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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 20

She's lost. The corridors are a maze.

People rush past her. They're young, badly dressed, pressing laptop computers into their chests as they scurry. Most of them wear glasses. The collective gait is inelegant, shuffling, heel-peeling. She follows the trail of nerds in search of its source.

Another turn brings her around to face a standing parade of girls in a tight line packed along the wall with a closed office door at its head. Eyes flick up at her, flick down again. Someone mists herself with perfume. Glasses are folded and tucked away. Breath is tested against palms.

The door clicks and opens. A blushing girl slips out, binders in her arms, and leaves the corridor through the far end. The queue compresses in anticipation.

"Who's next?"

A boyishly handsome middle-aged gentleman leans out through the frame, his aquatic blue eyes sweeping up the line. He pauses when he gets to the visitor, his broad, smooth brow creasing in concern. "My lady, you look lost. Can I be of any help at all do you think?"

She smiles despite herself. "I hope so. I'm looking for Drago Zoran."

He smiles right back. "Why don't you come into my office for a moment and we'll see if we can't track him down together -- how does that sound?"

"Thank you very much."

The girls collectively sigh. Eyes narrow. She keeps her gaze high and unperturbed as she walks the length of the queue. The gentleman gestures theatrically toward the door, which he pulls closed behind her. He then perches himself on the corner of his desk, waving to the guest chair. "Have a seat. My name is Dr. Felix...you may have heard of me. I'd be pleased if you'd call me John."

She sits, arranging her purse on her lap. "Mrs. Himmler."

Dr. Felix's eyes blink down to her ring finger, then up again quickly, barely straying over her bosom before meeting her eyes and flashing his white, straight teeth again. It is a powerfully disarming look. "Drago's expecting you?"

She drops her eyes briefly. "Not precisely, to be candid. I had been hoping to surprise him."

"A surprise visit from a beautiful woman? Our Drago?" he replies, brow raised. "It will be the talk of the campus," he says, chuckling to himself and presenting her with an exaggerated wink. "How delicious."

She purses her lips. "You must be the...sociable half of the equation, John."

"It can't be denied that I do enjoy engaging with people, Miss Himmler."

"Mrs. Himmler, actually."

"Forgive me! I'm used to dealing with my students, and as you can imagine very few of them are married. It becomes a matter of habit, I suppose."

"Of course."

"You look so young."

"Thank you."

Dr. Felix's gaze coasts more purposefully over her body this time. "And that is a very fetching dress, if you don't mind my saying so. So bold. Quite exquisite. And very flattering to you, I might add."

"It was a gift from my husband."

Dr. Felix nods. "Is your husband a very anxious man?"

"What? Not at all."

"Right, of course. Hypothetically, then, he wouldn't be at all concerned if we were to grab a quick drink in the lounge together, would he?"

She blinks. "I beg your pardon?"

He shakes his head, tossing brown locks. "Nevermind, nevermind. A thought experiment. It seems I'm always half in the lecture hall, aren't I?" He waves it off and goes around to sit behind his desk. He picks up a list of telephone extensions and runs his finger down the names, lips twitching as if reading but his eyes are unfocused.

She crosses her legs the other way, hands folded in her lap, and clears her throat.

Dr. Felix pulls his telephone over and stabs a few numbers, then sits back and flashes her another grin. "It's just ringing now," he narrates.

She nods.

"Yes, do you know where Drago is at all? Alright, good. No, don't send him along. Don't bother him. Great."

He hangs up, then straightens and comes around the desk again, offering the crook of his arm. "Shall we?"

"I'm sure I can manage with directions. Besides, aren't your students waiting?"

"No, no -- I won't hear of it. This building is very confusing for newcomers. And it won't kill the students to go on waiting a bit longer. Please: it's not every day a mathematics professor gets to be seen with such an attractive companion on his arm. We're hacking away at the stereotype, you and I. Indulge me?"

He holds her too close. His forearm keeps grazing her breast. She shifts her arm but he shifts it back. He grins continuously, doling out little droplets of charm at everyone they encounter. He can't seem to keep the names of the male students straight, but with the girls he appears to be rather more intimately acquainted. "What are you doing hanging around here flirting with my post-grads, Danielle? You have a midterm to write. If you need help with it, we could meet over dinner to discuss your progress...?"

"That'd be awesome, Professor Felix."

"Come by my office at eight, dear."

He chuckles and turns back. "I'm afraid we'll have to postpone our drink, Mrs. Himmler. My evenings do tend to fill up rather quickly! It's a matter of duty, of course. My work is never done."

