Julie walked down the hallway, shaking her head at the flickering fluorescent light, the battered yellow paint and the dingy gray linoleum. In the movies, a research university of this caliber would be pristine white with large glass enclosures, perfect lighting, and automatic sliding doors. Most people didn’t realize this world-renown physics research facility used grocery store tin foil on Faraday cages and cheap rubber wedges to keep the doors closed during experiments. Two doors from the end of the hall, she could see the sign posted on her lab. Someone had scotch-taped a drawing of a sealed box with the words “Speak to me, cat!” across the side.
No one greeted her as she entered. The large room was divided into two sections. Directly in front of her were shelving units that reached the ceiling, with her own small desk space squeezed at the end of the aisle next to the only window in the room. A gap in the shelving behind her chair made the space functional, but only just. To the right of the door was a long built-in desk that served as the computer work stations for graduate students Allison Evans, a structural engineer, and Xiulan Zhang, a particle physicist. On the opposite wall from the two grad students sat Spencer Klepin, a post-doc physicist, who had set up his neat and very small desk against the wall.
On the far wall was the machine. As a small prototype he had been given the name Gordon. That was when the machine rested on a table, but subsequent modifications had made it too large and heavy. It now loomed ominously against the wall, its structural supports almost looking like the retracted legs of a mechanical insect. Gordon rested flat on a cooling pad on the floor. A yellow half-octagon had been taped to the linoleum, indicating a boundary a few feet from the edges of the machine. The tape had been placed before Gordon’s inaugural power up seven months earlier, back when the machine was almost cute. Now the yellow line seemed to signal real danger, the blackened edges of the warped tile around the cooling pad a cautionary tale.
Spencer was hunched in his typical stance, typing at the computer while bouncing one leg. Allison was standing near her workstation, holding an apple in her hand, snapping her gum as she waited for the scale to calibrate. Xiulan was in the boundary, examining the test area surface, occasionally using a canister of compressed air to dust off the grid etched into the platform. It wasn’t necessary, but Julie said nothing. She moved to her corner, the worst desk in the room, her elbow narrowly missing contact with a shelf-edge. With movements educated by habitual action, she quickly opened her flimsy cubby and switched out her plain brown glasses for her bright blue pair. It made her feel a bit like Mr. Rogers to have glasses for each occasion. Unless he came to visit the lab, Marshall only ever saw the brown ones.
“Julie, we’re ready to run Gordon.”
The others were already shutting off machines, most of the lights, and sleeping computers. They blew a fuse last time they powered Gordon up and couldn’t figure out why. Without knowing what they could leave on, they shut off all non-essentials for his initial power-up. Julie shut off her monitor and tower. Only Spencer’s computer was needed for the first stage. Once Gordon’s capacitor was fully charged, they could start turning the lights, computers, and other equipment back on.
Julie left her desk and walked over to examine the machine as the lab assistants bustled around her. All the power supplies, cooling lines, and data cables seemed to be connected. The new gleaming power supply on the back of Gordon’s housing was shining in self-satisfaction. The top of the machine looked like an old overhead projector on steroids. Julie smiled at the arts and cratsy-nature of some of what they had cobbled together. Their budget was healthy for a research study, but most of it went to the rare metals. That meant anything beyond sensitive equipment was hacked together.
Julie went back to her workstation and grabbed her audio recorder. She touched her little porcelain Good Luck cat Xiulan had ironically gifted to everyone. The others all did the same. She hit record.
“Running sequence alpha. Time is 3:27 pm, date is November 10th, 2003. This is our fourth attempt, following modifications to the power supply and some updated data cables. Allison, place the test subject. Spence, get ready to run the program.”
Allison placed the apple on the scale, recording the measurement before moving the fruit to the optimistically named ‘launch pad’. Spencer looked over to Gordon, muttered something under his breath, and went back to his screen. Xiulan flipped off the last few power strips in the darkened room, then rolled the giant metal protective plates to spots designated by black taped Xs on the floor. Julie, Allison and Xiulan took positions behind the solid screens, shifting their gaze between Spencer’s monitor and the apple’s reflection in a mirror mounted on the ceiling. Dangling from the machine was a plastic name tag with the words “Gordon’s Free, Man” stamped in black letters on the white background.
“Running program.” Spencer announced. The tag made it’s accustomed rattle.
Without looking up, the young man spoke over the powerful hum. “Searching for a connection.”
The three women waited, anxiously watching the apple though they knew nothing was supposed to happen yet. They had spent three weeks installing new components and checking existing ones. Each scientist in the room thought through the switches, plugs, cables, clips, and circuit boards they had removed, cleaned and reinstalled, desperately hoping they had correctly reassembled Gordon’s labyrinthine innards. Occasionally, Julie would look at the completely empty receiving platform. Dizzy in anticipation, she felt both exhausted and exhilarated. Privately, she often wondered if this was the sensation pregnant women felt at the first serious pain of labor.
“Connection established. Waiting for synchronization.”
Spencer’s normal docile voice was tinged with anticipation. In the last trial runs, Gordon had never established a connection. Xiulan and Allison watched the apple eagerly. Julie closed her eyes.
Julie stopped breathing. She opened her eyes.
The apple hadn’t moved. All waited silently for several moments. Julie let out a breath.
“Well, shit.” Spencer muttered.