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Fiction

Baiting Michael

Highlights from the 'Subtle Science' shortlist

Emily Steel 17 September 2006

www.lablit.com/article/151

Who the hell knew why he was climbing up into the
dish?

With hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have put Michael’s lunch in the vacuum chamber. Purgatory, by the way, is spectacularly cold.

**********

Michael brought a packed lunch to the lab every day because he stuttered.

You don’t follow? Bear with me. I haven’t slept in five days.

The lab is in precisely the middle of nowhere. Outside the perimeter fence, there are fields and trees and rolling hills every which way except up. Very pretty, if you like that sort of thing. That’s not the point. The point is that the only place to eat is the on-site canteen.

Every day for six years, Michael went to the canteen for lunch. He went early, to miss the crowds. Every day, he picked up a tray from the pile by the door, and went over to the fridge. He took a plate of pre-prepared salad covered with clingfilm, and a sandwich in a plastic pack. He picked up a bottle of water. He paid at the till, nodded his thanks, and went and sat by himself at a table by the window. From there, he watched the big white dish revolve as it tracked a satellite.

Every day, he had to pick out the pieces of boiled egg from his salad before he could eat it, and scrape the mayonnaise out of his sandwich with a knife.

He did all this because he couldn’t speak to the catering staff. He couldn’t go up to the hot food section, find out what was good that day and ask for something he liked, because he would block on his consonants. His throat would close up. The staff would stare at him while he jerked and spluttered, and when he’d finished, they would hand him a plate of something he hadn’t asked for. He couldn’t get a coffee from the man who ran the drinks machine, because coffee has altogether too many c’s.

In the end he got tired of the egg extraction, and taught himself to cook.

The cooking and lunch-bringing got underway before I started working at the lab. Michael was already established as the department curiosity. He drove in early so he wouldn’t meet anyone in the car park. He worked late so he wouldn’t have to say goodnight on his way out. For company, he kept a bird-eating spider in a tank in his office. He had his own kettle and mini fridge so he didn’t have to go to the coffee lounge. He never answered his phone.

I took it as a challenge. I dropped by his office with biscuits and announced I’d come for tea. I introduced myself to Hal the spider and got him to crawl up my arm. I enquired as to the home-cooked contents of Michael’s tupperware boxes. If he was irritated at first, he got used to me. It wasn’t that hard to ingratiate myself. He’s a man. I’m not. Funny how much that helps. After a year or so, you could almost have said we were friends.

Then I turned a culinary masterpiece into space food.

**********

We’d been having a disagreement about vegetarianism one morning, over email. Any extended conversation with Michael was best done by email, because his fingers could type almost as fast as he could think, and didn’t have to hang around waiting for his mouth. His ongoing search for new and better lunch ingredients had recently taken him to veal and fois gras. He didn’t see why I should have any more objections to those than to bacon. I said they were clearly morally worse. He said he knew someone who knew someone who’d been on holiday to France and had visited a goose farm. The geese had come running up to the farmer to be force fed, so I couldn’t object to the fattening up of their livers, he said, I couldn’t say shoving a tube in their throats was cruel, because the geese like it. I referred him to my original point, which was that we ought not to butcher animals to eat them. He asked when we should butcher them then, and if he should continue feeding baby mice to Hal, or let the spider starve. I said Hal was not a moral agent and we were, that we knew what we were doing and he didn’t.

Joyless vegan, said Michael.

I said I wasn’t a vegan, but he didn’t reply.

I told him to grow up. He still didn’t reply.

I got up, walked out of my office, down the corridor, and into his. He wasn’t there.

Hal sat in the corner of his tank, a mass of hairy legs, doing nothing. Michael’s monitor was dark. I jiggled the computer mouse, and the screen came to life and showed me his inbox. He hadn’t read my last two emails. I went over and opened the mini fridge.

On the shelf, next to the milk, there was a big square tupperware box with a yellow lid. I took it out, and opened it. They looked like two sleeping miniature chickens nestled in amongst the leaves. Headless chickens. Minus-feathers-and-feet chickens. Bite-size. Recently roasted. They were probably quails. I put the lid back on and marched out with the box.

There was no one in the clean room when I got there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a super-clean clean room. We’re not talking airlocks and weird suits. But it’s clean enough. We keep most of the dust out.