"I'm not sure I ever agreed to have a drink with you, John."

He furrows his brow. "Didn't you? I could've sworn you said your husband wasn't the anxious sort."

"I scarcely see how that enters into it."

"Well, if he wouldn't be bothered..."

She sniffs. "I might be. Shouldn't that be a consideration?"

"Naturally, naturally," he says quickly. "You must think I'm a cad."

She doesn't look at him. "Is it much further yet?"

He clears his throat. "Um, no. We're almost there. It's just at the end of the hall."

They pass into a busy laboratory. The floor is a raised grating with bundles of cable running beneath it, snaking up through apertures to feed banks of computers whose faces wink with multi-coloured LEDs. The air is cool and crisp, fresh from the maw of giant air conditioning units suspended from the high, unfinished ceiling. A gaggle of students has accumulated at the far end. They hover over the skinny backside of a man half-inserted into a rack of electronic equipment, yelling suggestions to him. "I've got signal -- try the secondaries again, sir!"

"No, no, no. Wait until he's decoupled the aux box until you try to check the signal, moron."

"Guys, you'll get him mixed up. Stop talking over each other when --"

"Shut up, Cathy. We're helping."

"I only said you shouldn't interrupt if he's --"

"Yeah yeah yeah, whatever."

The girl named Cathy looks over. "Oh! Professor Felix, hi." Like the other female students, she narrows her eyes suspiciously at the visitor. "Hello," she offers flatly.

"Drago!" calls Dr. Felix. "You have a guest!"

She turns to Dr. Felix. "Thank you, John. I'll manage on my own from here."

"Are you quite sure? Perhaps the three of us could --"

"Thank you very much," she says pointedly, slipping her arm free and stepping ahead of him. John gives her a demure bow of the head and then retreats, gesturing at the students to follow him.

"What guest?" mutters Drago from inside the guts of the electronic miasma, feet dangling out into space. "I don't want any guests. I'm very busy today. John? Hello?"

"John's gone."

Drago's feet stop wiggling. "Who's there?" he asks.

She smiles. "I am Piroska!"

Drago swears as he bumps his head inside the apparatus, then hurriedly extracts himself and tumbles out onto the floor. He looks up, his face a study in childish glee even behind a layer of sweat and a framing of thick, unchecked beard. His eyes widen and he cries, "Piroska!"

She curtsies. He laughs, grabs a cane and leans on it to climb to his feet. After a brief hesitation he embraces her, then steps back and wipes his face on his arm. "I can't believe it!"

"You're pleased to see me?"

"I'm overjoyed!" he hoots. "How are you? You look incredible! What are you doing here? How did you find me? Are you still living in Hungary?"

She's still smiling widely, cheeks dimpled. "I live in Switzerland now, Drago. I'm here on holiday. I'd heard you were at McGill so I made some inquiries..."

"You're at Universitat Zurich?"

She shakes her head. "Well no, not actually."

"So what are you working on these days?"

"I'm a mother, Drago," she says. "I make lunch, I go to the park, I wash clothes." She opens her purse and withdraws a small leather portfolio of photographs, presenting Drago with an image of a cherubic little blonde boy clutching a stuffed giraffe. "This is Franz," she says. "He is my world."

Drago's mouth hangs open slightly as he reaches for the portfolio, holding it very gently by the edges and staring at the photograph. He looks up. "He's an angel," he says breathlessly. He hands the portfolio back, brows knitted. "But you are doing no maths? How can that be?"

"I do a little," she says with a shrug. "I write number puzzles for magazines. It's just a hobby, really. Karl is the family breadwinner."

"Karl?"

"My husband," supplies Piroska and then, in the face of Drago's continued bewilderment she adds, "Franz's father." She shows him her wedding band.

"You're married and everything?" gasps Drago, eyes round and mouth agog. "So fast?"

"It wasn't so fast. Years have gone by, Drago. Or haven't you noticed, holed up inside your wild-man beard?"

He seems confused, then reaches up to touch his own face. "Oh yes," he says brightly. "I'd forgotten. It seems I've neglected to replace my razor."

"Several months ago, by the looks of it."

He shrugs it off. "There's important work to be done, yes. So little time, so much universe." He shakes his head. "I still can't believe you've left maths behind. You have a gift!"

She cocks her head. "Just because one is exceptionally good at something doesn't make them a slave to it. I can choose, after all. And, as time went by, I decided what I truly wanted in my life and that is what I chose: a family. To love, to take care, to protect and be cherished."

Drago blinks. "Such a contribution you could have made..."

