A Slow Cold Death
Published by Bitingduck Press
© 2012 Susy Gage
All rights reserved
For information contact
Bitingduck Press, LLC
Altadena, CA 91001
Cover image by Dena Eaton
For Ozy, because sometimes denial really is a superpower; and for Skaludy, my first fan
The balance sheet for the universe makes the crucial distinction between a universe that will expand forever into a slow cold death, or on the other extreme one which will fall back upon itself in the big crunch—Prof. John Learned, University of Hawaii
DisclaimerNone of these people are real, and none of these events actually happened, except the part about the mallard. Any resemblance to real people or events is a coincidence or a product of your guilty conscience.
The Superior Technological Institute
Jacob Silverman hated graduations.
They made him feel like a piece of infrastructure, paraded around in a silly costume for the benefit of students who had bugged him for four, eight, sometimes as many as thirteen years in the case of his least-favorite PhD student. His gray and red academic regalia was sweltering, and at ten o’clock on this ninth of May in beautiful Pasadena, California, it was already over one hundred degrees.
So while the campus of the Superior Technological Institute was being strewn with roses and computer cables for the big day, he strapped a water bottle around his waist, laced up his hiking boots, and headed into the foothills alone. The air grew cooler and cleaner with every mile, and there were no sounds besides the humming of insects and his own footfalls.
When he was struck from behind, he thought at first of a landslide, raising his arms to protect his head. Then a second blow fell between his shoulder blades, accompanied by a distinctly human grunt.
Tumbling over the trail’s edge to the chaparral below, he thought for a crazy few moments that he would survive. The sand was soft and welcoming and he dove into it hands first, images flashing in his mind of his family, then his mother, then himself marching into the police station to file a report. There weren’t very many people who would have an interest in killing a physics department chairman, even if his department was the best of its kind in the world.
But the sand was slippery on the steep slope, and he accelerated as he slid, grasping more and more desperately at cacti and manzanita trees that tore from their moorings under his speeding weight. His last hope was that the murderer’s identity would be as obvious to his colleagues as it should be, and then he broke through the underbrush to plummet two hundred feet to the canyon floor.
One: Right Back Where I Started From
“Maupertuis will tell you many things, but pay him little heed.” Alexander Kuznetsov’s too-formal English made him seem even creepier somehow. “He was shot in the chest on the freeway last year, and he hasn’t been the same since. He’ll die long before he gets tenure.”
Lori recoiled instinctively from the heartless words, forgetting she was still wearing her rollerblades. She scrambled for balance, clutching the wall, leaving a streak of sweat on the department head’s beige paint.
The last time she had stood in this room she had been sixteen years old, pursued by a reporter into Silverman’s office for some bullshit feel-good story about the youngest graduate of America’s best science university. Valedictorian, a single A- (organic chemistry) the only flaw on her record, three papers published as an undergrad. It should have felt like a triumph, returning to the place that had been her home and to one of the most coveted positions in all of geekdom. Only a hundred and fifty people in the world could claim the title of professor at the Superior Technological Institute. An even dozen could claim to be professors of physics in the department that had housed Millikan, Dirac, Einstein, and Feynman.
But something had been wrong since the moment she arrived half an hour ago, and it wasn’t being number thirteen. The department she remembered so well had become a ghost town. The secretarial cube farm was closed and dark. Half of the rooms had no names on them. The only person here at nine-thirty on a Wednesday morning was the new chairman, who had skipped her interview out of pure spite and whose welcome sounded more like a death threat.
She took a deep breath and tried to channel Silverman. Kuznetsov never would have been hired if his predecessor hadn’t died in a freak hiking accident, and she returned his sneer with one of her own. “In that case, is there anyone alive I should meet?”
“We didn’t expect you until next week,” he replied coldly, as if her early intrusion were a personal insult. “I understand your research group will be joining you?”
“Just one postdoc.”
“We must talk.” He rose to his feet, brushed past her and headed down the corridor, not even giving her a chance to change her footwear.
She half-marched, half-rolled after him, noticing that even with hundred-millimeter wheels she was a head shorter. Kuznetsov was a bit scary looking, clean-shaven and deathly pale with slanted gray eyes and a neat cap of silver hair. He wore a suit and tie and there was a trace of Russian in his voice, but so slight it sounded fake at times.
He led her down two flights of stairs (she stepped sideways, clinging to the handrail) and across the tiny campus, past the thirteen-story library that gleamed like mylar in the sun, and to a completely remodeled bookstore with a café called the “H Bar and Grill.”
The place depressed her. They had obviously tried to make it fancy, but it was a faux gourmet rip-off, with tiny portions and inedible baked goods. The new layout of the bookstore was wretched, too—there were no longer any books. Instead there were shelves of electronic gadgets and their assorted accessories, all branded and logoed and arranged by color-code for each of the four STI Undergraduate Houses. Lori felt as if everything she held sacred had been turned into a bauble.
Slurping loudly on his four-dollar latte, Kuznetsov told her that she should fire her current postdoc and replace her with the incoming crop of his hand-selected superstars. Of the six first-year students, he expected Lori to support at least three, all of them string theorists. Now that she’d made her presence in town known, she was “invited” (no choice involved) to spend the weekend in Palm Springs at the new students’ retreat, where he would introduce these people to her.
“As close as you are to your tenure review, stick with what you know,” he told her with a muffiny grin that showed decayed stubs of teeth, stigmata no doubt of outdated Soviet dental practices. He tried to convince her that trying to set up an experimental lab before tenure was too risky, that she shouldn’t even bother. Everyone at the interview had said the opposite. Besides, if she was supposed to stick with what she knew, why abandon her Canadian postdoc? Fang Li was a theorist, and she was good, and Lori refused to have her callously jettisoned.
“As you know, STI only allows postdocs to have that status for five years,” Kuznetsov pursued, leaving her no room to reply. “Your Canadian has but one year left—for her to leave her country would be unwise.”
Lori groaned audibly. She had told Fang to make sure she had her green card—after all, she had done her PhD at Chicago: she knew the U.S.—but being the impractical flake theoretical physicists all were, she’d never done it.
After all the grief of last year, Lori had wanted to leave Canada so much that she hadn’t stopped to wonder what STI really wanted from her. She had thought they were being generous when they gave her credit for all five years she’d spent as an assistant professor, offering to give her tenure after only one year if things went well. That was the ultimate sign that she was so out of touch that she no longer understood anything that mattered. It was the first rule of this place—trust no one. But she had signed a contract, and now she was here, and she had to avoid becoming a pawn for the losing side.
She didn’t even bother to argue. Paying for his students was out of the question, no matter how brilliant they were, but let him entertain his silly hopes if that made him happy. The first thing she needed to do was to find out who was responsible for space allocations, and whether the experimental lab they’d promised in the letter of offer was real or a lie.
He continued to chew with infuriating slowness, so finally she got up, excused herself without veiling her sarcasm, and skated out the door.
All of her luggage was still on the moving van, which had left her this morning with the only means of transportation that could fit in a carry-on. Perfect for the flat bike trails of Montreal, her custom carbon-fiber speedskates were about as appropriate in the Los Angeles foothills as swim fins on a gymnast. The three-mile descent to campus had been terrifying, done mostly backwards and involving one face-first crash onto someone’s lawn.
