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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 18

Paris is changing.

It isn't the new, rectilinear monstrosities of American-style office towers rising up to form a new skyline at La Defense. It isn't the union with Europe, or the switching of the money. It isn't the roiling cites with their packed apartment blocks of restless young blacks, populating the nighttime neighbourhoods with the fear of ultraviolence and the putrid plastic perfume of cars set on fire. It's not anger from the Algerians, and it's not bombs from the Basques.

But the air is different. The light is different.

The mood is new, and it is not good.

Drago shivers in the morning sun. He can't quite put a finger on the source of this spike in his sense of disquiet until he glances up impatiently at the traffic signal, waiting for his turn to cross the busy Rue des Ecoles. The signal is red, and at the base of the lamp two people stand staring back across the road, their placid faces lost for brief seconds as they are occluded by delivery trucks and buses.

Drago looks away, but even in the very edge of his peripheral vision he can tell they're still gazing at him: a young man and a young woman, both dressed in crisp white button-down shirts and pleated blue trousers, their hair short and neat and their expressions empty but friendly, like airline hostesses or car show models. Drago leans on his crutch, biting his lip.

The signal turns green. One artery of traffic groans to a halt as the other gears up to go. Still wary after his accident, Drago checks the street for wayward Taxis Parisiennes before venturing off the old stone curb.

Drago hugs his satchel against his side and skirts to the far side of the sidewalk as he reaches the opposite curb, keeping his own gaze shy of the staring pair. They make no move toward him as he passes, but he could swear catching from the corner of his eye a familiar, encouraging nod from the young man. He looks decisively away.

Words from his father's paranoia echo through his mind: "...The apparent strangers who are never more than a few paces behind you in the market, never more than a few doors away in any apartment you let."

Drago hurries along the street.

At the library Madame Lefevre looks up from her desk and smiles. "Young Monsieur Zoran, haven't you already won your degree?"

Drago shuffles up awkwardly and leans his crutch. "There is always more reading to be doing," he explains, fishing his student identification from his wallet. He drops it on the desk and Madame Lefevre points her scanning wand at it: beep!

"Where can I steer you today?" the old lady asks. "Combinatorics, topology, number theory, fluid dynamics? Pure or applied?"

Drago offers a self-effacing shrug. "Mythology?"

Madam Lefevre gapes theatrically. "Mythology?" she repeats. "What's going on? Do you have a girlfriend in the humanities?"

He shakes his head. "I'm just having curiosity about a few things."

She helps him to the appropriate section and after she's disappeared behind a shelf of books he slips a thick album out of his satchel and consults a handwritten index on the last plastic-enclosed leaf. He takes a seat at a catalogue terminal and begins pecking in queries...

He reads. He reads and read and reads. The stack at his study carrel is high and teetering, a motley mix of history, anthropology and fables. It becomes apparent that every people on the planet has a set of similarly phantasmagoric creation stories -- some strange, but most having many principal elements in common -- at the head of a wider body of lore containing familiar clashes of great powers that might at once be histories blown all out of human proportion or fantasies born around a campfire circle. Most likely, it seems to Drago, most legends are a mixture of the two.

The next thing that becomes apparent to Drago is that in such a vast sea of vague, romantic and metaphorical narratives it is easy -- seductively so -- to read in whatever meaning one wishes.

Skirmishes from the ancient past become epic wars, soldiers replaced by gods, military objectives swapped out in favour of magical treasures. The Persian incursion into India becomes a battle for the survival of mankind against daemon goliaths; the Mexica Aztecs' search for a new home becomes an exercise in realizing divinely-inspired destiny as a feathered snake reveals a bog that would become Tenochtitlan and then Mexico City; a rapidly communicable disease becomes a vector of Yahweh's displeasure; a distant supernova is transformed into celestial signage, heralding the coming of yet another in a long line of final saviours...

"The humanities are a mess," he concludes to himself sadly, dropping his chin into a weary palm. "Any of this could mean anything."

