"Herr von Steissbein, I salute you!"
The Turk pours another round of his unspeakable liquor into the bottom of each greasy glass. Albert pinches his violin under one arm to take his, then all four men tilt back their heads and drink. Three of them wince, but the Turk smiles.
"It's vile!" swears Conrad, wiping the residue from his moustache. "Is it Turkish?"
"I have told you, I am not from Turkey," grins the Turk, teeth gleaming in a swarthy face framed by a black Van Dyke beard. "And you drink like a small child, Herr Habicht."
Maurice laughs, then coughs. "Oh my Hell it's terrible stuff," he agrees between hacking giggles. "But in Romania we have worse. My grandfather once fermented a cow-pie for liquor, I swear it's true."
(Nobody believes him, which is appropriate since it is a lie.)
Albert places his violin and bow inside their case with exquite care, snaps fast the lid, then stumbles drunkenly into the side of the kitchen table and crashes to his knees. His friends guffaw. He cautiously stands, bracing himself against the back of Conrad's chair as he reaches for his pipe fixings. "Will someone at this time please read out the minutes prior to our little musical hiatus?"
"You are a man of remarkable focus, Her von Steissbein," says the Turk.
"At this time I remain unmarried," admits Albert. Everyone roars.
The laughter dies quickly. The tone in the cramped little flat has changed now that Albert has called for the minutes. Conrad puts his spectacles back on and consults the notes on the table. Albert takes a seat in his moth-eaten throne. Maurice notices that the forgotten music is skipping, and leans over to reset the needle on the Zonophone. He straightens and blinks attentively, blowing crumbs away through his moustache.
(It's 1904. You can tell because of the wallpaper. And the moustaches.)
Conrad reads out the minutes. The young men stroke their moustaches. Albert strikes a match to light his pipe, then wobbles precariously on his seat. He crosses his eyes and with a stubborn effort completes the task, then puffs contentedly. "Do you know how I know this to be true?" he asks when Conrad has finished. "Because it's beautiful. Only God is so elegant."
Maurice snorts. "You sound like a Pythagoran."
"You've never heard of a Jewish Pythagoran?"
"If we follow the thought experiment to its natural conclusion," says Maurice, "the symmetry is ultimately broken. It's no longer a matter of -- elegant, as you put it -- duality when one is but a tangled property of the first. They're not exchangeable so much as disentangleable."
Conrad shakes his head as he takes out a cigar. "That's sophistry. As far as the mathematics are concerned the two are perfect equivalents. Albert is right: it is a peek into God's blueprints." He strikes a match, his face revealed in a brief, bright glow.
Maurice frowns. "That's romance. That's Pythagoran. That's confusing your awe for the perfection of numbers for divine awe. One is a model, one is Creation itself. It's a kind of intoxication, and it can only drive your point of view further from reason."
The Turk clears his throat. "Permit me to raise, then, a comparatively pragmatic consideration." The others turn to look at him, brows open. He continues, "If indeed there is a primal equivalence between matter and energy, what if men learned to trade them at will?"
Maurice considers this, waving Conrad's cigar smoke away from his short, angular nose. "The tools to build matter are beyond our reach. In a dozen centuries, perhaps, but at present it is inconceivable in any frame save unrestrained fantasy. Suddenly we leap from mathematics to Jules Verne."
Albert nods, his pipe bobbing. "It might be understood, but not realized."
Conrad draws on his cigar, eyes flitting. "But the same cannot be said of the opposite: to unweave matter into its constituent energies. That, my friends, might be done, if crudely. It would be an act of blind, high-energy violence, an order of magnitude beyond apes smashing open nuts with rocks. Never the less..."
Albert is still nodding, his eyes half-closed. "...If one were to secure a critical quantity of an appropriately giddy isotope -- of thorium, perhaps, or uranium."
"It could be boiled in a neutron ray!" cries Maurice, standing up from his seat and grabbing at his hair. He pauses from his histrionics suddenly, brow crinkling. "But it's impossible. How could the energy ever be harvested? Any experiment would devastate the laboratory!"