But the campus was smooth and flat, the only obstacles a few fallen fruit on the Olive Walk and string trimmers wielded by the eternally zealous campus landscape crew. She gave the gardeners the finger, sprinted past the cafeteria, twisted around the library, and flew up the wheelchair ramp towards the physics building. The tiny campus had been made entirely accessible five years before—she knew for whom, and she knew he’d graduated, so she truly wasn’t expecting a guy in a wheelchair to be in her way right at the top.
Swallowing a holy shit, she turned a hard left (always easier) and bumped down the short flight of stairs to execute a not-so-nice front T-stop just in front of the rose bushes. She then had to grab onto them to keep her balance, and swore for real this time in every language she knew as the thorns tore through her wrist guards. She sat down hard on the pavement.
There were too many people watching for this hour of the morning, and all of them were laughing.
“Lori Barrow returns in style,” called a kid sitting on the library steps. “Nine point five.”
“Nine point four,” commented the guy in the wheelchair who had spun himself around in a tight radius. “Deduction for cursing.” He sped down the ramp and over to where she was sitting. “‘Tabarnak de câline de binnes’?” he smirked, offering her his hand to pull her up. “Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?” His eyes sparkled with laughter, but his face looked tired and too old to be a student’s and his French was straight from the grandes écoles of Paris.
“Crisse de tabarnak,” Lori replied, exaggerating her best Quebecois accent. “You must be Louis Maupertuis.”
Two: The Most Logical Costume
“Excellent! You say my name even better than Murray Gell-Mann.” Louis didn’t look as if he had any intention of dying young. He was tan and grinning, with sun-bleached curly hair and a T-shirt that read String Theorists Have P-Branes. His grip was strong as he pulled Lori to her feet in a single motion that was surprisingly graceful. “What’s it like being back?” His English was as casual as his French was snobby, without any trace of a foreign or regional accent.
“Like being Rip van Winkle, that’s what,” she griped, sticking one foot behind her so she wouldn’t trip again. “Everything has changed, I recognize nothing, and I hate it all. The coffee shop employees are so mean they wouldn’t fill my cup.”
“That’s weird, they’re usually very nice.” His bushy blond eyebrows knit into a scowl and he lowered his voice. “Unless you were with Kuzno?”
His obvious loathing only made Lori’s vision of the department even murkier. She half expected him to say that Kuznetsov didn’t have long for this world. Instead he just explained, “No one will serve you if you’re with that son of a bitch. He’s abused all the waitstaff in a five-mile radius.” He glanced at her feet, then her head. “Why don’t you change your clothes, and we’ll go get some coffee somewhere else.”
Lori was suddenly conscious of the immodesty of her skinsuit, her backpack stained with the mud of a winter that would never end, smelly wrist guards now splotched with blood, and the number “116” still stuck on her helmet from last month’s marathon. “Er, well…” she tried. “I don’t exactly have any other clothes. I’m not really at work today—I just came down here to check the place out and was hijacked by Kuzno.”
Louis grumbled like a grouchy old dog. “Exactly what I was trying to prevent. You have to tell me what he said—but not here. The bushes have ears.” The way he glared at the nearest rosebush made Lori half expect it to reply, but it stayed stoic as he spun around and headed for the edge of campus.
She thought she knew where he was going and followed eagerly. The first Peet’s outside Northern California had been on the corner a block from the astronomy building, and as long as it was still there, all was right with the world.
“Is Kuznetsov evil?” she asked.
“He’s more than evil,” retorted Louis, who pushed the way obsessed people walk, flying down the bumpy sidewalk with apparent disregard for fallen grapefruit and ficus pods. “He is the enemy.”
Lori had never seen a wheelchair like that before, with a frame crafted with minimalist titanium simplicity like a racing bike, a really low back, and fancy expensive wheels of the same brand she used to have. “Nice wheels,” she remarked, “but I sold mine with that type of spokes. They’re really hard to true, and they break a lot, especially on a mountain bike.”
He looked briefly surprised. “You’re right, actually. I paid a fortune for these, and they break all the time.”
“I can show you what the national team guy taught me.” She hopped off the sidewalk and skated in the street, which was grapefruit-free and put her closer to Louis so she didn’t have to shout. “As soon as the moving van shows up with my truing stand, that is.”
“You true your own wheels?”
“Always. Usually in my office—it relaxes the brain.” She braked at the red light on Lake Avenue, scanning the unfamiliar storefronts. Cell phones and chic clothing, a fancy supermarket and a cheap department store—nothing to hint that they were two hundred yards from the greatest concentration of geniuses in the world.
“Suddenly I feel like a loser theorist,” said Louis, who was about the best example of loser theorist she’d ever seen. Seriously, “P-Branes”?
“Even a theorist can use a truing stand,” said Lori, without really meaning it. Most of them couldn’t handle a screwdriver, but she was an exception and she hoped Louis was too, in case she needed to recruit him for her new lab. “By the way, how did you recognize me like this? I was hoping to stay incognito.”
He laughed. “Lori, you’re wearing your skinsuit, helmet, and a number in eleven out of the twelve images that appear under your name in a Google search.”
“Do you realize,” she rattled off in a single breath as they took turns pushing the button for the green light, “that when I last left STI, the Internet was just a bunch of physicists posting their preprints and half a dozen newsgroups of which I was a founding member of half? The computer lab on the library’s first floor had nothing but six amber-colored monitors and a printer for testing your LaTex because you couldn’t visualize it on screen. Can you imagine that there was no C++ standard? That the most common operating system on campus was MS-DOS?”
“Wow, you should teach a class in Ancient Geek History. And I think I know who you were on alt.tasteless.” The light changed at last. “Where do you want to have breakfast?”
The heat was oppressive and the air smoggy. It took her a moment to catch her breath as they slowed down to navigate the commercial center and another moment to remember what September was like in Montreal: Cold. Always cold. The only safe month in Montreal was July, and it was all alone, a sad pitiful little month standing up to eleven cruel others. “I don’t know. I think I want to go to Peet’s, unless it has changed. I know nothing anymore. Even the tutu-man is dead!”
Peet’s had changed—it was now part of a brightly colored bagel shop that had certainly not been there before. There were a ton of people milling about and hogging the sunny spots, but Louis seemed to think it was worth the crowd and found them a place in line for both bagels and coffee. “It’s OK, Lori,” he said without any trace of irony. “We’ll make another.”
“What? Another tutu-man?” Lori balanced on one foot and fought with the buckle of her skate. “You can’t just make them like, like—”
“Like ice cubes? I choose my analogy carefully. There are simple ways of turning a sane, healthy physicist into a gibbering lunatic; it’s as well defined as a phase transition. First, he has to be appointed to a high-ranking position and then thrown out like an old rag.”
Lori was starting to see the picture. “Second, he has to sue and be granted tenure.” Finally free of the first skate, she started removing the second. “Third, he has to then decide to spend the next eighty years hanging around campus wearing a miniskirt and swim sandals just to annoy the university, calling it ‘the most logical costume for males in a hot climate.’” She shoved the skates into her bag and took out her cheap rubber flip-flops, feeling the blood return to her toes one by one.
“Now I wonder who is on stage one?”
“I may be immature, Louis, but I am not stupid.” With the skates off, she was right at his eye level and gave him a steady glare. “I know perfectly well that string theory is for losers and that we were hired to drive Kuzno and his flunkies out.”
They had reached the front of the line, but Louis appeared rather stunned, so Lori just stepped in front of him and ordered herself a breakfast sandwich on sesame and the largest coffee they had.
“And what would he like?” asked the saleslady, looking askance at Louis.