He is struck, however, by a curious illustration accompanying a treatise on the Greek Hephaistos, whom Homer described as the inventor and master of ancient golden robots. The illustration is a seventeenth century reproduction of a Dutch painting depicting a conceptual cousin to Hephaistos' inventions, the great brass automaton Talos whom Jason fought at Crete. The depiction reminds Drago of something else he's seen, and he dives into Ratko's album to find the answer.

And there it is: the wounded knight, crumpled beneath a war-ringed eclipse. He holds a boulder in his hands and bleeds ichor from one ankle, just as Talos is reputed to have died.

In another volume he finds a section of a frieze from Jerusalem, a water-worn carving of an armoured giant afflicted at the foot. Across the forehead are Hebrew letters which Ratko's careful handwriting identifies beneath as the word emet: truth.

"Ah-ha," says Madame Lefevre from over his shoulder, startling him. "A golem."

Drago furrows his brow. "What's a golem?"

"A Jewish legend, Young Monsieur Zoran, that speaks of artificial men made of clay and brought to life by sacred strings of words written on sheepskin inserted into the mouth -- or, in this case, inscribed across the forehead."

Drago looks up. "Are they good or bad, these golems?"

"They can only be made by very holy men, so I suppose they must serve good." She looks over at the array of books opened on the desk, lingering over the giant brass automaton of Crete. "It's funny, isn't it? It's almost as if, even all those centuries ago, they had some hint that things like robots would one day exist."

Drago smiles uneasily. "But that is not possible, of course."

"Of course," agrees Madame Lefevre. "It more probably speaks to the limits of our human imagination, a fantasy at the intersection of procreation and technology." She looks up at the tall windows at the end of the aisle and sighs philosophically. "We were created by God so, like children dressing up in their parent's over-size shoes, we pretend at becoming creators of life, too."

There is also a crest or an inscription upon the breast-plate of the golem's armour. Drago traces it with his finger. "Do you know what this is?" he asks.

Madame Lefevre leans closer, pushing her glasses up higher on the bridge of her nose. "I'd say it was a Shrivatsa if I didn't know better."

"What is a Shrivatsa?"

"It is a Buddhist symbol -- an endless knot representing the Tantric weave of time, events and effects. It is a physical symbol of the union between Sunyata, or void, and Pratitya-samutpada -- a concept we call in French 'Dependent Co-arising.'"

"Why do you say it cannot be being this symbol?"

Madame Lefevre sniffs and straightens. "This frieze is Late Mediaeval Semitic -- a culture worlds and worlds away from Far Eastern folklore."

"But they couldn't have been completely ignorant of the east, Madame, could they? They would have had business on the Silk Road."

"Perhaps, but it would be unthinkable for Jews to include alien religiosity in a Jerusalem temple. Now that I think of it, it seems more plausible that the carving depicts the Gordian Knot."

"This is Alexander's knot?"

"Precisely -- a knot so complex Alexander the Great could only answer the challenge to unravel it by cleaving it with his sword. For millennia the Gordian Knot has stood as a symbol of intractability -- of a problem so convoluted that only a swift, decisive stroke can render it loose." She cocks her head. "It might be argued that it is also the ultimate symbol of hubris: Alexander did answer the challenge, but in the process the riddle itself was destroyed -- all information about the knot vanishes when it is broken rather than unwound."

"Was it a real knot? Had someone truly tied it?"

She shrugs, smiling as she tugs her cardigan tighter around her shoulders. "Who can say, Young Monsieur? This is a story from the fourth century before Christ. However, the Phrygian priest class was known to create knot-cyphers -- that is, messages encoded into string by patterned tying -- to preserve their secrets and honour the sacred names of their gods. It is not totally implausible that Alexander really did destroy a cherished riddle such as this, but it is equally likely that as a conqueror who broke the line of succession for the Phrygian throne the cleaving of a holy artifact could be purely figurative."