"The key, then, would be a kind of ultimate kiln," adds Conrad excitedly, "a crucible for withstanding the concussion of the phase transition, incorporating a turbine apparatus for converting the heat into work!"
"An atomic furnace, in other words," agrees Albert between pipe puffs, his dark-haired head lost in a swirl of smoke.
The Turk chuckles drily. "You are gentlemen, you tender boys, and you forget what most men are like. While you djinnis of numerology jump immediately to harvesting the energies released, the natural man has already stopped thinking. His conclusion: why contain the energies at all?"
"What possible purpose would that serve?" asks Albert, pipe momentarily forgotten.
The Turk's face tightens seriously. "Destruction," he says. "Why struggle to design an atomic locomotive when you can wipe your enemies from the face of the world using Hell's own breath?"
"Jesus Christ, Herr Siraj," interrupts Conrad, "no one is that mad! Barbarians in your Oriental deserts, perhaps, but not men of tools and opportunity."
The Turk smirks. "No civilization is beyond sin, Herr Habicht." He turns away from Conrad, withdrawing his own cigar from a pocket of his ornate velvet coat. "My real question, however, is this: should it be shown that such a method for unleashing unrestrained energies from matter could be realized as a mechanical reality, whose moral responsibility would be the first bomb?" He paces in a tight circle, squaring with each of the young men's eyes in turn. "If there were a holocaust of atomic devastation, who would be its true author -- the man who riveted closed the casing? Or, perhaps instead, you?"
This question hangs in the smoky apartment for a long moment. The Turk sucks on his cigar, gaze cast out the grimy little window and into the square, at the silhouetted spires of Berne occluding the lowest stars.
Albert says, "Science is not secret."
"That's right," agrees Maurice quickly. "Only in an environment of open collaboration can we make progress. History proves it! Utter transparency is paramount. Science can have no borders -- national, ethnic, religious, military, superstitious."
"In this way science has friends instead of allies or enemies," adds Conrad, gesturing emphatically then hitting the table and making the glasses jump. "In this way it remains an enterprise to serve all mankind!"
The Turk's brow arches. "And so science is absolved of any application of her pursuits? She is untainted by any crime her knowledge engenders?"
The flat is quiet again. Outside the window the city is quiet, too. The sun will be coming up soon. The air is cold. The first farmer's horse-carts are plodding their way to the markets, lonely iron footfalls echoing off the building fronts.
Eventually Albert stirs, putting aside his dead pipe. "You have given us something to think about, Herr Siraj." He turns to face the Turk. "For that I thank you from the bottom of my heart," he says, then yawns. "But now I have to sleep. I'm due at the patent office in just a few hours."
The others have already risen. Conrad puts on his hat and rubs his eyes. Maurice is spilling into his overcoat, his cigar perched on the edge of the table. The Turk watches the preparations and then ceremoniously sees them to the hall with Albert. He pauses then, watching the friends leave. "Herr von Steissbein," he whispers, "I have more to discuss with you. This matter is of principal concern to my father."
"The meeting is over," says Albert, leaning into the doorjamb wearily. "And I leave my presidential name in the drawer, next to the Olympian Academy minutes." He gestures vaguely behind him at the notes on the cluttered kitchen table. He frowns, because one of the notes has begun smouldering on account of Maurice's forgotten cigar.
"I have more to say on the subject of secrets," the Turk persists.
Albert turns back to him, smoothing down his black moustache anxiously. "You must excuse me, Herr Siraj, but I believe my kitchen is on fire." He begins to close the door, bowing ceremoniously. "This is a discussion we can take up at our next meeting. You are invited, of course. It was a delight to have you with us." He sniffs worriedly. "I really must say goodnight now."
The Turk bows in turn, his mouth a tight, resigned line. "I thank you for your hospitality, Herr Einstein." The door clicks closed. "Until then."