Lori was somewhat appalled, but honestly her new colleague was doing very little to dispel the image of being a drooling dement. “I think he wants a lobotomy. Hey, Louis! Earth to Dr. Maupertuis! Are you going to order something or are you just going to sit there?”
He got himself coffee and a bagel but didn’t snap out of his fugue until they were outside settled under a tree at one of the rickety wire tables. “Lori,” he said quietly, stirring a packet of sugar into his coffee, “you should really, really not say those things out loud in public.”
“Huh? What?” To humor him, she lowered her voice. “Does Kuzno have spies? I thought everyone hated him.”
“They do, but they’d be delighted to see his wrath directed elsewhere.” He added another packet of sugar without tasting and continued stirring. “It’s not a joke, I’m afraid. We really do have to get rid of him, and because he’s tenured, it’s not easy.”
“So we have to drive him mad?”
“That’s an option.”
“Or kill him?”
“That’s going too far.”
Maybe he’s the one who shot you! she thought, but suppressed the idea quickly. Perhaps he had post-traumatic stress disorder and was a little paranoid. Lori groaned silently to herself—she couldn’t bear any more lunatics. She’d left Canada to get away from lunatics, both those she loved and those she loathed. “He told me I should give up trying to do experiments this year,” she informed Louis, trying not to regret her past life, which already seemed so far away. She forced herself to think of the sun, the heat, and the roses; the roses in Montreal were sad, fuzzy things, all spindly branches with chronic fungus infections from being kept under styrofoam shields all winter long.
“He did what?” Louis clearly intended to leap to his feet but had forgotten he no longer had the axonal connections to do so, and nearly fell forward before slapping his hands on the table in a gesture half of self-arrest and half of outrage. Coffee jumped out of both cups. “See what I mean?” he demanded in a low voice. “He’s the spawn of Satan. You have the infrastructure grant for the collaborative center now. If you start moving right away, you’ll have experimental results in three months. If you miss hiring the incoming students, you’ll have nothing for a year. Don’t let him foist his loser theorists off on you, and don’t let him make any excuses for not giving you lab space appropriate for your microscopy and lasers. And don’t let him make you fire Fang Li. She’s one of the best.”
Lori’s mind was spinning. He knew too much already. “The theory students this year are losers?”
“You’ll see for yourself. They want to do string theory, but he can’t afford to hire them so he’s trying to make you do it. Did he say anything about lab space?”
“Nothing immediately realizable. He promised me space in the new building.”
“He lied. It’s been taken by biology even though the building won’t be finished until after you get tenure. You need to look in our basement.”
The choice of breakfast hadn’t been the best. Lori had forgotten how hot and dry California was, and now she was feeling a bit ill and stricken with a raging thirst. “I don’t know who or what’s in the basement. That’s where the electron microscopy used to be.” She remembered she had an apple in her backpack and pulled it out, caressing it gently. A Quebec McIntosh, smuggled unwittingly into California on the airplane, a relic of les produits de chez nous.
“Used to be?” Louis hadn’t touched his coffee or bagel up until this point. He seemed to suddenly notice they were there, tasted the coffee, made a face, and picked up the bagel. “Still is.”
“Still is? You mean van Gnubbern hasn’t retired yet?” It took her a long, long moment, and rather pitying look from Louis, before she realized the truth. “Oh, no.” She bit a huge chunk from the apple. “No, no, no,” she garbled, chewing. “Kuzno I can handle, but van Gnubbern taught me how to do electron microscopy when I was a freshman. He got me on my first paper. Forcing him out would be like stabbing my grandpa.”
“That’s why you were hired,” he said with no trace of emotion. “We all know Lori Barrow can stab her grandpa.”
That was too much. Lori could leap to her feet, so she did, and threw her empty coffee cup on the table. “Fuck you, Louis. You’re an asshole!”
He seemed genuinely delighted at this. “Why, thank you, Lori. You don’t know how much that means to me. But quit it with this Louis nonsense: I’m Lou.”
“As in Le Grand Méchant?” she asked automatically.
“Oooh, I like that.” He gave a toothy grin. His canines seemed particularly long. “They of course hired me because I’m an asshole. Didn’t even have to do a postdoc. You know I’m younger than you are? By three years and eight weeks. Unfortunately, a random act of L.A. street violence made me hors de combat for most of the last year.”
Without any idea why, Lori sat back down and burst into tears into what remained of her McIntosh. The words that came with the tears were hopefully as unintelligible to him as they were in her own mind, a mix of how she didn’t want to know about him, she didn’t want him to know about her, and for God’s sake she didn’t want to hear anything at all in French.
Lou waited patiently and handed her a napkin. “Sorry about that,” he said perfunctorily.
She listened in horror as the phrase she had hated all of her life came out of her own mouth. “You’re just a kid, you don’t understand,” she sniffled. Not surprisingly, he looked as outraged as she felt. “When do you come up for tenure?” she tried to amend.
“Not for four more years,” he admitted.
Lori took a shaky breath. It was hard to explain to someone who hadn’t been through it yet what the tenure process really meant. After six years, a professor went through a grueling procedure of preparing a dossier containing her entire life’s work, including research, teaching, and “service” to the university and community—which could mean everything from hosting high school students to being on committees to preparing a display for a museum. To this were added long, meticulous reports from at least three scholars in the field who had to claim that the candidate was, or at least would become, a world-class expert in some desired field. The whole package, which could easily be upwards of a thousand pages, then passed from the departmental tenure committee to the faculty-level committee, to the university-level committee, and finally to the president of the institution. Usually… but not always… the higher-level committees supported the department’s decision, but secret enemies could derail an application at any stage.
During the twelve to sixteen months that it took for the entire process, everyone started to look like one of those secret enemies.
If your tenure was refused, you had to leave the university. There were no second chances. The level of ignominy depended upon the school, but in the very best case, a professor refused tenure would start the process again at a new institution at least one step down on the prestige scale. For a lifelong overachiever, it was a big fat F—and a new beginning in what was often a miserable bumfuck place, with trailing spouse and children angry at the move, and competing for jobs with bright-eyed optimists ten years younger.
In the worst case, it meant you were forty, unemployed, and unemployable. It had happened to people she knew, too many to count.
But if the answer was positive, a tenured professor could be as big a pain in the ass as she wanted. Nothing short of a major felony could get you fired, and sometimes not even that. Most people—especially most young professors—didn’t understand that winning tenure was less about being a great scholar than about convincing your colleagues that they wanted you down the hall for the next sixty years.
Lori had fled Canada after submitting her dossier but before the university had reviewed it, and STI had asked her simply to hand them the same dossier to put through their process. It was as close to being hired with tenure as she could expect, but it was still light-years away. For the next year she had to please everyone—or go down in a (hopefully figurative) duel to the death with Kuzno. She was certain now that someone had set this up on purpose, and there weren’t a lot of choices for who the mastermind might be. Only four of the Twelve were full professors with the right to sit on a tenure committee.
“You don’t understand,” she insisted again. “I am just hosed. I’m going to end up homeless in Santa Monica giving handjobs for change, or dead and washed up in the drainage ditch like Silverman.”
“No, no, of course not,” Lou said reassuringly. “I’m sure they’ll give you tenure even if you fuck up.” He showed the ends of his teeth in a villainous grin. “You’ll just have to take the place of the tutu-man. As of this morning, you even have the costume.”
Three: A New Spin on Boson
Carol nearly choked on her protein shake when she saw Lori Barrow’s name on the weekly Astrophysics mailing list. It took her three days to get up the nerve to send her an e-mail.
