[Original Novel] Down in the Steam Tunnels, Part 2


Previous parts: 1

They are after all quite close most of the time as I carry cash on me for emergencies. But no, complete dead end. As often happens, what I sought turned out to be hiding someplace I’d already ruled out.

My university has a long and storied history of controversial behaviorology experiments. Primarily done with animals. Pigeons, chimps, rats and so forth. But also the human animal on occasion, these being the studies which drew the most ire.

Regulations concerning human participation in such projects were not always so stringent. The sixties were a particularly permissive decade for this kind of research. It saw landmark experiments such as the Stanford prison study, the Milgram experiment, and various attempted implementations of Panopticon. It’s that last one which drew my interest.

She’d mentioned a book, after all. The closest repository of those I could think of was the university library. Searching their computerized catalogue for “all-seeing eye” produced a dizzying list of books about the Illuminati. That might’ve sent me down yet another dead end had I not noticed the odd book out.

Just one book in that list wasn’t about conspiracy theories concerning the Illuminati. Instead it concerned Panopticon, a type of prison designed by Jeremy Bentham, a social theorist who thought to improve the efficiency and efficacy of prisons by designing them such that every inmate could be monitored from a central observation tower enclosed with one-way mirrors.

Although of course a single guard could not watch every cell simultaneously, prisoners could not tell whether or not they were being watched, and so had to operate at all times under the assumption that they were.

Given the sociological significance of the project, and the similar nature of the photographs I was searching for, I followed my hunch and soon located the dusty leather bound book on a shelf buried deep in the recesses of the library. Removing it from the shelf, I heard and felt a weight shift within it. Could it be?

In fact, there was something inside. The recluse who’d sent me on this cryptic scavenger hunt, or someone she knew, must’ve hollowed out the book’s interior. When I opened it I found a water tight case of the sort you might carry your camera or phone in while boating. Inside of that, a stack of 3.5 inch diskettes.

How long had these awaited discovery? Evidently the book was sufficiently obscure that nobody else had checked it out in all that time. Nor did I, simply tucking the case of diskettes into my bag and hurrying home with it. I wound up having to buy a USB external floppy disk drive to read them. Luckily, a few manufacturers still make such a thing.

Jackpot. Only a few photos would fit on each diskette due to their limited capacity. But, strewn across the lot, I found a wealth of photos from the notorious collection I’d never seen before. On the final diskette, a document time stamped 1995. It read

The steam tunnels are another oddity my university is famous for. Locked up to prevent access for many years now. Finally, I had some concrete sense as to why. What better closet to stash your skeletons in? Aside from the difficulty of access, the heat, humidity and occasional bursts of steam make it dangerous to spend any substantial amount of time in.

When a trio of curious students set out to map the tunnels in the late 80s, one went missing, the body never recovered. That’s the official reason for the chains and padlocks sealing every entrance I know of. It was clear that if I wanted to poke around in those tunnels, I would need clearance from the administration. At a fairly high level, too.

This is what led me to follow up on the email sent by Professor Travigan about my article on the history of the tunnels, published in a recent issue of the university paper. He identified himself as someone who was around during the timeframe of the Ivy League posture study, and one of the few faculty able to access the tunnel network.

It’s difficult to express the disappointment I felt when he turned out to be a nutcase. Because everyone else with the sufficient clearance either didn’t return my calls or advised me to discontinue my investigation. Citing the incident in the 80s, which I gave every appearance of accepting as a sufficient reason.

Sniffing around where you’re not wanted is a good way to make powerful enemies. The simplest precaution you can take is to always behave as though whatever line of BS they feed you has completely satisfied your curiosity. It’s only if they think you’ll continue to pry that they take severe action to prevent it.

I received an email from my editor recommending alterations to the article I’d submitted about the annual canned food drive just a few minutes before the power went out. I was sitting in my bedroom, typing away in the darkness as usual such that I didn’t notice there’d been an outage until I went to the kitchen in search of a snack.

At times like this I’m glad I’ve furnished this place so sparsely. It still looks more or less as it did when I moved in, as I only unpack things from the stack of boxes by the door when I actually need them. My reasoning is that this way it’ll be less work when next I move.

I shouted, hopping about on one foot as I struggled to cradle my stubbed toe without falling over. A storm last year knocked out power for a solid three days, inspiring me to buy a small folding solar panel to keep my phone charged. I knew it wouldn’t begin to suffice for the fridge. I’d just been grocery shopping too.

That’s when I remembered the professor’s trinket. After deliberating for a while, I decided it was worth a shot, and plugged the fridge into it. Impossibly, it appeared to work. Even more impossibly, it was still working an hour later when my laptop ran down enough that I sought out someplace to plug it in.

I wound up digging a power strip out of one of the boxes, plugging that into the device, then plugging both the fridge and my laptop charger into that. A gift horse scenario. Who cares how it works so long as my groceries don’t spoil, and my laptop doesn’t die? I sat crosslegged on the cold kitchen floor, finishing up the alterations to the article before calling it a night.

When morning came, the fridge was still running. My laptop’s battery read full. , I conceded. . I turned the device over in my hands, again looking for some fraudulent gimmick and again finding nothing obviously amiss.

I gave up on it for the time being, showered, ate a hastily prepared breakfast of cold pizza and cereal, then biked to class. A physics lecture really should be an evening affair. The brain is never as inelastic as it is during the early hours of the morning. I rubbed at my eyes soon after taking my seat, becoming self conscious about the dark bags under them in the process.

Near as I can tell, those are permanent. If ever you wreck your sleep cycle, even once, racoon eyes stay with you forever. Someone like me, an incurable night owl with a penchant for obsessive investigation, never stood a chance.

I looked around at the sea of macbooks, my own laptop one of the few PCs present. It’s as yet unclear to me how spending twice as much on a computer with the same hardware specs aids the learning process. My eyelids fought every effort to keep them from sliding shut.

How are we meant to absorb such esoteric material while struggling to stay awake? I’d once stocked up on those five hour energy dealies only to discover they really supply about fifteen minutes of wild, manic wakefulness followed by a devastating crash. If that isn’t liquefied meth, it’s got to be something chemically similar.

I quite like this professor and would hate to disrespect him by falling asleep in his class. Where other professors come highly recommended if they jazz up the material to make it more approachable and engaging, he delivers only the relevant facts in as concise and clear a manner as I’ve ever encountered.

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