"Such a contribution I do make," she argues, straightening to her full height. "Nothing that was Piroska is gone -- only redirected. Do you doubt my efficacy?"

"Far from it," says Drago. "I feel for your fellow mothers, no doubt dazzled and dazed by your spirit, yes. I don't mean to denigrate your choice...it's only that the idea is so alien to me."

She raises one brow. "You have a choice too, Drago."

He looks at her, scoffs, then chuckles. "It's not like that for me," he says quietly. "This is a road I must walk to its end."

"Perhaps," she concedes, "but when all is said and done you'll still be left with your life to deal with." She reaches out and touches his narrow shoulder.

"I've missed you," he says.

"You never wrote back though, did you?"

He blushes. "I am a very good mathematician, Piroska," he says, "but I am a very poor man."

She nods. "Reckoning for that, too, will come due some day."

He makes a face. "When my work is finished."

She smirks. "Quite."

Both seem to notice simultaneously that, though the students have retreated to a respectful distance, Drago and Piroska are the centre of attention in what has become a suddenly very silent lab. Drago coughs. "Why don't you come back to my office, where we can do chatting with a little more privacy?"

Piroska agrees and follows him through another convolution of corridors before he presents her with a cramped office so cluttered and abused it could only be his -- walls plastered in equal parts with memoranda, scrawled notes, academic calendars and erotic photographs of his sister, chess pieces clustered in odd locations surrounding by little ejecta blankets of whittled debris, the floor invisible beneath several strata of footprint-smudged paperwork, abandoned items of clothing, shards of broken coffee mugs. If there is a window it is lost behind the mess.

Drago upends the guest chair, sending a slurry of books and notes sliding onto the floor, then resets it gingerly and presents it to his guest. Piroska settles down.

He slogs back around to his own chair, a tattered, drawn-upon thing, and drops into it. He looks up at her and smiles blankly for a moment, clearly uncertain how to proceed. Awkwardly he remarks, "You're no longer so fat."

Piroska doesn't bat an eye. "I am, actually," she says. "It's simply that my dress is cut quite expertly -- a trompe d'oeil of textile topography, nothing more."

"I like the flowers," notes Drago, nodding with his chin.

"Yes, so did your friend John seem to," she replies drily. "He's quite the casanova, isn't he?"

"John is very friendly," offers Drago by way of explanation. "I don't know how I would have ever moved forward without him. He is as driven as I am to discover a comprehensive theory for my work. He thinks we'll be famous."

"Famous mathematicians?" says Piroska, arching one eyebrow. "I thought mathematicians, like artists, only attained fame post-mortem."

"What about Einstein? Or Hawking?" He pauses. "...Or Piet Mondrian."

"It's possible, I suppose," acknowledges Piroska with a small smile. "Your John believes the work is that monumental -- that it would interest even the public?"

"Oh yes," says Drago, nodding. "When the theory is complete he's going to write a book, and then we'll appear on the televisions together to explain it to everyone."

"Mathematicians on chat shows? Are you sure?"

"Oh yes," says Drago again. "John has it all worked out. He's already met with some of the publicist people, and he has a literature agent working for him. The day after our introductory paper hits the journals we go to the wider audience."

"So you're not leapfrogging the peer-review process?"

"Oh no, John is very serious about the journals, Piroska. When he was a young man he collaborated on a very innovative research project with Anthony Smead. You know him, this Anthony Smead?"

She shakes her head.

"He's very big in certain circles, this Smead. When the paper appeared it was turned out that Smead had given none of the credits to John. Smead took the Wolf Prize, and John got nothing. They had a very bitter row about it and now, even all of some years later, John is very sad and angry. He says to me, 'This time it will be done right, Drago, and we will win all of the accolades as equal partners.'"

Piroska raises her brow. "Equal partners? But isn't it your work, Drago?"

"We each have a part to do," says Drago carelessly. "Without John I would be nowhere, I promise you. Nobody listens to me, but everybody listens to John. They know he is a man for taking serious. This building -- these students -- our grants...they are all thank you to him, Piroska. He will not give up until we are recognized."

She cocks her head oddly, pursing her lips. "Yes," she agrees, "he does seem to have something to prove, your John."

Drago looks wounded. "You don't like him."

She shrugs. "Intuition isn't everything."

Drago sighs and sits back into his chair. It squeaks. "Enough about the maths, then. Tell me about you, Piroska. You're on holiday? Where is your family?"

"Karl and Franz are at the zoo," she says. "I don't care for zoos."

"Why not?"