They’d gone to graduate school together in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Carol felt as though she knew Lori intimately even though she feared that her colleague wouldn’t remember her at all. Lori, of course, had been the star, worlds away from the nameless, faceless sea of mediocre students whom the elite clique always called bosons.
Carol hadn’t even known at first that the word referred to a type of elementary particle, a type that had spin zero or one rather than one-half, which naturally had made things even worse. “What’s a boson? You are!” echoed in her head as she composed her e-mail message, trying to remember with equal vividness Lori’s small acts of kindness and reassurance that had often warmed Carol’s heart and kept her going the way nothing else would have.
In a way, then, she was contacting her to thank her; in another way, deep down where she was ashamed to admit it, she was contacting her to show off. For a boson, Carol had managed to make something of herself. She worked four-day weeks as an engineer for the Lobo Peak Rocket Lab and pulled in nearly $200,000 a year. Her husband, who was one grade above her in the department next door, made even more. They had a mid-century modern style house in the foothills, a small plane that they took to the beach on weekends that weren’t too foggy, and a full-time caretaker for their show ducks and Australian shepherds.
Nonetheless, she was astonished (stupefied!) when Lori replied to the message almost immediately, saying that she wasn’t officially working until Monday and that certainly she’d be free on Friday for lunch. Nothing could beat her amazement, though, at seeing her old classmate roll into their driveway at two thousand feet elevation on a pair of bright orange rollerblades.
All her old feelings of inadequacy returned as she watched Lori bend over to undo her skates, flexing six-pack abs that showed through her shirt and thighs even more perfect than they’d been when she’d won the Minnesota cross-country collegiate mountain bike championship. It was as if the laws of aging didn’t apply to her, as if no matter what happened in the world, Lori Barrow would always be sixteen. Carol was about ready to regret the invitation when Lori stood up, spotted her at the end of the driveway, and ran down in just her socks to kiss her on both cheeks and exclaim, “Carol, my God! You look wonderful!”
Carol took a deep breath and then relaxed into a laugh. Up close, Lori was as human as the rest of them; she looked fatigued and even had some gray in her light brown hair. The house and garden were having their mesmerizing effect, too, and Carol waited for her to take in the yard before she launched into her explanations.
“It’s a California chaparral garden, designed by the native plant nursery,” she said. “This keeps the live oaks happy, because that way there is no summer water, and it’s more ecologically friendly too. This oak here is probably three hundred years old. You can see the way they had to cut away the walkway to accommodate the growth. It’s very low-maintenance, I leave all of the leaves in place.” She was gratified by Lori’s effusive praise, which prompted her to continue, “The kennels are back here. I have an Aussie shepherd bitch and some pups that are almost ready for sale, and yes, these are the duckies: that’s Weber, Henry, Billie, and Bob.”
Lori, of course, appreciated immediately that “Henry” was a unit of… inducktance. “That’s good. The puppies are killing me! The cuteness is lethal. Do you have a boyfriend? Any kids?”
“No kids,” said Carol, “but I am married.” She flinched instinctively, since the Lori she knew would have berated her mercilessly for selling her soul to the State and her body to the Man. At least she hadn’t changed her name—but mostly because his name was kind of silly. Bob Drift was a good name for a guy who looked at transport in ice floes, but she didn’t want to be a Drift. Dugoni she was born and Dugoni she would stay, even if the nickname “Dugong” hadn’t remained in third grade where it belonged.
But it had been fifteen years, and by now even Lori would know that ideals won’t warm your toes on a winter’s night or rub your back after a hard day. “Is he a physicist?” was all she asked.
“A former student of Professor van Gnubbern at STI,” Carol said proudly. “We work in the same colony, but different cells. In fact, he’s trying to hire one of his advisor’s old students right now.”
“Van Gnubbern?” Lori wondered idly, running her hand along the thickly curling trunk of the wisteria. “I thought he hadn’t had students since I left. …What a beautiful house.”
“Well, it seems to me it was a huge project Bob wanted this guy for—he has all his own money and everything. Even the colony manager interviewed him.” Carol felt, as always, like a boson.
“Hmmm,” Lori mused, and Carol could almost hear the gears whirring in the conspiracy lobe of her brain. “Bizarre. …I love the way the rear windows open into the garden. It’s as if the outdoors were part of the living room.”
“Yes, we looked and looked for weeks, and then when the agent brought us here I just knew. I stood rooted to the spot, crying, ‘It’s mine!’” She laughed nervously, a bit taken aback by her classmate’s look of envy. She remembered hearing something about what had happened to Lori in Canada and suddenly felt very guilty. “But go ahead and get comfortable. Sit in a chaise longue or in the hammock, and I’ll go get our brunch. You must be starving if you came up that hill on rollerblades.”
Carol hadn’t known what to serve for lunch, so she’d just bought some prepared trays of fresh fruits and vegetables, bread and cheese. Back in graduate school, when she had been bulimic, she’d been too caught up in her own anxieties to notice how healthy women ate. Now she had a psychotherapist and a personal trainer, but it was still rare that she had to choose food for someone else all by herself. She was immensely pleased that Lori was happy with the food. Lori she watched Carol serve herself with what could only be described as compassion.
“You look really amazing,” Lori repeated. “I’m so glad you managed to conquer your demons, get your degree, and come out here. I mean, of all the people in our class, who would have thought it would be the two of us sitting in California, rich and powerful and gloating?”
Carol laughed easily. As a boson, she couldn’t expect real confidences from Lori, but they could certainly play remember-when. “What ever happened to Radhika?” she wondered.
“Radhika dumped me like a rotten potato when I took a job in Canada,” Lori declared too cheerfully. “She said, and I quote, ‘If I ever see snow anywhere again, even on a remote mountaintop, it will be too soon.’ She lives in Darwin. It’s hard even to have conversations by e-mail with the time difference; it’s about been reduced to ‘Don’t envy you, going surfing, neener.’”
“Darwin? Where’s that? What does she do there?”
“Northern Australia. Femtosecond spectroscopy.”
“Good for her.”
“For dumping me, or for Darwin?”
“Darwin, of course!” Carol exclaimed, but Lori didn’t seem too upset. “I mean—she’s Hawaiian. Come on! She was completely traumatized by Minnesota—Canada would have killed her. Absinthe—you remember Abby?—She’s a lawyer here in town. She does IP issues for STI.”
“Are you serious? Oh man, she’s richer and more powerful than all of us. Hey, the women in our class rock.” Lori helped herself to handful of baby carrots and stretched herself out in the chaise longue while she munched. “Too bad about most of the guys, though. I heard from Gus the other day. He’s at a government lab in Texas, and he hates it. Says it’s like San Quentin. They get the anal probe every morning when they go to work; the guards search the scientists and take away their pocketknives even though they’re coming onto labs with nuclear weapons. It’s not quite that bad at the LEPERLab, is it?”
“I hate that name!” Carol felt her face grow hot. “I always say ‘Lobo Peak’ or the ‘LPR Lab.’ I don’t know if it’s that bad; it comes and goes. Usually when there’s a crackdown I take a personal day off and miss out on the worst of it.” She stood up to gather up the trays. She’d had enough to eat, and had to fight annoyance at Lori for making all that Carol had accomplished suddenly seem hollow and vain. She knew that the professors on the STI campus saw the rocket lab as a bastard step-child, despising them for their militarism and limits on intellectual freedom, but she hadn’t expected Lori to have assimilated the attitude quite so quickly. The rest of the world only saw the glamour: it was LPR who landed things on Mars. “Hey,” she suggested suddenly, “do you want to help me prune the roses?”
