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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 6

New Jersey. 1955. Spring.

Elsa's portrait is on the mantel, though her body is in the ground. Albert polishes the glass once a week. He often hums as he does so. He hums Schubert, because Schubert was her favourite.

The house is modest and crammed full of bookshelves. The tables are papered in academia ringed by the imprints of coffee mugs, paperclipped according to topic, yellowed according to age. In the diningroom is a record player and a stack of vinyl discs in cardboard sleeves. Most of them are Mozart, but none of them have been put on to play in a dog's age.

Albert considers the stack. He runs a wrinkled thumb along the golden spines of the Deutsches Grammophon imprint. He giggles, then coughs, then selects a Eugene Istomin rendition of the Andante for a Small Mechanical Organ in F Major.

Tomorrow will be a big day. Like a schoolboy, Albert is enthused. He will address the world via television broadcast.

The music begins, first with anticipatory crackling and then with a fluid burst of ingeniously interleaved melodies, playfully scampering up and down the keyboard, spinning and leaning and keeling in a way that would shock poor Bach. Albert drinks it with his ears, closing his eyes as he settles into his patched easychair. His fingers tap on the armrests and he smiles.

The doorbell rings. His eyes snap open.

With a grunt he heaves himself out of the chair and shuffles across the house to the front door. He peeks through the spyhole, but he can't make out a thing. He wonders where his glasses are, pats the pockets of his sweater, then opens the door.

"Herr Einstein!"

Albert blinks. On the porch before him is a swarthy man with a stark white Van Dyke beard. He's wearing a fine, cream-coloured suit. The lines around his eyes are pronounced as he breaks into a wide smile, splitting his dark face with bright teeth. "I can't believe it," breathes Albert. "Is that really you, Turk?"

"It is very much me," confirms the Turk. "And you will allow me to introduce my protege, Bahram."

Albert nods to the lean, handsome young man standing at the Turk's elbow. He has a moustache like a dash of ink across his smooth upper lip. "How do you do?"

"Very well, sir," says Bahram.

"Won't you come in?"

Prince Siraj and his protege sit on the dusty loveseat across from Albert's paper-strewn coffee table. He rattles in the kitchen, muttering about tea. "It's very rude of me to call you Turkish," he calls. "It's an old habit. Forgive me." He walks in carrying a tottering tray, the cups clinking against one another.

"Let me help you," says Bahram, taking the tray and setting it down. His fingers are long and slender, his nails manicured. Like the prince, he wears several rings emblazoned with inscrutable insignia, some Arabic, some obscure. The rings glint.

Albert turns down the phonograph player and then sinks into the easychair across from his guests. His knees crackle quietly when they fold, which makes him wince. "I'm delighted to see you, of course," he says. "It's been such a long time. What brings you to America, old friend?"

"Why you do, naturally," says the Turk blithely. "I understand you're to make a speech tomorrow, Albert."

"Yes, yes. It's the seventh anniversary of Israel, you understand, which I believe is a perfect occasion to make my announcement."

Bahram and the Turk look at one another. "The new theory?" prompts the Turk.

"Oh yes, yes," nods Albert, gripping the worn arms of his chair. "This time, you understand, I'm going to go about it right from the start. This time, it begins with responsibility! Your father would be proud, I'm sure."

"I'm sure," agrees the Turk.

Albert falters. "He's still with us, your father?"

The Turk smirks. "Oh yes," he confirms. "The Shah is in splendid health."

"I'm glad to hear it," says Albert, then rushes ahead: "You know about my letter to the White House, I'm sure. It was thirty years too late, wasn't it? It was certainly too late for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That's a mistake I will not make again. This time, I go ahead with my eyes open."

The Turk pours out three cups of tea. He looks up. "You've really found it, then? A unified theory?"

Albert's eyes gleam. "Yes!" he hisses. "And I was right: God does not play dice. The universe is, ultimately, deterministic." He leans forward in his chair, wags a finger purposefully. "Do you know what an electron truly is, my dear Turk? Shall I tell you?"

"Please."

"It is an idea," he says, raising his chin. "An electron is nothing, old friend, but a little bit of something wound in a particular way. It is a pattern. The medium is inconsequential. Inconsequential. Utterly! Whether one were to be twisting dimensions or twisting yarn, the emergent behaviour is identical." He pauses significantly. "In other words, an electron is a knot."

Bahram tilts his head. The Turk's lined brow furrows as he strokes his white beard. "A knot in what, pray tell, Albert? You're calling it New Kelvinism. Has aether come back into vogue?"

