Imaginary Numbers

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The Experiment

CWB Nano-Technology and Biophysics Lab, Geneva, Switzerland


“Up the pressure to 18 psi.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Gagnon, screen grab, please.”

“Done.”

“Any changes?”

“None, sir.”

“Very well, let’s increase the temperature slowly.”

“Rising to 36º Centigrade. Ambient humidity still constant.”

The laboratory was filled with a team of whitecoats running to and fro. A girl with a clipboard kept track of the changes, a man with glasses was isolating minerals dyed with vivid colours, and others were adjusting the variables in accordance with the professor’s wishes.

“Wait five minutes, then add the test element in regular increments.”

“Sir?” Gagnon asked.

“Yes.”

“What is the period of incremental addition. We had it set at 3 seconds. Is that still fine?”

The professor hesitated. His heart was not in the experiment. The broken girl was on his mind, like a ghostly afterimage when he tries to think of the charts and numbers involved in the process.

“Three seconds?”

“Yes, sir. Is that number still a constant in this round?”

The professor looked tired. He frowned. He was doing calculations in his head, numbers that tally up and down, cascading into logarithms, and complex equations. He was trying to sum up the very essence of life. The experiment should lead to the moment of biological creation itself. They were attempting to recreate the primordial soup in a petri dish. An unusually long silence filled the laboratory, while the assistants waited for an answer. Marius was leaning against the incubation chamber, arms crossed over his broad frame.

The professor regarded him, saw in him a calmness resembling the silvery waters of Lake Geneva outside the window. The actor had become a great help to him in recent years. They had formed a bond that certainly verged on friendship, a bond that neither of them would be able to do without. They had become so intricately linked that the academic community had trouble discerning the truth behind their mimetic relationship.

“Marius,” the professor said after some time, “I’ll leave it to you. You’ve read the briefs. Would you take care of this round for me, please?” The hulking man nodded slightly surprised, then clapped his hands together.

“That’s right, okes. You heard the good doctor!”

As the professor walked out of the lab into his office, he knew that this experiment was nothing more than a process, it was simply following the steps towards the conditions that could be ideal for life to grow out of nothingness. He knew they will find it. He was so sure of this that he was willing to leave the entire lab in the charge of an actor. Albeit, an actor who was intelligent and seemed to have a natural leadership ability.

Marius will be fine, he thought to himself. On the screen in his office, a video feed showed the electron microscope’s target: a green and brown ooze in which a number of minerals swivel, trying to combine into an arsenic-based proto-organism.

So far they hadn’t had much luck.

His office was clean and organized. The professor removed his suit jacket, flashing a mauveine purple lining, and placed it onto a wooden coat rack behind the door. From beneath his desk, he pulled out a black violin case, unlocked it, and stretched his neck and arms, cracking a few joints as he locked his fingers together and extended his arms above his head in a neat arc. He removed the ruddy instrument and placed it in the crook of his neck, resting his head on it much like a lover fawning in a moment of intimacy.

The bow danced across the strings, and a deliberate etude in G filled the tiny office. The long, languid tones helped him think. The vibrations adjusted the mathematics happening inside his brain. It filled the gaps, revealing the values of variables, and twisted the formula into something workable. As he played, he cleared his mind in musical meditation.

The professor believed that there is a universal number, a ratio that holds together the fine balance between organic and inorganic life, and that it is just a matter of finding it.

As he played his violin, swinging his arms as the tempo goes apassionato, a lock of silver hair fell over his normally bare forehead. He closed his eyes, picturing the poor girl, so far away in that monastery hospital. He was moving his bow-arm in a smooth infinity loop, his fingers crawling across the strings, and even his normally stiff body seemed to become liquid, swaying gently. When he opened his eyes, he shot a glance at the screen: a swirling of green and brown molecules dancing a waltz in the shape of the milky way. A spiralling mess of blood-warm goop.