"Captivity depresses me," she says.

"I've never been inside of a zoo," admits Drago.

"Yes, well," says Piroska curiously, "cages do come in many varieties."

The telephone rings. Drago mumbles apologies as he picks it up. "Hello Zoran? Okay. Okay, yes. To be sure? Okay, okay -- I'm coming right away." He replaces the receiver and looks up excitedly. "The students, they have the Vestibule online again!"

"The Vestibule?"

"Oh, it's marvellous, Piroska -- you must see it! Come on, come on."

She trots after him as he dashes through the corridor, cane bashing against the floor as he bursts back into the laboratory. It is not easy to keep up with Drago's frenetic, wired energy, and by the time she catches up to him she's winded and flushed. Dr. Felix stands by a cluster of students, arms crossed. He looks her up and down and quips, "Goodness me, whatever have you two been up to?"

Drago looks blank. Piroska smirks. "How adolescent," she remarks.

"I'm only joshing," says Dr. Felix, abashed.

She pushes past him to follow Drago through the student cadre. They surround a plywood box some two meters high by three or four meters long. A spaghetti of cables runs through a crude, unsanded aperture on one side. There is a simple door on the narrow end with a kitchen cupboard handle on it, and above it is fixed a hand-lettered sign reading POLICE BOX.

"What's a police box?" asks Piroska.

Drago shrugs. "I don't know. It's a student joke of some kind."

Dr. Felix walks up behind them and spreads his arms to rest one hand on each of their shoulders. "It's from a television programme," he supplies, giving Piroska's shoulder an affectionate squeeze, "about a man who teleports through time and space."

Drago unlatches and opens the flimsy plywood door, inviting Piroska to proceed. She hesitates. "You're not going to mix up my atoms with those of a housefly, are you?"

Drago blinks. "What?"

Dr. Felix smiles. "Our Drago doesn't get out much, Mrs. Himmler. Not exactly a movie buff."

Drago and Piroska step inside the Vestibule. Drago mumbles about the door and Piroska turns. Dr. Felix is at the threshold. "I'm not sure there's room for three," she says.

"Don't be silly," says Dr. Felix smoothly. "I'm sure if we just --"

She closes the door.

Piroska turns around. She is standing in a narrow closet beside Drago, whose hands are on his hips as he stares at the mirrored walls, the expression on his reflection proud and elated. The air seems faintly to hum. "So," he says giddily, "what do you think?"

She pans her gaze. "Mirrors," she says. "I don't get it."

Drago chuckles. "No, Piroska. There are no mirrors -- just reflections."

"Of course there are mirrors," she argues, leaning sideways to touch the nearest surface with her fingertips. Her hand snaps back and her eyes widen. "It's...it's just wood," she says in wonder. "I can feel the grain." She blinks, turning back to face forward, to face Drago's reflected image. "How can you have reflections without mirrors?"

He grins, pointing. "There, at each vertex."

There is a small box in each of the eight corners of the Vestibule. She frowns and kneels to examine one: a simple metal case with four rubberized leads disappearing through reflections of themselves in the plywood.

"Go on," says Drago. "It's safe for touching."

Piroska nudges the box. The reflections on the two adjacent walls waver, then stabilize again as the box settles. "Something in the boxes...it's makes a coarse surface reflective? How is that possible?"

"Not only reflective," says Drago. "Here, watch this." He turns his head toward the closed door and shouts, "Please to switch to the alternative circuits now!"

He turns back, smiling. Piroska still looks puzzled. Her expression runs to shock, however, a second later when the six planes surrounding them turn suddenly dark and then in another blink views of the Vestibule's interior appear again -- only this time the wall before Piroska does not reflect back an image of her face, but rather an image of the back of her head.

She moves her left arm. The left arm in the image moves, too.

Instinctively she swivels to look at the wall behind her. Again, instead of her reflection she is greeted by an image of herself turning away to again present the back of her own head, her strawberry-blonde locks swaying in her wake. "There's a camera in the wall...?"

"No," says Drago, still smiling. "The wall is a camera."

Piroska takes a slow breath. "Where is the lens?"

"There is no lens. The image data, it is extracted holographically from the bounds of the space, by inferring it from the atoms of the structure itself. When photons strike the atoms it is possible to extract not only data represented by that one photon, but also the emergent image from the combined interactions of all of the other photons within the Vestibule at the same time." He reaches out and touches the image of the right side of his body on the wall to his left. "In one mote, every angle. In one sample, every view."

Piroska whistles. "I am...impressed. How is it done? What's in the boxes?"