I put the lunch box down on the side, and hunted around for a small piece of metal to use as a tray. When I’d found one, I lifted the quails out of their salady bedding and laid them down on the metal. Then I swung open the door of chamber two and slid the quails inside. Closed the door. Set the temperature below freezing. Turned on the vacuum pump. Waited.

Once, one of the technicians accidentally left one of those plastic-handled screwdrivers in the big chamber while they were testing some spacecraft instruments. You pull the air out of the chamber to get as close to the conditions in space as you can. You can make the chamber fantastically hot, like exposure to the sun without an atmosphere, or very, very cold, like it’s in shadow. The screwdriver, anyway, came out with a handle like – you know that stuff they use in florists? The green stuff they stick the flower stems in when they’re making grand arrangements. Weirdly dry. Crumbles to the touch.

When I took the quails out, I had to push them back into the lunch box very, very carefully.

I snuck upstairs like a person hunted, but he still wasn’t in his office. I put the box back in the fridge, and went to lunch myself.

**********

Now, I didn’t know that Michael had been in a meeting for most of the morning. Or that the meeting had turned into a marathon. Or that the only thing keeping him from tearing out his own fingernails in there was the thought of the contents of his lunch box.

Michael hates meetings for all the reasons he hates the canteen. Except meetings are worse. Meetings involve people he doesn’t know, and they quite often expect him to explain things to them.

It had been about money. The people who put up the money for space research had told him that, since his latest work was concerned with the atmosphere and climate change, they were withdrawing their funding, and he should apply to the environment people. The environment people said he was dealing with a part of the atmosphere that was outside the ozone layer, which meant it was space, and he should go back and talk to the space people. He had spent the last few hours battling to make himself understood, and grabbing for words like a crazy man, because if he didn’t he might find himself an unemployed misunderstood crazy man.

As I say, I didn’t know any of this, so I was fairly surprised when that afternoon he found me running a vibration test on an imaging instrument, and smashed my prototype into bits.

I was back in the clean room, machine running, shaking the life out of the little imager, trying to rattle its bolts. Sometimes you do this and things fall apart and you want to cry. The argument, though, is that it’s going to get a very good shaking when it’s shot into space, and if bits of it are going to fall off they’d better do it here on earth where we can still fix them. The imager had been put through a small earthquake and had come out smiling. I was almost finished.

He pushed the door open quietly and came in. He stood over by the wall with his arms folded, and didn’t say anything.

I ignored him.

I switched off the machine. He started to meander towards me. I wrote down a few notes about the test conditions. He stopped in front of the machine and peered down at the imager on the test platform. I looked at him. He reached out quickly and picked up the imager in both hands, turned ninety degrees holding it out at chest height, and let go. There was a smash as it hit the concrete floor, and then silence.

“Fff -” said Michael.

I looked down at the debris.

“Ffff - ” said Michael.

I wanted to cry.

“Feeble,” said Michael. And walked out.

**********

Don’t cut him any slack. He knew very well it would take weeks to replace the damaged parts and repair the imager, and that we’d have to run it through all the tests again. And he knew I’d have to answer for it. What was I supposed to say, that it fell off the table?

I stopped speaking to him.

**********

It’s very easy to avoid someone like Michael. It’s not as if you’re going to run into them at a party and feel you have to make chitchat.

On a particularly warm day in April, I was walking from my office to the canteen, the long way round via the dish. As I passed, I saw him step over the low fence that ran round it.

If you go climbing into the dish, there are two things to remember – one, you take a radio, and two, you hit the failsafe switch. The switch is at the bottom of the ladder. It stops the team over in the control room moving the dish, stops you getting thrown about like a puppet or dropped to the ground from a great height.

Who the hell knew why he was climbing up into the dish? I didn’t know why he did anything. He’d stopped emailing me. I’d stopped going round for tea. Going into the dish wasn’t his job, but who the hell knew? He might have been earning extra cash cleaning off the bird droppings. Maybe he was sunbathing.

He had his radio clipped to the back of his trousers. He stalked across the grass up to the base of the dish, and started to climb the ladder.

He hadn’t hit the switch.

“Michael,” I called.

He half-turned on the ladder, frowning.

I stopped.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “about your lunch.”