Drago shakes his head. "That's the problem with these humanities -- everything is a could be or might not be. Everything is liquid. Nothing is certain, nothing is known. I wish history had been written by mathematicians!"

Madame Lefevre chuckles and pats him on the shoulder consolingly. "And I, for my part, wish history had been written by librarians."

Drago walks along Rue des Carmes, lost in thought. The sky is leaden, the air thick. It will rain soon. The sidewalk is crowded for the day is ending and everyone is rushing to get to supper. Drago is jostled rudely, but he barely notices. His eyes are unfocused, staring vacantly at the green crossing light ahead. He wants to be able to decide whether his father is mad, and he's bitterly disappointed that his research has neither confirmed nor denied Ratko's raving claims but instead only raised more baffling questions...

He gasps, catching himself at the curb -- he's nearly walked right out into traffic. The signal has changed while his head was in the clouds, unbinding Rue des Ecoles to flow.

His satchel slips from his shoulder and skids into the lanes, jerked by momentum.

Drago's eyes bug out in horror. The satchel is run over by a Mercedes and then sent spinning by a Renault. "My albums!" he cries.

He searches frantically for a gap in traffic so he can dash out into the road, but as he watches the traffic signal snaps back to red without bothering to turn amber. The cars, caught unawares by the signal's sudden leap of states, honk and squeal and lurch in a scramble to clear the intersection. "What the hell?" bellows a truck driver, the cab still rocking from its abrupt stop. The smell of hot rubber colours the air.

Drago blinks in wonder, then sets his crutch on the road and quickly vaults across the closest lane to retrieve the satchel. The strap is torn and there are treadmarks across the pockets, but it is otherwise intact. He hugs it to his chest.

He then raises his eyes and sees the young man and young woman standing on the opposite corner in their starched white shirts and pleated blue pants. They are both pointing and staring at the traffic signal, faces screwed up tight in expressions of rapt concentration.

Their faces relax. They look to Drago in calm concert. Immediately, the traffic signal turns green again.

Drago is forced to scamper across the remaining lanes to join them on the corner. A split-second later a rush of cars blows at his back as they roar through the intersection. Someone beeps at him. He teeters on the curb, off-balance, until the young man steps forward and offers his hand.

Drago takes it and he's yanked back upright. "Thank you," he breathes.

The young man nods, then steps back again.

Drago licks his lips. "Do you know me?" he asks.

Neither of them reply. They continue to watch him, their expressions blank and peaceful.

"How did you do that?" he persists. "You made the light to change."

The young man smiles serenely. "Note the fields that circulate through simple machines. Temper the fields to touch the works, and nudge them. Repeat to cognition."

The young woman dips her head, closing her eyes. "Repeat to cognition," she echoes.

Their steady stares make Drago feel light-headed and cold. A prickling of gooseflesh washes over his narrow shoulders. He starts to sweat. "You...you just leave me alone, okay?" he whispers. "You just to stay away from me."

The strange pair has no reply.

Drago sidles along the sidewalk, refusing to let them out of his sight but quite intent on getting out of theirs. He shuffles around a newspaper box and a pillar plastered with advertisements, then turns tail and begins hobbling away as quickly as he is able. He steals a look over his shoulder: they're watching him go.

He turns the corner and almost crashes bodily into a man in a white shirt and blue trousers. "Sorry," mutters Drago automatically, and then his breath catches as he recognizes the uniform. "No," he says to himself, breathing quickly. "Not another one..."

He shoulders past the man and hurries onward, crutch thumping on the concrete. He worms into a thicker throng moving east along Rue des Ecoles and tries to work his way to its core. He feels watched from all quarters and he longs to disappear, hunkering down so his bobbing head of black hair doesn't poke out from the crowd.

He clings to the clot of pedestrians until a faction breaks off to trudge down the steps into the metro. The corridors of the station are decorated with images in tiles: men and women and children in busy street scenes. Drago walks along the wall, pressed between a line of flesh people and their pixelated cousins in tile. Once on the platform he loiters in a narrow telephone niche and lets a train go by. He takes the second train that comes, darting between the closing doors just as it is about to leave. The warning horn sounds.

