Heat, Part III

From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 8 June 2008

At some point in late winter gloom, any numbers, any thesis would do

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the final episode of a three-part story about an ex-scientist who stumbles over her past in a very unexpected place.

So who’s using the big blue thing right now?”


Between rounds Allison made some quick calculations. Rael never left after seven, and he was usually the last. One hour to stabilize her own Blue baselines, and Allison was looking at hours of uninterrupted time, all the way to nine, another hour to tidy up before Rael thumped in. Before she could go home and collapse.

So Allison began beginning her days late in the afternoon, much to the dismay of Isabelle, who firmly believed being in the lab when she was constituted the sole measure of hard work. But her student was too tightly wrapped in her plan to notice. She waited for Blue, and had the box humming away, usually before sunset. Of course thinking up perfect plans in bars can lead to troublesome issues. For example, that as a Masters student Allison could not apply for a key to the main entrance, in a time before card keys and access codes . Meaning that after eight she could only leave with someone else, or remain in the locked building until the morning shift came at six thirty. Since the plan specified that experiments only began after everyone had left, that being the point, option one was pretty much out of the question. There was another alternative, befriending the night watchmen, they with the unlimited access. And the (hopefully fake) never-ending war stories, and the sad shifty eyes, and the weird tempers, and the loosely held guns, and the alcohol breaths.

After the first few days Allison found an easy way to barricade herself in with Blue and a few books. This turned out to be surprisingly ineffective, as the rustling of turning pages only enhanced the silence, made any creak in the old building sound like a prelude to horror. So she started playing loud radio (the difficulty was finding a station that did not make lulling listeners to sleep a nightly mission), and took advantage of her theatre training to moan long rambling lines of non-sense dialogue in several accents, pretending that many oddballs actually roamed Isabelle’s lab in the wee hours. Anything to pass the time as Blue hummed slowly on, monitoring heat she hoped was not her own. Or the lack of heat that reigned over the building as non-essential electricity was turned off automatically at 2 AM, morphing the room into a chilly dungeon in the summer, and Antarctica in winter. Her only brief escapes were to the nearby lamp-less bathroom, fighting the dark and the shrieking rats (below) or bats (above) she could feel scurrying about, ever since the friendly night watchmen had told her all about them. The same bathroom Blue would later take refuge in, disguised as a towel holder. And she lingered there just long enough to get back, locking all doors and noises behind her. Staring hard at baselines as she puffed into her hands.

Blue was like any other similar entity, it computed processes, registered change (and a baseline, as no-change, meant change), wanted to scream it out to the world. But needed a voice to be heard. Allison and Rael had set up a monitoring system, wires running into the bowels of the machine, connecting into a small device where colored pens scribbled on paper, much like other detectors of massive shifts, such as lies and earthquakes. The pens registered all of Blues moods and twists, taking the small bursts of heat and transforming them into lines that veered left or right on the paper, energy coming in, energy going out. In turn, the veering lines could be interpreted, calculated; yielded numbers, data. When Allison added this component to her experiment, that happened.

Numbers, data. Things to write procrastinated Masters theses with. Allison’s deadlines started creeping into whatever restless morning sleep she could manage with an old airplane mask in her drape-less room. Both her own, optimistic, ones; and the deadlines Isabelle had determined, based on the start time for the next, unsuspecting, Master student scheduled to join the lab. As Allison collected numbers Blue slowly reverted from being Blue into being what its makers had intended. An apparatus, an instrument. At some point in late winter gloom, any numbers, any thesis would do. When Allison sipped coffee-tasting instant soup from her multipurpose thermos, that was the depth of her late-night science. All vigor went into establishing baselines; lines running smoothly down the middle of the paper. As soon as she felt one could pass inspection she added several of many things she had prepared during the afternoon, after analyzing results from the previous dawn. She had arranged the components in an order that made sense, and knew what sort of information adding each of them to her baseline was supposed to give. But, as Allison actually carried out the experiments, she wouldn’t be able to explain anything to anyone, not even herself. She was numbly pumping things into a box as a freezing night lingered. All she wanted was to will the baseline to shift to one side, give her something to calculate, the possibility of a number. Left. Right, it didn’t matter. As long as the pen resolutely moved towards papers edge. Away from the Institute, away from Rael, away from Isabelle, away from Blue, away from any known baseline.

In the end Blue dutifully delivered numbers, and Allison wrote what she could, barely enough for Isabelle to bless, taking her time to point out all the misspellings and out of place commas, underlined in thick, unsharpened pencil. Slowly explaining why each change mattered to a student who was willing to make all changes, any changes, even those she didn’t agree with or even understand. By that time Allison’s mind was busy with all the job ads she had been checking, in a laboriously pre-internet way. After she defended her thesis Allison made a conscious decision to forget whatever it was she still remembered. She left with nothing, never thinking she’d see ever the place again. And in a way she hadn’t, the remodeling took care of that. Except, apparently, in this one bathroom: a forgotten time capsule. Which could bring Allison back, make her remember; but couldn’t force her to stay. So Allison solemnly patted Blue on his old rusty hide, and left once more.

In the corridor she seemed to feel one final ghost of the old winter chill, except this time it was just the early summer night breeze playing on her wet dress. Something another Allison might fear, but that one hadn’t actually owned any dresses. After facing Blue and everything that had come after, Allison felt she could walk the corridor with confidence, even if in Lady Godiva’s favorite outfit.

She glided into the Auditorium as the applause was dying down. The growing noises of people finally let loose hopefully masking her entrance, too many simultaneous signals to establish a solid baseline. The crowd quickly morphed from the polite aligned rows of seats into a formless mob, and Allison regained her position next to the other committee members, just in time to congratulate the director as he came down from the podium. Excellent speech, they lied in unison, really summed up the new institute. During the visit the director had seemed a keen manager with an eye for scientific talent, Allison thought. Lucky guy, he would never make it as a motivational speaker.

If the director noted any sarcasm he didn’t show it or, contrary to what had happened in some of the earlier meetings, respond in kind. He seemed tired, glad to have the whole thing behind him, Allison’s committee happy, the Institute officially set up with its next multiyear plan. In the mood for congratulations, however empty, not more questions. But Allison couldn’t quite help herself, and the un-remodeled bathroom made her somehow feel the director deserved just one final squeeze.

So, she asked, the Institute used to have quite a strong thermodynamics tradition, papers published, thesis defended. Calorimetry, measuring heat. Any plans to re-kindle that interest? It was clearly a question no one had prepared the director for; he looked at Allison as if she had suggested that they should channel all their funds to study the sex of angels. The director had only a vague notion of Allison’s past, having been brought in from the outside to revamp the Institute. He probably reminded himself once more that Allison had the power to make his life hard and that it was too late in the day to screw it up, so all he said was that he was aware of that proud tradition (in a tone suggesting that he wasn’t), but that the Institute needed more cutting-edge research in high profile fields to make a new, strong name for itself. Neural networks, complexity theory, bioinformatics, genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, epigenomics, other “omics”. Fields with charisma. And heat was not it. Surely, the director treaded carefully, we have moved beyond that.

Yes, Allison said with a smile. We probably have.

Related information

© 2008 João Ramalho-Santos

The author dedicates this story to Cristina Pereira da Silva.

Read other stories by the author on

The Experiment


The Reunion