The notes trilled, oscillating subtly, back and forth, back and forth. The professor’s gaze was fixated on the screen. The minerals were twisting together, arsenic leading the others across the ballroom floor of the microscope–in and out, in and out, in and out. It was a curvaceous waveform, a fornicating rhythm, visible on the screen and accompanied by the high notes of the professor’s impromptu violin solo.

He was transfixed. Suddenly, his bow-arm dropped away from the strings and the violin fell from the crook of his neck to his side. The sudden silence created a vacuum in the minimalist room. Only the elemental dance of life was still moving on the screen inside the office. It was finally happening.

He recklessly replaced the instrument, leaving the case open on his desk. The intercom crackled to life. It was Marius. “Professor. Come look!”

But the professor was already on his way, flying down the hallway jacket-less and unkempt, shoes tapping out a rapid beat on the floor.

* * *

Marius faced the professor, who was blowing on his tea to cool it down. A mist rose off the hot liquid and fogged up his reading glasses.

He waited for the professor to finish reading the report, taking the opportunity to gorge on his recent favourite meal, spetzel. He spooned forkfuls of the noodles into his mouth, as he shots the occasional glance at the waitress.

“Man, this is good!” he said between bites.

“Yes?” The professor was still finishing up and payed no heed to the giant man, shovelling the food into his face.

When he had finished reading, he put the paper down on the table, next to his teacup, perpendicular to the table edge.

“Well, everything seems in order.” Marius nodded, chewing. “The only thing I can’t understand is why it worked this time.”

“What do you mean, CW?”

“Hmmm…” The professor sipped from his tea, dipped a cookie into it and quickly devoured it. He looked at the couple eating at the table next to them, as he spoke. “The conditions outlined here are identical to the 2nd round we did with sulfur in February. I don’t see how it succeeded yesterday, but failed back then. Something is different.”

“You think we missed something?”

“I don’t believe so. Perhaps we added another variable. An unknown variable.”

“Well, all I can tell you is that we switched the magnetic increment to something lower. Somewhere between one and two.”

“I know. I see that. But I have tried that ratio before.”

Marius put his elbows on the table and grabbed his fist, forming a perfect equilateral triangle above the table. His powerful hands covered his mouth for a second while he looked at the professor.

“You want to know what I think?”

“Of course, Marius. We need to figure this out.”

“I think you’re jealous that I pulled it off and not you.”

“Nonsense.” The professor frowned and shook his head.

“Isn’t there a bit of truth to that?”

“Not at all. I’m merely trying to understand what we did differently this time.”

“Well, with all due resect, the only difference is that I was in charge and not you.”

“Come now, Marius. Stop joking.” The professor looked at him, and saw a determination in his eyes. “Look, I will give you credit in the abstract, if you like. You needn’t worry.” Marius smirked, then continued shovelling spetzel into his mouth.

“What we need to do is try to recreate the experiment now. We’ve done it once, we need to prove that the results under the conditions is consistent.”

Marius nodded, cleaned off his plate, and waved the waitress over.

“Lager please.”

“Marius, it’s 10 am!”

“Well, we should celebrate, man. Let me buy you a round!”

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

“Prof, you still seem worried. Is everything okay?”

The professor regarded the couple again, and rubbed his nose with his left hand.

“I’m just tired, I guess.” Marius laughed.

“It’s the girl, isn’t it?”

“Well, to be frank, I do think about her, yes. Naturally, it is another investigation entirely. One which I will have to pursue after we get consistent results with our experiment.”

“You should call her. You have heard of the phone, right? It’s a new invention.” The professor raised one eyebrow.

“That’s not a bad idea. I might do that.” The waitress brought the South African man’s beer.

“Danke shön,” he said to the girl and let loose an irresistible Hollywood smile. She blushed, and batted her lashes at him. The professor just shook his head.

“You just can’t help yourself, can you?”

“What? I’m a man. She’s a woman. What more can I say?” He smiled proudly.

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