The platform draws away, accelerating. People arriving from the corridors become blurs. The last among them before the darkness of the tunnel is a small group of people with matching white shirts and blue trousers.

The train wobbles with the change in pressure. Drago grabs a faintly greasy metal pole for support as he struggles to regain control of his breath. His exposed skin is chilled as the perspiration dries.

He glances warily up and down the compartment, searching for people looking at him. Some are. Regular people, in nondescript clothes. Most look away again in a matter of seconds but some looks linger, curious about his panic. His eyes meet those of a man looking at him over the top of the financial section of Le Monde. Propelled by adrenalin Drago hears himself bark, "What are you staring at? Are you part of it? Are you following me?"

The man drops his gaze to the newspaper nervously. The others look away, too. Drago can see their contempt and discomfort now that his outburst has confirmed to them that he is crazy, or intoxicated.

He faces the window, looking through his own pallid reflection as the train sways and chuckles.

He must disappear! He cannot tolerate the thought of being tracked. It makes him want to vomit. But does one become invisible?

He emerges from the metro system at Trocadero, exiting into the grey light with a hundred fellow travellers. The massive square is checkered with the blankets of trinket vendors and choked with aisles of meandering shoppers -- it's some kind of special event craft market. The Parisians veer clear of the hordes of tourists but Drago steers his crutch right into the colourful, babbling maw in the long, fuzzy shadow of the Eiffel Tower across the river.

Drago charges into a crude vinyl stall covered in hanging T-shirts with garish illustrations of Paris landmarks on them. He grabs a white one featuring Notre Dame and asks, "How much?"

In the next aisle he buys black, wraparound sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. After carefully scanning the crowd for anyone watching him he darts over two more aisles and purchases a cheap grey trenchcoat. Finally, he buys a handbag with a Worholesque version of the Mona Lisa printed on it and shoves his broken satchel inside.

He lets his crutch drop, electing to struggle to minimize his limp instead. His leg quickly begins to ache.

He leaves Trocadero by taxi. He gets out after a few blocks and takes another, tugging the brim of his new hat down low over the sunglasses. He jumps out of the taxi and directly onto a bus, leering dangerously at anyone who dares let their gaze wander toward him.

He gets off in Saint Medard. He spends a quarter of an hour stopped in front of the ruin of Ratko's building, its burned out husk closed in by temporary wooden walls installed by the city for safety. The walls are already plastered in paper bills promoting local bands. The stench in the air is awful. The sidewalk is stained black.

His heart begins hammering in his chest. He flees.

Another series of taxis, buses and short metro rides delivers him to Rue de Trevise. It's taken him two and half hours to get home. The sky is dark and it's spitting light, cool rain. He shuffles down the sidewalk, looking over his shoulder as he digs the key to the apartment house out of his bag. He slips inside and then spends a moment leaning against the door, eyes closed. He releases a breath he hadn't been aware of holding. His lungs hurt.

Climbing the stairs without his crutch is difficult. He's exhausted once he reaches the top. He pushes into the flat, throwing the door open and then slamming it behind him. He dogs the lock, then presses his eye to the spyhole.

His roommate, Guillaume, looks up from his desk with a grimace which melts into a wry smirk. "What in heavens are you supposed to be -- a secret agent?"

"I'm in disguise!" croaks Drago, still winded.

"Obviously," replies Guillaume, rolling his eyes. "...Which, being obvious, rather defeats the purpose one would think."

"I have to get out of Paris!"

Guillaume considers this, brow raised. "I'm sure I've never been so pleased by anything you've said. You've just made my night, Mad Serb. Tell me honestly: are you teasing? Because it's cruel if you are."

The flat is divided in two. A line of masking tape runs along the floor and up the wall, separting Guillaume's immaculate order from Drago's chaos. Guillaume's expression darkens as Drago crosses into his space, knocking over the garbage pail as he rushes to the window. He opens a crack in the blinds and peers down into the street.