He stared at me for a few seconds, like he was trying to work me out. I wondered if he would remember the failsafe. I wondered if he was testing me. And then he nodded, and carried on climbing. I watched him disappear as he pulled himself up into the dish.

**********

I’d hit the canteen at rush hour. I had to wait in the queue, wait while they brought out more hot food, wait to order a drink, wait to pay, wait for clean cutlery. It was quarter of an hour before I found a seat, at a table by the window.

When I looked out, the dish was facing away from the building, swivelling around to pick up a signal. I pictured it shifting, suddenly, fifteen minutes ago. I imagined the momentary rush of panic before Michael had got hold of his radio and told the control room to hold still long enough to let him climb down. Useful things, radios.

I took a forkful of my food.

Michael hated the canteen because he couldn’t tell the staff what he wanted. He hated meetings because nervousness made it worse. He always used email. He never, ever answered his phone.

I put my fork down.

He couldn’t use the radio.

The dish swung round.

**********

There’s an island, up in the arctic circle. It’s a desolate lump of ice and rock. There are no trees. The only animals are seals and the occasional polar bear that makes it across on the ice-flow. It has three forty metre parabolic dish antennas, and a human population of four: Burr, Didrik, Knute and me. I arrived last week on a plane from Norway.

From April to August the midnight sun circles above, hidden behind the fog. It’s cold, grey daylight here, all the time. It breaks in through the windows, through all the blackout drapes you can hang. You can see it through your eyelids when you’re trying to sleep. It gives you a good clear view of all your misdeeds.

They tell me I’ll get used to it.

I ran all the way to the control room, and Michael escaped with a mild concussion. He managed, however, to pull out an impressive number of wires trying to save himself from a fifteen foot drop, and damaged quite a few of the plates as he was thrown about. As it happens, the department is going to have to redirect some of its attention while the dish is repaired. Some of its time will no doubt be spent looking at the data Michael has already collected on changes in the atmosphere.

No doubt the Americans will be happy to send over some extra funds to speed up the repairs on the dish, so it can keep its beady eye on their satellites. They’ll probably send too much. Americans have no idea about money.

It might all work out very well for Michael. I’m not saying he did it on purpose. I’m not saying it was an elaborate hoax. I’m not saying that at all. Apparently, he went up there to check on a loose connection.

He didn’t thank me. He sent me an email. It said:

Congratulations. You’re going up north.

Someone needs to spend six months supervising the Norwegians. I’ve suggested we send you.

Enjoy the long summer day. Good luck sourcing fresh vegetables and smoked tofu.

I could have refused to go. But I didn’t. It wasn’t worth the effort. I thought perhaps we should bury the hatchet, so I dropped round to his office before I left. He wasn’t there.

You’ll have to excuse me now. Knute just stuck his head round the door to ask if I’ll be joining them for dinner. We’re having whale meat again. When I’ve finished eating I’ll be popping outside to pay my respects to Hal, in his shivery spidery grave where I froze him to death in the snow.

Related information

Recently, SciTalk held the Subtle Science Short Story Competition, in conjunction with NESTA and The Dana Centre. Participants, after meeting a few scientists and having the chance to visit their labs, were asked to write a short story inspired by these encounters, featuring science as an unobtrusive element of the narrative. The winner and top two runners-up were published on GuardianUnlimited. LabLit.com (who helped in the judging) is pleased to have been permitted to publish a few more of our favorite top submissions.

Novelist Ann Lackie of SciTalk says of Baiting Michael: Emily Steel’s story is one of the few Subtle Science entries that was lab-based, yet the story is not about the science, instead focusing on the interaction between two people. Emily visited the lab of solar scientist Dr. Chris Davis at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and subtly incorporated what she learned into her story. Thus, in passing, we find out what the research facility and its offices and equipment look like, see the great dish of the telescope and discover a little about how it works and is maintained. Also, we learn about the canteen and the people who serve in it, and the boredom but necessity of meetings where scientists and administrators fight for future funding. She gives us a further insight, namely that all research is not lab-based and scientists may be sent out into the field to gather data. So much of the way scientists work is packed into this story – but you as the reader discover the detail without noticing it, so absorbing and entertaining is the story about the normal human idiosyncrasies of the two characters and the practical jokes they play on each other. Emily cleverly encourages us to feel sympathy for Michael, but the story’s ending has a nice twist which subverts our earlier impression of the stereotypical nerd.