Albert cackles. "That's just the point, Prince -- the medium does not matter. The essence is the message. It is the flow of information with which the universe is both concerned and composed, and the language of that flow is my New Kelvinism. Can you see where this inevitably leads, old friend?" He sits back again, nodding solemnly, his eyes shining. "We are on the cusp of knowing a method for programming the world. It is nothing less than that."

The Turk shakes his head and chuckles. Bahram is expressionless, his hands folded in his lap. "Albert," says the Turk, "I've read your letters to my father. I've tried to follow your proofs. I admit I remain baffled. What I must bear high in mind, though, is what implications there might be to your releasing this theory openly."

Albert sits back, frowning beneath his white moustache.

"You know all too well the consequences of atomics," continues the Turk softly. "Dare we imagine what your next revelation might beget?"

Albert sniffs. "Science is not secret," he says.

The Turk looks into his eyes for a long moment. The clock on the mantel beside Elsa's portrait ticks. Albert shifts. The Turk sighs and then smiles. "I had wondered if your opinion on these matters had changed, but I can see you're as stubborn as always, aren't you?" He laughs. "Your correspondents have contributed to the theory, of course."

Albert blinks. "Of course, yes, yes." He stands up and shuffles over to a wooden writing desk and rolls back the lid. Inside are brown dossiers brimming with trifold-creased papers. The package is marked NEW KELVINISM, LETTERS '53-'55. "There's Roman Klinger in Warsaw who has been instrumental in working through the quantum field proofs, and a young student in Sarajevo, Ratko Zoranovic, whose mind is so limber it absolutely makes me green with envy. I admit it freely." He chuckles. "Oh, to be young."

The Turk laughs and nods. "You should come with me to Anwar. My father can provide you with facilities, funding, minds: anything you need to perfect the work."

Albert stops chuckling. "Provided I keep my research private?"

The Turk nods.

Albert shakes his head. "You know I will not do it."

The Turk shrugs and sips from his cup. "Never the less, I am obliged to ask. Civility first, after all." He glances down at the table. "Your tea is getting cold, Albert."

"Oh, yes," agrees Albert. He drinks.

He pauses, watching Bahram watching him.

The Turk clears his throat. "Is your speech quite prepared?"

Albert considers this, gesturing vaguely. "It's more than begun," he confesses as he takes his seat again, "but not altogether finished, as such. I'll tell you freely that I was procrastinating about it when you came calling." He sips his tea. "It's almost finished, it's almost fair to say."

The Turk laughs again. "You thrive on improvisation, my friend. You always have. Your decisions nip at the heels of your actions, as they did when your hair was black and my spine was straight."

"I'm an idiot," laughs Albert, absently patting down a fluff of wild white hair. "Some things I never learn."

The Turk sighs. A sparrow flits at the window, then flaps away. Albert watches the protege watching it. He finds the young man's gaze seems cold, and it makes him feel uncomfortable. His joints ache.

The Turk rises from the loveseat and strolls across to the writing desk. He picks up the closest dossier of correspondence, then slips out a couple of letters. He scans them and tucks them back. To Bahram he says, "We'll take all of these."

Albert turns. Bahram crosses his legs on the loveseat as he fits a cigarette into the end of a long, ebony holder. He lights it with a silver lighter, his black eyes calmly locked on the old man. Albert opens his mouth but doesn't say anything.

The Turk sighs again. Albert turns back to him. The Turk is looking his age all of a sudden, the skin beneath his eyes swollen and his brow heavy. "It will be nearly painless, naturally," he whispers. "You know my father is very fond of you, Albert."

Albert pales. His forehead glistens.

Bahram shifts on the loveseat, exhales a snake of smoke.

"There is a mild sedative mixed in," explains the Turk, "so when the clot forms you'll be numbed. It will look like a simple aneurism. Try not to worry about it too much. There won't be a fuss."

Albert's breath is becoming shallow. He's dizzy. He sinks lower into his chair, hands slipping from the armrests. The teacup drops from his limp fingers, the last drops sliding out and darkening the carpet. His eyes are wide, his pupils small.

"But you've never really understood the stakes, Albert. It is a source of profound regret for me that things have turned out this way, and for my father that sorrow is double. Still: you always had a choice."

Albert closes his mouth. He loses feeling in his left arm. His vision turns grey.

The Turk straightens, wincing at his back. He clicks his heels smartly, dark lashes brimming with tears. "Auf wiedersehen, Herr von Steissbein."

Albert settles. Bahram is already collecting papers. The Turk checks his watch.


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