“You bet I do!” exclaimed Lori as if she hadn’t touched plants in years. Maybe she hadn’t.
“What’s it like in Montreal?” Carol asked.
“Freezing,” said Lori. “Dank, wet, humid, cold. I tried to have a garden, believe me.” She took the shears that Carol handed her, and they both went out back past the kennel to where the rose bushes were.
Carol put on a baseball cap to shield her face from the sun and a pair of leather gloves; the only pair she could offer Lori were her husband’s and much too big. “This is my favorite cultivar,” she said, touching an intricate cluster of mauve petals. “Lavender Pinocchio—I got it at the Huntington last year at their sale. Here, sniff.”
Lori breathed it in like a victim rescued from smoke inhalation. “Oh my. Oh, that’s amazing. The only things that grew in my yard in Montreal were dandelions and some sort of pestiferous ground ivy. Sad to say, even that was so much better than the snow that I thought they were beautiful.”
“You probably learned to speak French,” said Carol, who had never learned anything in a foreign language except Apaga la pinchi soplador de hojas.
“Mmm,” said Lori. “I did. But now I can’t speak it without weeping.”
Carol opened her mouth but then shut it again. She didn’t need to give any pruning advice—Lori was doing it exactly right, removing the dead flowers and the suckers, cutting just at the right spot as if she had the mind of a rosebush and could feel exactly what would make it bloom again. That was always what she had admired about Lori: her easy expertise with absolutely anything mechanical or physical, from screwdrivers the size of the head of a pin to the two-ton electron microscope she’d moved with a forklift. Everyone had panicked when it started to fall, but Lori had moved the vehicle an infinitesimal nudge to one side, and it stood right up again. If it had been anyone else, the thing would have crashed to the ground, probably destroying the building in the process.
Now Carol risked making Lori mad with an insensitive comment, but curiosity had gotten the better of her. “Yeah,” she said sympathetically. “I heard Roger died.” Actually, Absinthe had told her that Roger drowned himself because Lori wouldn’t go out with him, but such details were unnecessary.
Lori stuck the pruning shears into her pocket and ran her arms around the rosebush, checking the symmetry perhaps, but she appeared to be embracing it. “He jumped off a bridge,” she said. “In February.”
The February part seemed superfluous until Carol thought about the water underneath being frozen, and then she shuddered. “That’s horrible. Why?”
“Why?” Lori didn’t sound angry, just tired. “Because he had major depression; because he’d had it since he was fourteen; and because I was so arrogant that I thought I could help, that after not even speaking to him for ten years I could appear out of the blue and make everything better with my stupid advice.” She sighed and moved over to the next rosebush, a China white.
“Careful!” Carol cautioned automatically. “You prune those gently, the dead buds only.” She was still on her first rosebush, but then, she had never moved so swiftly as Lori in anything. “You can’t blame yourself for someone else’s illness,” she said after a long moment. “You know that I was pretty messed up back then in graduate school. You couldn’t cure me, but all the times you were nice to me counted for something.”
Lori looked baffled, as if searching her mind in vain for the shared memory. “I was nice to you?” she muttered, looking the other way and turning a bit pink.
“Yes, you were! All I ever got from the rest of them, including Abby, was ‘Just eat!’ or comments about my fat butt, or cruel songs about me throwing up, or offers of a home lobotomy.”
Lori laughed mirthlessly. “That’s what Roger needed. A big, fat lobotomy. And there I was telling him to stay away from the doctors.” She turned her head away and Carol closed her eyes, afraid to see Lori cry since she knew there could be no greater humiliation than to break down in front of a boson.
But Lori didn’t cry, she only sneezed, and then she started laughing and sat in the grass. Henry the duck ran over and bit her ankles, but she didn’t seem to care. Carol came and sat next to her, and they howled in remembrance of the absurd cruelties and ridiculous obsessions that had run their lives for more than half a decade.
“Maybe he needed five hundred milliCoulombs of happiness!” Carol suggested. “Do you remember that?”
“Poor Roger.” Lori was still laughing. “He had such a phobia of psychiatrists that you had to laugh. Who would ever know that federal regulations limit not the voltage in volts, not the current in amperes, but the total charge in milliCoulombs delivered to your brain during electroshock therapy?”
“And remember when we all visited him in the mental hospital? We tried to give him his homework, and he yelled, ‘I will never be happy, never!’”
“&lsqo;Not unless it’s five hundred milliCoulombs of happiness!’” they both chorused, rolling on the lawn.
“It inspired Kurt so much, that’s what he called his rock band after he dropped out,” Carol reminded Lori.
“Oh man,” Lori gasped, “I am so glad I’m not in grad school anymore. But you know what?” She tugged at the grass. “I hate the people I work with. We’re all so shallow—we’d watch babies being trampled and just think ‘How will this affect my grant proposal?’”
“You need friends away from work.” Carol couldn’t believe that she was giving advice to Lori or, even worse, that Lori just nodded in response. “If I were with engineers all the time, I’d go crazy. I know it’s different for you because you have to work so hard to get tenure, but you have to give yourself some ‘me time’ now and then. I’m almost ten years older than you, you know.”
Lori half smiled and half frowned, as if not sure whether she was being called a kid or a not-so-old lady. “I know.”
“And I’ve found that one of the most important things in the desert is to take care of your skin. My friend makes organic natural sunscreen; I’ll give you some. Would you like a duck-egg facial?”
In an instant they were giggling in the way that Bob hated, rooting in the duck pen to get that morning’s eggs and cracking them in a little bowl to smear all over their faces. Carol had never heard Lori giggle, but right now there was nothing more fun than playing at being shallow SoCal girls and letting the thick, gooey duck egg stretch away the decade that had passed since they had last met.
“You deserve to be happy,” said Carol. “You deserve to find someone who loves you.”
Lori laughed and smiled and hugged her—things she wouldn’t have done for anyone back in graduate school, not even for Radhika. The charm lasted until she left, but once Lori had washed her face and strapped on her orange skates and disappeared, Carol figured she’d never see her again unless it was in a TV broadcast from Stockholm.
Four: Pound Puppies
Worse than the dream about having signed up for a class and forgetting to do the homework was the dream about being in elementary school again. Lori had only begun to have that dream after turning thirty, and for some reason the imagined humiliation was overwhelming. She’d be squished into a little desk, knowing full well she had a PhD in physics, but somehow no one else would realize it and would continue to make her recite the multiplication table.
The situation could have felt comparable, crouched in the backseat of an ancient Honda Civic driven by a Russian postdoc, on her way to Palm Springs and the new student retreat. She was sandwiched between the Father of Quantum Gravity, Professor Rose, and his wife, with her first advisor Dr. van Gnubbern riding shotgun. Seatbelt-less, knees hitting her chin, she was a kid again, but it made her feel warm and fuzzy the way nothing had since she had left the embrace of STI sixteen years ago. She could forget how she was supposed to betray and stab van Gnubbern, and recall the kinder and gentler physics department of days past, where they were all just there to learn and play the occasional prank.
This same weekend, she knew, the incoming freshmen were off on a deserted island being picked for their Houses.
“Do they still do the Selection the same way?” she wondered out loud, remembering her night in a pine tree thinking there was a bear lurking below. “With the tents that are impossible to pitch and starting fires by rubbing sticks?”
