easier to lie back and relax. He though of Susan, of the children. No! The thought drifted away. But in its place started coming back deep dark memories. So it was true about life passing before your eyes when you are about to die. The end was near. A twisted grin crept across his bloodstained face.
Franklin David Saunders graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in physics. Like many geniuses, he rarely excelled in his studies. He would pursue subjects that interested him with a dogged determination, even though his grades suffered. After all, what were grades compared to uncovering the secrets of Nature? He claimed to have been fascinated with atoms ever since he learned about them as a small child. The idea of the small particles that composed everything clung to him throughout his life. By constantly pestering his physics professor, Franklin got a part time job at the college laboratory. All the job amounted to was a glorified test tube washer, but Franklin loved it with all of his heart. This was the only job that got him so near to physics. He constantly asked how, why, and what was going on; the professors and graduate students kept shoving him away like an unwanted pest. He finally got through to them that he was a graduate with a degree and knew something of the subjects being researched. He was allowed to use the computer and made graphs for the researcher's papers. Soon, he started asking why something was not done in a certain way. After the usual shrugs, they discovered that his ideas worked. Slowly, they treated him as an equal and, eventually, a superior.
The "Boy Genius" became their chief problem solver. There seemed to be no problem in nuclear physics that he could not explain. His name spread throughout the journals. He was always at the end of the list of authors, but Richard Kirkland of the University of Pittsburgh noticed it. He hired Franklin to work on atomic research at the university. Franklin was allowed free access to all of the equipment and had a small staff of professionals under him. Within six months, he discovered the Saunders Effect - a technique that produced virtually unlimited energy from ordinary atoms. A simple apparatus could be made with equipment available at any electronics shop that could harness this power for under a hundred dollars.
Direct conversion into any form of energy made it possible to make transportation vehicles, spacecraft, anything run on the Saunders Effect. In a world starved for energy, it was like a light at the end of a tunnel. There was trouble at first; the industries that had an economic interest in keeping energy costs so expensive tried to rough Franklin up, the country was disrupted with sudden economic inflation, then depression; the stock market almost crashed. During the economic recovery, businesses started using Saunders Effect devices to power their factories and stores. A Detroit company put in one of their late model cars, New York City used it to run their power stations. The turmoil gave way to a new economic boon. Franklin Saunders was the national, then international hero.
Franklin did not want fame. He just wanted to continue his work. He had done exactly what he had wanted. He had discovered something to benefit humanity. When the throngs of reporters and well-wishers started getting into the physics building, Franklin left the university. He ended up in Appleton, Florida, about thirty five miles southwest of Cape Kennedy. There, he found love with a woman who had never heard of the Saunders Effect. At last he had found some happiness to accompany his success. However, his solitude was soon broken. The Saunders Effect soon powered the town of Appleton. Franklin was discovered. There was no place he could run. NASA requested that he oversee spacecraft research. He accepted. At least he could work relatively undisturbed again. Rockets to the stars materialized. Three years of planning produced the first fleet of interstellar spacecraft. It would take a few years, but they would travel to the stars and back, powered by hydrogen atoms and Saunders generators. By this time, Franklin had two children and a comfortable life.
Disaster struck six months before the first interstellar ship returned. Earth control received a call from the ship, warning them of strange radiation emanating from the engines. When the ship arrived, the crew was dead of radiation poisoning. The Cape Kennedy complex was put under strict quarantine; no one could leave until an answer was found.
Breathing was nearly impossible. The end was very near now. He knew that. If only he had not lived at all. He had believed that what he had done was best. All he had cared about was atomic reactions. He was not a radiation specialist. How could he have known?
It was discovered that the radiation was a very weak byproduct of the Saunders Effect, levels too small to be measured with the Earth's atmosphere to disperse it, but years of accumulated exposure in the confines of the interstellar ship took its toll. Even worse, scientists were unable to find a way to block this radiation. An immediate ban on Saunders generators was ordered around the world. An explosion of lawsuits followed, and the number grew from there. It was still too late for some. The closer you were to the source, the worse off you were. Greed for the almost free energy source overcame caution for many people, businesses, industries, and countries. Saunders generators never fully disappeared from around the globe. The atmosphere of the entire planet was tainted. In the following years, hundreds died from the radiation. Everyone blamed Franklin Saunders. Franklin Saunders, humanity's savior was now evil incarnate. His house was stormed, his wife and children horribly trampled by the mob. Franklin hid in an old silo on the base for days. When the mob found him, he raced to his ultimate hiding place. Nova Four, the next interstellar craft that was to have blazed the path for humanity to the stars, stood fully loaded on the pad, ready to be dismantled. Franklin appreciated the irony of the situation; after all he had to keep the Saunders generator on to breathe. It amused him even more so when the control panel blared, warning him to strap in. The mob had acted as judge, jury, and executioner. Saunders was launched from his home planet, exiled from the world that once hailed him, bound on a journey that could only end in death. The asteroid fragment came as a surprise but was almost welcome.
"I followed my dream -- a dream that would take man to the stars and beyond. Beyond the stars lies mankind's answer to the biggest question - himself. I wanted to find my own answer. This I did through my work. Each new discovery brought me closer to myself. I do not need or want publicity, I need only my work. Then I can be satisfied."
Franklin Saunders - University of Iowa commencement speech
He could feel his heart slow down. His eyes started to glaze over. He could not move. As his mind started to fog he understood why he was happy. He had discovered himself.
Story copyright © 1999 by Michael Barnett <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Artwork "Savior" copyright © 1999 by gopal Krishna Senthil Kumar <email@example.com>