"Words," says Drago.

She looks over at the actual Drago sharply. "What?"

"Well, we call them words. They are patterns, to be specific, yes. They are journeys: spatio-temporal pathways, in this case followed by familiar electrons. They are...knots."

"Knots?" she echoes.

"Knots," he confirms, "which, when executed by the electrons, affect the properties of the boundaries that define the space within the Vestibule. One word in each vertex, eight in total, giving rise to a sentence that samples and skews the history of each photon in play." He pauses. "It is a...trompe de la geometrie," he adds. "Nothing more."

She looks at him very seriously. He squirms, and looks upward to avoid the gaze. He immediately blushes and looks down at his feet. Piroska looks up then, too, and sees that on the ceiling of the Vestibule is a view from below: the soles of their shoes standing on air as if pressed on glass. She can see up Drago's nose, and up her own dress to her rose-patterned underwear.

"If I'd known I'd have opted for pants," she observes, then looks down at the actual Drago again. "How does it work? I can't imagine the power it must take to...bend light in this way."

"Power? Oh, the power's nothing," says Drago. With the help of his cane he lowers himself to his knees and takes one of the little boxes in his hands, pulling it as far from the wall as its leads will allow. The images on the six faces around them distort and shimmer. He pops the top off the box and the images simultaneously disappear, leaving only unfinished plywood.

Drago pries a part loose and holds it up between his fingers. It is a nine-volt battery.

Piroska frowns. "A battery? You're powering this with just a battery?"

"No, no, no," says Drago, shaking his head. "Of course not."

"Ah."

"There are eight batteries."

Piroska's eyes widen. "That's not much different, is it? Eight little batteries bending light?"

"The light isn't truly bending, no -- it is following the same rules it always has. We've simply introduced a transformation in the vectors by exchanging one plane for another. It's not so much a bend as a fold."

"You're folding space with nine-volt batteries?"

"No, the batteries run the circuits that describe the words. It is the iteration of the words themselves that affects the bounded space, yes."

"By their mere existence?" she challenges sceptically.

"Yes," he replies simply. "These figures I am discovering, they interact directly with the universe. There is no mediating technology to power, Piroska -- it is the equations themselves that modify the underlying geometries."

Piroska shakes her head incredulously. "Good God," she whispers. "What are you playing with, Drago?"

"A new numeracy," he says, eyes flashing. "A way of counting that rhymes so closely with reality that the universe does not discriminate between the virtual and actual." He raises his chin proudly. "It is the natural language of the world."

"But mathematics is a description -- just a description -- not a thing."

"The Vestibule teaches us that, fundamentally, the distinction is illusory. Piroska, my very dear friend, you must see it: the universe is nothing more than a description of itself. And my new numbers, they are expressions of that description's irreducible components." He takes a deep breath and looks into her eyes. "The world is merely a set of relationships. It is this matrix, not the medium, that generates cause."

"This is dangerous, Drago. You shouldn't be doing this alone."

"John believes if we rush to publish we will lose our priority for the really big discoveries to others. I agree with him: until the theory is complete, we keep it to ourselves, yes."

"That's not science."

Drago's face hardens in a way she has never seen before. "Perhaps no," he agrees, his tone dark, "but it is pragmatic, given the political realities of academia. John has warned me. He's been nearly destroyed by it. He's promised to do everything he can to protect me from being exploited and cheated the same way. He's protecting me, and the sanctities of my work." He pauses. "When it is perfect, we will show the world."

"You've lost perspective," she presses. "Science doesn't profit by monomania. You need help, Drago. This is bigger than one man or two. You need to reach out, to let others test your assumptions and think of solutions that have never occurred to you."

"No one else understands. Impossible. Perhaps when it is more ready, but not now."

"You're making a mistake, Drago."

He wheels on her, suddenly angry. "And who are you to judge this?"

She sneers at him, head high. "I am Piroska," she hisses. "And you do badly to neglect my counsel."

Now it is his turn to sneer as he pushes past her to open the Vestibule door. "You're not a mathematician," he pauses to say. "You should stick to mothering, maybe."

"Mothers take care. That's what I'm trying to do."

He sniffs. "Do it elsewhere."

Drago leaves the Vestibule, the rhythmic smack of his cane rapidly retreating. Through the ajar door she watches him stalk across the laboratory and leave. The students watch in silence. A second later Dr. Felix pokes his head inside. "Mrs. Himmler?"

Piroska dabs at her eyes and clears her throat. "Perhaps you would be good enough to show me out, John."

Brow sloped with concern, he merely nods.


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