“They’ve made it easier for the younger generation,” sighed van Gnubbern.
“At least they’re left in the wilderness with nothing but a topo map and a compass, I hope!”
“Well, sure,” said Rose, “but they have their cell phones now.”
“Last year they manage to get pizza delivery,” chortled the Russian postdoc.
“Lori, you were the last of the true Buboes,” said van Gnubbern wistfully. “Do all of you remember the papaya incident?”
“Exaggerated,” Lori protested.
“You didn’t rappel off the library carrying a twenty-pound Mexican papaya?”
“Sure I did. But the part afterwards is apocryphal. Does anyone remember what we did to the elevator in the physics building? I remember it breaking, but I can’t remember why.”
“You weren’t just riding on top?” Rose suggested.
“It’s the Fucking Ferret Freaks who do that.”
“An obviously unworthy prank,” Rose smiled ironically. Seventy years after he had been a freshman, he still wore a black sweater with a tiny embroidered ferret clutching a capital letter Φ in its paws. “I seem to recall that you were going to try to disguise the elevator as a classroom, so that people would seat themselves and then panic when it began to move.”
“That’s right!” Lori couldn’t believe she’d forgotten that one. “The cable broke when we dragged the desks in there. I still feel bad when Lou has to wait five minutes before the thing starts working.”
There was a slightly uncomfortable pause, followed inevitably by the rush of gossip that only physicists could provide about an absent colleague. Most of it was rubbish, the sort of “he’s so brave” nonsense that made Lori’s stomach turn, but she listened assiduously for any real information.
“Can’t say he’s not dedicated. He managed to finish his big NSF proposal in the ICU,” commented Rose.
“Even better, it got funded.” Van Gnubbern sounded envious. “Maybe I’ll try writing my next grant in a morphine haze.”
“But he had to spend the money right away, so he kept on grad students rather indiscriminately,” Mrs. Rose observed. “They were really a handful for a while from what I hear.”
Van Gnubbern made a snort of disgust. “I refuse to believe that second-year physics graduate students need close supervision. They’re adults, and all they do for the first two years is take classes, especially the theorists. Why, Lori here was only thirteen years old, and I used to leave her alone at the microscope all day long in that cold room in the basement. She worked until her fingers were blue. I had to buy her a parka.”
“Is that why you used to walk across campus in the parka?” murmured Rose. “I thought you were concealing something.”
“I probably was,” Lori admitted. Only a small stab of remorse assailed her as she casually asked van Gnubbern, “Who does the microscopy now? Do you have any students?”
“You were my last and best,” replied van Gnubbern. “No one funds that kind of thing anymore. If I want to do a little electron microscopy, sometimes the technician in the basement helps out, but mostly I do it myself.”
“The problem, Bert,” Rose persisted, “is that the grad students are adults, and they have adult problems. You can’t just fail them out, or they’ll have you in court. That one of Lou’s we couldn’t shake, he kept coming back wanting to re-do his thesis proposal even after he’d clearly failed. And then there’s the woman—”
“That’s who I was thinking of,” his wife admitted. “Maybe now that we have a female faculty member we can prevent some of that.”
“Oh no!” Lori blurted. “Don’t palm off the nutty nymphos on me!”
They all laughed, but in a good way. “You haven’t changed a bit, Lori,” said van Gnubbern.
“Of course I haven’t.”
“But you must,” Rose warned. “Things are different now. Don’t fail anyone; don’t insult anyone; and for heaven’s sake, don’t sleep with anyone.”
“And please no killings,” added van Gnubbern. “Unless we order them, of course.”
That was in somewhat bad taste, and everyone grew quiet. Lori turned to look out the window—the desert had changed as much as she had, and as much as she could never be a careless little Bubo again, nor would the broad expanses of sand between L.A. and Palm Springs ever recapture their wild barren beauty. The dunes were now pockmarked with hideous mini-mansions, each sporting a lawn and a swimming pool. Not even God knew where the water came from. Mega shopping malls, flat and reddish like Kaposi’s sarcomas, sprouted within SUV range of what had once been ghost towns.
Palm Springs was teeming with human activity, but at least it was torrid. Lori liked torrid. Even the concept of torrid was reassuring since it could never, under any circumstances, be applied to Canada. The very first thing she did when they arrived at the hotel was put on her bathing suit, walk slowly to the pool in the unbelievable heat, and bounce about for a while. She didn’t even bother to swim, just enjoyed the feeling of her unsubmerged parts desiccating and baking instantly before being plunged into the warm water yet again.
She didn’t feel like changing into real clothes, but was still a little needled about the idea of her blue and orange Roller-Montreal skinsuit becoming the next tutu-man costume, so she waited a couple of minutes in the sun to dry out before putting on a pair of jeans and T-shirt (“MIT” on the front; “they’re losers, STI” on the back) over her bathing suit. It turned out to be the perfect outfit, because the first order of fun in the pound-puppy show was a game of Strip Integration.
They were in a big theater room with padded carpeting, foldy chairs, and a deep stage with velvet curtains. There was seating for about five hundred; it was hard to gauge how many people were there—or which of them she knew—since everyone was so scattered about. The six-foot whiteboard and laptop projector on the stage seemed too technological for the setting, as did the six new graduate students, whom the stage lights rendered paler and geekier than usual. Clutching the famous Table of Integrals, Series, and Products, they would write a chosen problem on either side of the whiteboard and two professors would start solving it simultaneously. The last to finish had to take off an item of clothing.
Rose and Kuzno were at each other’s throats by the end of it, scowling and slashing with their pens. Lori was pleased to see the department head finally reduced to his half-length European style bathing trunks while Rose still sported his “What Part of [the equations of General Relativity] Don’t you Understand?” T-shirt and Bermudas. Cheers and jeers erupted from various parts of the room, presumably reflecting the two professors’ research groups, but whether their loyalties lay for or against their bosses Lori couldn’t tell.
Rose held his signature pink pen aloft and began to re-don his clothing. “Who’s the next challenger?”
“That is so demeaning and sexist,” snapped a voice from behind Lori’s shoulder.
Lori spun around to find a woman of twenty-five, give or take, with two sharp little pigtails poking out of the sides of her head. The pigtails alone had been dyed bright orange; the rest of her head was an ordinary brown. She had braces on her teeth. Student? Postdoc? Secretary? Paramour? “What, you think there should be a women’s division?”
“There’s not a single woman here who would take part in such a humiliating exercise.”
So of course Lori got on the stage, waving her arms and challenging the Father of Quantum Gravity to an integration contest. Half in jest, she asked for special dispensation as a member of the “unfair sex.” “At least give me the pink pen.”
“No way,” Rose objected, hugging it to his chest. “It’s lucky.”
A chant of “Barrow, Barrow, Barrow” started up in the opposite corner from the pigtail girl. She didn’t know any of her fans; from this distance, they all seemed to have ridiculous hair, curled or dyed bright colors or extraordinarily long.
If she’d known she’d be up against Solomon Rose, she would have studied. And she lost. It was close only because she moved a little quicker and the pink pen seemed to be running out of ink, forcing him to stop and shake it now and then. In the end, she was left in her bathing suit (one-piece and black, thank God) while he retained his tie and a single flower-topped rubber slipper in addition to the Bermuda shorts.
“Cheat! Cheat!” yelled the weird-hair gang. “He dropped an i!”