"Hey, get out of my half!" cries Guillaume. "What the devil is wrong with you, man?"

Drago presses the blinds together and turns, face flushed. "I'm being followed, Gome."

"Of course you are," replies Guillaume darkly. "I'm sure it's a natural biproduct of dressing up as a secret agent. And for the last time, my name is not 'Gome.'"

"I can't to be seeing anything out there. It's too dark."

"You're wearing sunglasses, idiot."

Drago tears away his hat and sunglasses, then steps over Guillaume's bed to drop into the midst of his home mess, papers crumpling and dirty laundry wrapping around his shoes. He hops free, kicking out his good leg and thereby launching a sock onto Guillaume's desk. Guillaume carefully removes it with a tissue.

His expression is uncharacteristically concerned. "You're acting strange, Serb. Even for you." He looks down at Drago's Notre Dame T-shirt. A price tag is still attached to the collar. "You've been sightseeing? Where the devil are our groceries?"

Drago looks confused, then sheepish. "I forgot."

"You forgot? What are we supposed to eat for supper? Damn it, you fool -- hurry now and you'll make it to Monsieur Tang's before it closes."

Drago's expression is stricken. "I have no more the money, Gome. I'm sorry."

"What do you mean? Where's the money?"

"I bought this hat and coat. And this bag. And this shirt. I'm sorry, Gome. I had no choice."

"You had no choice?"

"Peoples were following me. I had to get away."

Guillaume leans back heavily in his chair, castors creaking. He drags a hand down his face. "So that's it," he concludes quietly. "You've finally gone completely mental."

Drago sags onto his bed. He picks up a chess piece -- a hand-carved bishop with an enormous wang -- and rubs its contours with his thumb for comfort. "I must to speak with the Shah," he mutters. "Maybe he can send me away somewhere far, out of their sights."

Guillaume cocks his head and points to a pile of mail on Drago's cluttered and woefully abused dresser. "The Shah's sent you a letter, actually. I've been rather hoping it's an announcement that your funding's been suspended. You do know I filed a formal complaint against you, of course, after you carved up my bedposts with your ridiculous notations."

Drago leaps off the bed and staggers as he hits the floor, careening into the dresser as his bad leg refuses to hold him. The dresser tips over. The drawers fall out and splinter, spilling underwear and shirts. The mail diffuses into a slurry of papers. Drago paws through them rabidly, his eyes glinting as he picks up a manila envelope decorated with the Seal of Anwar.

Guillaume watches him as he tears it open. In his haste he tears the letter in two, so he's obliged hold the two halves together while he reads.

"Well?" prompts Guillaume. "Please do tell me you're going away forever."

Drago looks up, his features slack. "Yes, Gome," he says mechanically. "I'm going away forever."

Guillaume's eyes widen. "You're not pulling my leg?"

Drago looks over at Guillaume's legs beneath the desk and furrows his brow. He shakes his head. "My research proposal...it has been accepted."

Guillaume blinks. "What? Who would be stupid enough to take up a research project with you, Mad Serb?"

Drago sits on his haunches, the two halves of the torn letter still clutched in his hands. His hands tremble. "It's from McGill University," he explains expressionlessly, looking down to read the letter over again.

Guillaume frowns. "To work with whom?"

Drago looks up. His eyes are watering. With reverence he replies, "With Dr. Felix himself, Gome."

"The Dr. Felix?" gasps Guillaume, turning pale. "Dr. Felix who found an analytic solution for Schwarzchild's contact line conjecture? Dr. Felix of the Felix-Heitzinger mappings? That Dr. Felix?"

Drago nods.

Guillaume's mouth hangs open. "Holy shit," he concludes.

Drago grabs the ragged end of the manila envelope and turns it over. An airline ticket drops out. He picks it up, examines it beneath the fold, and then grins widely. He cheers, "I'm going to the New World!"


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