Down in the Steam Tunnels, Part 3

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Previous parts: 1, 2

He won’t bring the beauty of physics alive for you, whatever that could mean, but he does let us know specifically which chapters to study in advance of tests and recommends exercises which promote the retention of what we’ve read. At least in my opinion, everything teachers should be and nothing they shouldn’t. We’re not here to be entertained.

But in this condition, his droning monotone only exacerbated my craving for sleep. I half wished he’d deliver the rest of today’s material through a megaphone. My ears began to perk up, nonetheless, as I recognized parallels between the lesson and the subject matter of the discussion I’d recently had with professor Travigan.

“Now, the mechanism responsible is thought to be particle pair separation. We’ve observed this happening constantly at the very smallest scales, a sort of existential static. Commonly called quantum foam, particles and their antiparticle equivalents spontaneously separating out of apparent nothingness, then annihilating when they collide soon after.

You can get something from nothing, it seems, so long as the debt is eventually repaid. I often liken it to digging a hole in flat ground. You now have a hole, and a pile. Or, just as you can add one and negative one to get zero, you can likewise carry out the operation in reverse.”

He dimmed the lights and turned on the projector. An artist’s rendition of a black hole filled the screen. “So, how was this discovered? As it turns out, there is a specific distance from any given black hole where, as particle pair separation events occur, one of the particles, ejected towards the black hole, is drawn in by its gravity while the other, ejected away from it, escapes.

This accounts for the constant emission of particles and antiparticles from black holes that we now call Hawking radiation. It was quite perplexing before the cause was understood, as of course, nothing is supposed to be able to escape a black hole.”

I felt my mind drawn inescapably towards the black hole of unconsciousness. Regretting, mildly, that I’d turned down a former roommate a week prior when he told me he’d found a reliable hookup for adderall. All too common, particularly in STEM programs.

“The collapse of our universe into existence by this mechanism is thought to have been driven by entropy. Nothingness, or whatever you’d like to call the state preceding the big bang, is perfectly uniform and therefore maximally ordered. Some theorize it was an endless sea of Higgs Bosons.

By contrast, the present state we colloquially refer to as existence is far less ordered if you think about it. And the distribution of that order is anything but uniform! Someone with a naive perspective might look at the high degree of order on Earth and wrongly infer the rest of the universe is equally ordered, in the same way that a child living in a luxurious gated community might wrongly extrapolate from his or her surroundings that the rest of the Earth is an equally lavish utopia.”

He’s a real downer when he talks about this stuff. Seems to delight in it, though. “What are you here for” he once asked an offended evangelical student, “if not to have your illusions destroyed?” No doubt the life of the party, if by some miracle or mistake he’s ever been invited to one.

Today’s afternoon class was literature. Even more tiresome if you can believe it. The sort of people who self select for the course are commonly motivated by the desire to impress one another with elaborate, unorthodox interpretations of works in which, more often than not, the author was perfectly frank about his meaning. As the professor of this course is relatively lax, I finally allowed myself to sleep.

When I got home, against my expectations, the fridge was still running. I checked the little vials, finding that the level of the black stuff had been reduced noticeably while the glow of the blue gas seemed somewhat diminished. Fuck me, I thought. It actually does something.

Not hard to guess his game, though. Casually hand off the device, let me try it out on my own and be fooled by whatever trick it employs. Then I return to him a true believer, eager to gormlessly lap up whatever line of BS he means to sell me. Somewhat more sophisticated than a worm on a hook, but same basic principle.

I set about reviewing the pictures. The cache hidden in the book yielded forty photos, all told. Which were exactly what I’d been let to expect. At first. I admit it was slightly titillating to view nudes of average people, who believed these photos would never be seen by anyone except the scientists carrying out the study.

It was also surprisingly troubling. The mild guilt I felt must be what makes voyeurism exciting for a certain crowd. But for altogether unrelated reasons, the feeling of unease only intensified as I progressed through the images.

No longer simply demonstrating posture, some now depicted the subjects connected by countless long, thin wires from the pins in their spine to an odd machine about the size of an old timey radio, with all manner of analog gauges, knobs and dials on the face. The edges appeared riveted together, the housing made from rough steel.

Through an open service panel in the side I could see row upon row of what I initially thought were vacuum tubes. But, looking more closely, they were instead full of a hazy gas of some kind. I wondered if, were the photos in color, that gas would be a certain shade of luminescent blue.

No. Full stop. Now he’s got me playing along with the delusion. Had the woman who pointed me to these photos done so under his direction? I could see no other plausible option besides folie a deux. All this effort to steer me towards these doctored photos, for what? So that I would come to believe in Orgone?

An investment scam? But I’m as skint as any other student. Recruitment into a cult? I’d seen no other potential members except the unkempt blonde hippie. He’d at least succeeded in arousing my curiosity. What could still be hidden down there? In the humid, dark labyrinth of steam tunnels.

It’s all I could think about during classes. The pitch black, hissing, pulsating web of corridors beneath me. Spreading out organically, like cracks in a window as a stone impacts it in slow motion. Somehow growing, new tunnels sprouting off of existing ones, serpentine concrete pseudopods burrowing relentlessly outward into the cold, dead soil.

It gnawed at me. Every effort to bury it in the back of my mind thwarted as time and time again it clawed its way to the forefront. What’s down there? What could be down there still? What the fuck is down there, hidden in those tunnels? I gave up fighting the losing battle to focus on the lecture and instead left early. For the steam tunnels, of course.

The most well known entrance isn’t difficult to get to. Down a flight of stairs which also leads to the room that the backup generators are kept in. That’s through the door to the right. The double doors straight ahead, however, lead to the steam tunnels. Hence the heavy loops of chains and locks.

Nothing like a deadbolt however. So it was possible, with some grunting, to open the doors just far enough to peer through the crack. That proved to be the limit of what the chains would allow, but it was enough. If only the tunnel on the other side weren’t so dark.

My phone! A millennial’s answer to every problem. I activated the light widget and pointed it through the gap between the doors. On the screen, though grainy, I could make out perhaps twenty feet of tunnel as well as the nearest intersection. Rusty steel pipes snaking down the ceiling and walls, emitting periodic puffs of steam from leaky fittings.

Then, in a flash, I glimpsed a silhouette dart through the tunnel juncture ahead. It was over so quickly I couldn’t convince myself I’d really seen it. My heart rate increased. “Hello?” I called out through the gap. It echoed uselessly down the concrete passage, eliciting no response.

I did, however, hear a faint metallic screech. Like the audio feedback you hear when you place a microphone too close to the speaker it’s connected to. As I strained to hear, I realized it was getting closer. My heart now beating so hard I could hear it, I found I could not make myself run.

Stay Tuned for Part 4!

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