“Complex analysis is all just fun and games till someone loses an i,” Rose scolded through the microphone as his group came up to crown him champion. He had apparently won for years in a row, because the crown was some kind of deformed quasi-religious relic chosen just for him—a crown of thorns made of plastic roses. It sounded as if a group of students had found it one year in a gay sex shop in town and bought it assuming that Rose would win the contest as usual.
“And now,” Rose continued, beaming from under the crown, still wearing only one flip-flop, “I’d like you all to meet Lori Barrow, the newest member of our faculty. She was an undergraduate here, a Bubo of course, and is famous for many reasons. I’ll only mention the good ones.” The weird-hair contingent hooted and cheered horribly. “First of all, she was the youngest undergraduate to ever finish a physics degree at STI—though only the second-youngest to ever matriculate. I’ll leave it to you all to look this other person up. Second, she once rappelled off the library, dangling from her ankles and carrying a papaya about yay big.”
Lori stood behind Rose, shaking her head and making “loony” signs around her temples, but there was no stopping him.
“Now, it just so happened that the president of our esteemed institution was having a meeting with some trustees a couple floors down. He looked out just as our favorite undergrad here decided to smash the papaya all over her head. Thinking that he was seeing the remains of blood and brains, the president fainted dead away. And,” Rose concluded over the laughter, “the very next week announced his retirement! We now have a new president—and no more rail around the roof of the library. With that, Lori.” He handed her the microphone.
It was all a bit overwhelming, and gazing out over the shadowed faces she suddenly felt shy. She stammered a few lines about her research; was sure she’d made a terrible gaffe by saying she looked forward to working in the basement, allowing van Gnubbern to see her treachery from a mile away; and then gave up before she lost her composure completely. “But this day is for the students,” she said, only slightly hypocritically. “I understand you’ve been preparing skits for a while, so come on up.”
Relieved to get off that stage, Lori went to go sit with the hair gang in order to find out who they were and how they knew her, but they dashed out of the room snickering before she could get near them. She returned to her old seat near the ponytail girl—a mistake.
“Can’t you make them stop?” the girl whispered right in Lori’s ear.
Lori jumped. “What? Who?”
“Didn’t you see them leave? They’re going to do something really cruel. It’s just so wrong.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lori, who by now was so curious that she had no intention of stopping anyone. “It’s not my position to tell them what to do. I don’t even know who they are.”
“They’re the Maupertuis group,” whispered the girl, “as am I,” she added with a little whine, as if used to always being left out.
Aha, Lori thought, so you’re the problem child. “Where’s Lou?”
“He’s not here. I’m sure he’s home sick, and he has a phobia of freeways. So do I, you know: I have a restricted visual field, and the motion makes me so disorientated.”
Do I need a tattoo on my forehead saying NO TMI? Lori wondered, tuning the girl out by thinking of how Roger used to lecture people who used the word disorientated, explaining with a delicate shudder that disoriented was a perfect synonym without containing that discordant extra syllable.
The skits mostly went right by her, since she didn’t know many people and was a little clueless when it came to sexual innuendo. It was obvious, though, that everyone was afraid to make fun of Kuzno. His group, all Russians, performed a song about neutron stars that was kind of cute but reeked of censorship.
That only made it more obvious that what came next was trouble. As soon as the Russians had received their polite applause from the audience and praise from Kuzno, the lights went out. Shadows could be seen moving about the stage, and a couple of spotlights lit up the strategic figures.
The smallest male member of Lou’s group had tied orange yarn to the sides of his head (since the rest of his hair was green, the effect was quite odd) and was sitting on the edge of the stage holding a teddy bear and sucking his thumb. Worse, the tallest member was teetering on some kind of platform shoes, and if this weren’t obvious enough, had a sign hung around his neck reading HEAD. Lori watched him intently, but he stood off to one side, arms folded, expression grim.
Then the spot moved off towards the center and the guy with the longest hair, an immense tangle of chestnut curls, swaggered to center stage waving a sheaf of papers in one hand, a coffee cup in the other, and laughing a villain’s cackle. “With this NSF proposal, I own the department! You are all my slaves, you are mine body and soul!” He gave a resonating ominous laugh, like something from a 1940s film noir.
Then there was the sound of a gunshot off-stage. The villain screamed, dropped the papers, and somersaulted into the stage wings.
The guy in front with the pigtails took his thumb out of his mouth, threw down the teddy bear, and grabbed the sheaf. “Hee hee hee,” he giggled in a falsetto. “I got the proposal! I got the proposal!”
The spotlight turned from the thumbsucker onto the HEAD, who slowly, slowly unfolded his arms and started to move towards the papers. “Oh no you don’t, my pretty,” he drawled. “It’s all mine, after I have my way with you—”
Not surprisingly, the lights and sound went dead. There were some scuffling noises, mutters of “Oh yeah, who says?” and, strangely enough, an indistinct woman’s voice. The woman held the microphone when the lights were restored on the now-empty stage. She was a very young woman, younger than any of the grad students, and not anyone that Lori could place.
“Well, everyone,” she declared cheerily, “I think that was our last skit. The buffet will be served in the courtyard between six-thirty and nine-thirty. Please take the opportunity to get to know your colleagues. And welcome to the entering class of future PhDs!”
What a crock, Lori thought. She turned around and noticed that the pigtail girl was crying. Not in the mood for any more TMI, she got up and ran.
It was still hot out. Students and professors arranged themselves under parasols by the fountain, helping themselves to fruit salad and tostada fillings. Lori filled her plate with salsa and jalapenos, an old summer camp tune running through her head: I love you California in the summer when it’s hot…. In the English part of Montreal, a buffet meant little sandwiches on white bread held together with mayonnaise, potato salad drowned in so much mayonnaise that the potatoes looked like clams, greasy chips, and cheap pastries. There had been months where she would have mugged someone for a hot pepper.
She realized now that of course she knew who Lou was. The combination of the way Americans butchered his name and the lack of his trademark long hair had confused her, but of course someone who’d come to STI as a professor at the age of twenty-eight was known throughout the field. She still didn’t think she’d ever seen him in person, but she had once spent an hour on a train with a graduate student who raged nonstop about the asshole jerk in their group who was nothing but a lazy theorist and who kept insisting the data were inconclusive, thus forcing hardworking experimentalists like himself to return over and over to the South Pole. Somehow, this bum of a theorist kept winning all the awards and getting all the recognition while he suffered, froze to death, and got called “Beaker” by the scientist-hating hardhats at the Pole.
Ordinarily this would have been a forgettable conversation, but it had remained in her mind all these years (when was it? Four years ago, maybe) because the guy had had dirty, somewhat bluish, four-inch fingernails. Of course he had caught her staring, and told her that at the South Pole, something about the cold and altitude made people’s fingernails not grow. Somehow, this had inspired him to swear not to cut them until he finished his PhD.
“So what does the asshole theorist do?” he sneered, clacking the appendages together. “He tells me if I don’t cut my nails, he won’t cut his hair, and we’ll see who gets the most chicks! There’s plenty of girls who like long nails, right, baby?”
Lori had fled the compartment retching, and even now in the heat of the desert she shivered to remember it.
Sweeping away the memory, she went up for seconds and looked around for a group to join, thinking that she should at least try to meet the new students even if she didn’t hire them. She couldn’t just hide behind van Gnubbern—he was not really her colleague. Physics had been different when he was getting established, when all a theorist needed was a pencil and a sheet of paper. Now it took two million dollars of NSF money and your soul.
“Dr. Barrow!” bellowed a voice from a large table. It was the guy with the curls, the one who had played Lou in the skit.
