Showdown at the Physics Department

It was five o'clock in the afternoon when Pullman, a slightly overweight post-graduate burst through the door of professor Jenkins' private office. Jenkins raised half an eyebrow while Pullman, chipping for breath, collapsed in the visitor's chair of phony leather.

- Heavens, he said between the gasps and wiped his brow with the handkerchief he'd been keeping in his suit pocket for the last twenty-odd years, I'm sweating so bad you could run a steamship by hooking me up to a Carnot machine.

The professor gently closed the book he was reading, while still keeping his index finger between the pages to remember his position.

- Now, what's the matter? he said. The students been bothering you again, have they?

- No, no, the students I can handle. It's worse, much worse.

He leaned closer, almost tipping the chair over, and lowered his voice.

- Me and Antonio was walking down the corridor outside the cryogenic lab, when we saw this guy standing by the bulletin board. He was around forty, didn't look like much, kind of grey you know. So Antonio yells out to him: "Hey mister, what do you think you're doing here, this is a restricted area." And he just stares at us. His eye, I will never forget his eye, there was something cold in it, almost turned me to jelly. "You the professor, here?" he says. Antonio just shakes his head. "Bring me your professor", this guy says, "I don't deal with small fish.". And there's something in his voice, you know, that makes me think he knows what he's talking about. But Antonio just laughs at him and begins to do some calculations. Nothing serious, you know, just a little something to scare him off. But this guy, he doesn't even twitch, you know. He just asks: "What's your specialty?". And Antonio is a bit shaky now seeing that his little trick didn't work, but anyway he says that he's specialising in inverse scattering. And this guy, instantly, I mean instantly, starts to deliver results the one more astounding than the other. I didn't really understand it all, but I could see that Antonio was getting more than he could take. I just turned and ran. I mean I never run, it's almost a principle of mine, but this time I ran. I saw Antonio go down in the corner of my eye. He just collapsed, like a bag of peanuts or something.

Jenkins put down his book on the table and stood up. He turned to look out through the great panorama window where small yellow dots of light filled the dark sky.

- Which university was he from? he said, his back still turned to Pullman.

- He didn't say. And I didn't stay around to ask. He had a name tag on his chest, though. It said Sepouta.

- Sepouta?

Pullman nodded.

- Seems unusual enough. I can't recall ever meeting anyone with that name.

Jenkins sat down by the computer and typed some quick combinations on the keyboard.

- Maybe he faked it, Pullman said.

Jenkins shrugged.

- He's not in the computer, he said. That means he didn't get his degree at any university we know of.

- Maybe he's a self-taught man.

- Don't be ridiculous. We'd better find out if this guy is serious. Gather up the boys and we'll pay him a little visit.


The stranger was still hanging around outside the cryogenic lab, hands in pocket, when Jenkins and his anemic band entered through a door in the other end of the corridor. Jenkins was leading the way, walking in a steady pace. Behind him was his three assistant professors, five doctors and a group of twenty or more who where still working on their theses. The party came to a halt about twenty feet from the stranger. There was a small, shuffling sound as they loosened their pencils. Some of the candidates were nervously flicking the pages of formula reference books.

- Jenkins, the stranger said, just the man I wanted to see. I figured you should show up here sooner or later.

- I've heard you've messed one of my boys up, Jenkins said.

- As any unbiased observer would tell you, he was asking for it. I shouldn't worry about him, though. He'll come around in a couple of weeks or so.

- Well, Jenkins said, taking a quick look over the shoulder to ensure the support of his fellow academics, we don't fancy strangers coming to our department raising hell. I can see your name tag reads Sepouta. Now, either that isn't your real name, or you haven't published anything either I or my computer has heard of. So what gives us the honour? You planning to take over my business?

The stranger just shook his head, slowly, almost sadly.

- Science fascinates me, he said, faculties don't.

He extracted a piece of paper from his briefcase.

- You've been mistreating this department, Jenkins, and you know it. I have a long list of complaints here; sexual harassment, ignored course evaluations, unfair examinations, favouring, racial and gender discrimination, stolen research results, et cetera, et cetera. But there is still time to undo some of the evil you have caused. Resign now, Jenkins, you know in your heart it's the right thing to do.

- Look at that, Jenkins sneered, a traveling Samaritan. What about that boys? Well mister, I thank you sincerely for allowing me to take part of your narrow-minded opinions, but you see at this department, we consider that kind of things to be internal affairs. And internal affairs, we kind of like to handle on or own. Now I'll give you a suggestion. You just walk out of that door nice and easy and we'll forget all about this. Otherwise me and my boys will have to teach you some manners.

- Your hired brains don't scare me. But there's thirty of you and I'm alone, so I'll give you a fair suggestion. I'll wait in the lab there, and I'll take you on, one by one, in any order you like. How about that?

- Heck, Jenkins said and shook his head. If you're looking for fair play, you've come to the wrong place.

Jenkins gave a small signal with his hand and immediately his pack fired of a set of formulas. The stranger staggered. Some of the lesser formulas he just shrugged of, but the harder ones hit him pretty badly. He replied immediately with an intricate equation they had never seen before. None of them was unaffected by it and ten of them went down in screams of agony.

- He's got a weak spot, someone shouted. He's weak in thermodynamics. I hit him with a thermodynamic formula and it sank right in.

They came on to him hard. Hitting him with thermodynamics from every direction. He still had the strength to continue with his own strange formulae, driving brain after brain to the boiling point.

- What is it? What is it? they yelled. We can't defend ourselves if we don't know what it is.

- Just keep hitting him with thermodynamics, someone replied. He can't take much more of it.

The stranger had slowly locked brain with Jenkins. The professor hadn't noticed the formulae that slipped into his mind, encircling it, trapping it. Now he was stuck and they were pulling him in. He tried to defend himself but the formulae just slipped through his fingers like so much dry sand.

- Oh my God, he's got Jenkins, someone yelled.

- Just back off, the stranger said, back off or I'll make him snap.

The mumbling slowly subsided. The seven who were still standing looked at the stranger with eyes wide open. He was badly hurt, no doubt about that, but he had a firm grip on Jenkins mind and he wouldn't let go, no doubt about that either.

- You there, he shouted. Pullman!

- Yes, Pullman answered.

He was the only non-doctor that was still in fight. Probably it was because he had had a glimpse of the formulae when the stranger brought Antonio down. They didn't seem so alien anymore, almost comprehensible.

- I can feel your mind working, the stranger said. Stop it or something bad will happen.

- I can't, Pullman said. My mind is like an avalanche. Once it has started it just goes on and on, getting bigger and bigger.

- Well, make it stop.

- I can't.

- For Jesus' sake, Pullman, Jenkins shouted. Do as the man says.

- I know! Pullman suddenly exclaimed. I know. Oh, it's so simple. It's been staring me in the eye all this time. It's just an equivalent formulation of Quantum Field Theory. That's what it is.

The stranger's eyes twitched. Then he poured everything he'd got left over Jenkins, making his brain go "snap, crackle, pop", like a bowl of rice crispies. They replied by drenching him in thermodynamics, and he was helpless against them now, his secret revealed. But it was too late. Jenkins was already dead when the stranger collapsed on top of him. Pullman stepped forward and took their pulses.

- Dead, he said. They're both dead.

- I wonder who he was, said assistant professor Rilke.

- The stranger? said Pullman. We'll probably never know.