Lori took her plate over but didn’t sit down, thinking it might be disreputable to be seen with them. There were four of them, the three from the skit and a Chinese guy who listened carefully but didn’t seem to speak.
“Hi, everyone,” she said, struggling with the line between formality and over-friendliness. “Um, thanks for cheering for me. I didn’t have a chance against Professor Rose.”
“You were awesome,” said the fake Lou, slapping the table the way the real one always did. “Especially since you shut up Marybeth.” He shoved a fragment of tostada into his mouth.
“Marybeth,” squeaked the guy who’d played her. He was still carrying the teddy bear. “Oh, poor Marybeth.”
Lori waited a minute for explanation as to who Marybeth might be. When it wasn’t forthcoming, she demanded bluntly, “Who?”
“‘That is so demeaning and sexist,’ they all mocked as a chorus, doing a very good job of capturing her strangely raspy voice.
“Oh,” replied Lori. Not even mildly interested in what this crew knew about that sad and sorry girl, she asked, “How’d you know who I was?”
There was a pause—then the table erupted in howling laughter. “How did we know who you were?” squealed the guy who’d played Kuzno. “Oh! She asks it with a straight face!”
Lori felt her cheeks get hot and made a show of sniffing her fruit punch. “What’s in this stuff? Damn.” Her stomach began to get the better of her social insecurities, so she finally tugged over a chair and pushed her way in between the Chinese student and the Marybeth. “At least tell me who you guys are,” she commanded, chomping into a Serrano chili. “Since I don’t know your names, I keep thinking of you as the characters you played, and it’s screwing with my mind.”
The fake Lou cackled. “Weren’t we the best?”
“Till we were interrupted—”
“By that bitch—”
“Formerly his undergraduate assistant—”
“Say it all together, kids: EEeeeeeeewwwwwwwwww.”
“I’m Sam.” The fake Lou offered Lori his hand. His voice must have been a fake too, because when he was himself he had a New York accent. “Did you like my Demon Laugh? And the Memorial Walk?”
“Awwww,” said Lori, not sure if she was being sarcastic or not. “Isn’t that sweet? You’ve immortalized his swagger for posterity. I haven’t heard him laugh like that, though.”
“You will,” promised Sam. “That he can still do. The Walk is trickier. Ideally, it’s done with a twenty-ounce coffee cup with no lid, and you can’t spill.”
“We felt so bad when he was paralyzed that we all grew freaky hair.” It was the first time the fake Marybeth had spoken in a normal voice, but he addressed his teddy bear instead of Lori. His own hairdo was a rather simple bowl cut, but dyed a scary transgenic green. At least the yarn was gone. “‘Cause he cut all his off in the hospital.” He clammed up again and had to be prompted gently for his name, which was Brian. “Or Brain—I’m dyslexic,” he offered cordially.
The HEAD, who had blond dreadlocks and was eating pineapple squares out of a bowl with his fingers, was next. “I’m Alexander. They made me play this vile role—” he pointed at the sign still around his neck—“because I have the same first name as our six-foot-eight embodiment of departmental evil.” He put a hand on Lori’s shoulder, and after glancing around once, brought his pineapply lips all the way to her ear and barely expelled air as he spoke. “I know for a fact that Kuznetsov was stealing Dr. Lou’s pain pills when he got out of the hospital. Fact.”
“To take himself?” Lori wondered. “Or to sell?”
“No, dummy,” he said out loud. “To fuck our boss up so he could get his cash and us.”
“You guys are scaring me,” she admitted.
“Be scared,” said Brian. “And take our advice—don’t hire just anyone because you have money. Otherwise you end up with—”
“Marybeth,” they all squealed at once.
“The first-years are right behind us at that table,” Sam pointed out. “There are six of them, waiting to be adopted.” He folded his hands into paws and panted.
“I know,” replied Lori, who didn’t really need the visual. “I even know their names.”
“But are they any good?” Alex quizzed.
“On paper, well—”
“Never mind on paper.”
“I’m not sure yet,” Lori admitted. “I’m still feeling kind of traumatized.”
“Let us do it!” They were the first words out of the Chinese student’s mouth.
“Yeah,” said Alex. “We’ll go talk to them, and then we’ll tell you who’s good and who sucks.”
Lori had a feeling that this was a very bad plan, but she was certainly not up to speaking to the first-years tonight. All she wanted was to bounce a bit in the swimming pool, drink some more fruit punch, and crawl off to bed.
Fortunately, the pool was all the way around on the other side of the hotel, so she could sneak off without anyone stopping her. The boisterous voices became more and more remote, and she started to relax as she thought that no one would be in swimming and that she would be left alone.
But no, there was one person there, swimming laps ceaselessly and seemingly without tiring. He was an excellent swimmer but didn’t seem to know how to do flip turns: he did them funny and pushed off the wall with both hands.
It was Lou, of course. Refusing to acknowledge the presence of anyone or anything, he continued swimming, and finally Lori slipped into the water and swam beside him. The pace seemed easy at first, but after twenty minutes or so she was getting pretty tired. Radhika always told her that her technique was wretched and that she relied on brute force and ignorance.
That combination did at least get her to a pause. “Aha,” said Lou, emptying out his swim goggles. He peered at her intensely before replacing them. “Thought it might be you.” His chest was tan and muscular without any trace of a scar.
“What are you doing out here? You missed the skits and everything.”
To Lori’s immense surprise, he grinned and treated her to a perfectly executed example of the Demon Laugh. “Are you kidding? I was the one working the spotlights. Weren’t they wonderful?”
“The spotlights or your students?” It was hard to imagine what was wonderful about implying that he had been shot on purpose, or that the department head had raped Marybeth.
“My juvenile delinquents. I’m so proud.”
If they had been grad students, the workout would have been immediately forgotten in a passionate exchange of intimate details about their fellows—who was smart, who was dumb, who was slutty, who could not be trusted. Lori felt poignantly how different this was. As the only two non-tenured members of the faculty, she and Lou were there to judge each other, not only to decide whether they could tolerate working together for a half-century but whether they could remake a dying department in their image. They weren’t in direct competition—if they succeeded, the university would almost certainly tenure them both—but they were in a lot of trouble if they couldn’t get along.
“You seem to enjoy being a pain in the ass, Lou,” Lori remarked in her best older-and-wiser tone. “That’s fine if you’re smart and productive enough to justify it, otherwise…”
“Otherwise you’ll try to kill me, too?” he wondered, with an expression she couldn’t read because of the goggles. “Just do a better job than the first guy, OK?”
Lori hid her shock by pretending she hadn’t heard that and by reminding him that they were there to exercise. “Another thousand meters?” she suggested, looking at her stopwatch.
In the end they swam much further than that, forgetting for a blissful hour that they were STI’s youngest physics professors as they reveled in the warmth of the water and the glint of the setting crescent moon in the clear desert sky.
This is the end of the sample. To buy the book, please go to our webstore
About the Author
About the Author
Susy Gage is the pen name of a physics professor who hopes to remain anonymous until tenure, retirement, or death, whichever comes first. In her scholarly life, she has published over one hundred papers on condensed matter and particle physics and traveled from pole to pole. Hobbies include ultra-marathons on human powered vehicles of all descriptions. Susy is currently in training to attempt the women’s 24-hour cycling record, and hopes to take the summer of her tenure year off in order to in-line skate across the country. No, not that country—Canada, of course! Other hobbies include good food, live theatre, and gardening. Her favorite rose is Lavender Pinocchio.
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