A helicopter chops the air, sending circles of snow spray rippling across the frozen lake. Its shadow slides over the rooftops of the geological station, slithering over snowbanks to meet its source as the helicopter drops to touch the tarmac. A couple of local Innu boys watch, leaning on the shovels they have just used to clear the landing. They squint as flakes of airborne ice swirl over them.
"It's friggin' loud, eh?" shouts one boy.
"What?" shouts the other.
The rotors slow. As a small group hunkered in parkas steps out of the administration building, the cabin of the helicopter pops open and a man in a summery white suit steps out, head bowed against the updraft. The two parties meet at the edge of the tarmac, hands extended to shake. "Dr. John J. Felix," calls Dr. Felix, taking the visitor's long, brown hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last, Prince Siraj."
Bahram nods, shoulders hunched. "Likewise, Doctor."
"I'd like to introduce you to --"
"Please, can introductions wait until we've moved indoors? I admit I've come somewhat unprepared for the full reality of your Canadian winter." He gathers his jacket at the chest. "It must be twenty degrees below zero out here."
Dr. Felix chuckles. "More like forty below, Prince. Exposed flesh freezes in less than ten minutes when the wind is right."
In another moment Bahram is inside the administration building, rubbing his shoulders and gratefully accepting a mug of hot tea. He shivers after he sips, noting for the first time that the receptionist is bundled in a scarf as she types at her computer keyboard, wearing gloves with the fingertips cut off. Bahram's breath fogs the air before him. "It's scarcely warmer inside, is it?"
"This is an old building," explains Dr. Felix. "We can borrow a parka for you. We'll be crossing outside more than once, and I'd like you to leave us with the same number of fingers you arrived with."
Bahrams glances down at his fingers nervously. "This is savage country you're in, Dr Felix. In some ways it's difficult to understand how people can even subsist here. It's as hostile as Mars."
Dr. Felix shrugs haplessly. "I imagine our Drago would count that as a benefit, to be honest. He calms in isolation."
"Quite," nods Bahram. "And where is Dr. Zoran now?"
"He's at the lab. We'll go to meet him as soon as you've recovered yourself."
"I'm ready now, Doctor."
"We'll be obliged to walk outside briefly."
Bahram hesitates. "Well," he says slowly, "perhaps I'd best have a spot more tea before braving that, then." He clears his throat. "Do you have honey?"
Security at the geological station is omnipresent but largely transparent. Bahram nods to some of the agents he recognizes as he follows Dr. Felix through the chilly offices. Most of the agents appear to be custodial staff, but some are dressed as students or administrative functionaries. He's startled as Dr. Felix tosses a shiny, puffy jacket into his arms. "Be sure to do up the zipper now," advises Dr. Felix as he zips up his own coat. "Once you're out there you'll find your hands quickly become dumb, and incapable of much fine control."
"Anwar's deserts seem positively hospitable in comparison."
Dr. Felix nods. "The environments share much in common: neither tolerates human infestation kindly."
There's a strong wind channeled between the buildings. Within seconds Bahram has a piercing ache between his eyes and his lungs feel burned. He stumbles in the face of the gale and then reaches out to support himself against a post. "Don't touch anything metal!" Dr. Felix shouts, then tugs a fur-lined hood up over the prince's head and propels him along the cracked walkway.
They peel open the door on the opposite side, rush in and then pause, leaning against the wall as they gasp for breath. Frigid air whistles through the gap at the jamb, singing a shrill, discordant lament that echoes off the hard, salt-stained floor. The lights flicker. Dr. Felix smiles apologetically. "You really should've visited in summer."
"I was indisposed."
"Life is like that. The students call this building the Moon Base."
"Because it's cold as hell and nothing ever happens here but science. In contrast, the dormitory they call the Meat Locker. It's cold as hell, too, but oriented to service more banal concerns." He chuckles darkly. "Please don't ask me what they call the cafetorium. It's rude."
They push open the double doors into the primary experiment hall. The air is warmer in here, filled by the chatter of several groups involved in discussions around various large pieces of equipment connected by shafts that hang on thick cables, looming, from the ceiling. Drago turns around from the midst of conversation, then breaks into a grin beneath his bushy black moustache. He produces a wooden cane from beneath his white labcoat and strides out across the checkered floor to meet Bahram, free hand extended. "Hello, hello!"
"It's good to see you again, Dr. Zoran."
"Likewise, Bahram! You've heard our news, yes? That we did create an artificial electron?"
"I did," he nods, releasing the mathematician's slender hand. "I also understand it took more than a megawatt to bring it about. Hardly economical, is it?"
"If the goal were to generate the electricity, you would be right," agrees Drago, leaning carelessly on his cane, "but that is truly neither there nor here, Bahram. The value in such experiment is the confirmation of the underlying processes for some manipulation of spacetime."
"Never the less, it is a bit like paying a fortune to buy a penny."
Dr. Felix clears his throat. "An unspendable penny, to boot."
Bahram raises a brow. "Unspendable?"
"These artificial electron suffer from some deficits inherent to artificiality," says Drago quickly. "It is a matter of history, Bahram. Our electron has none. And, according to the new science of causes and effects we are modelling, what that really means is that it has no future."
Bahram blinks, then turns to Dr. Felix. "Pardon me?"
Dr. Felix purses his lips, glancing at Drago. "What Drago means, Prince Siraj, is that our creation was indistinguishable from a natural electron in every respect except that its own personal history of interactions was zero. It was, in this sense, virginal. So much so, in fact, that it catches the notice of the universe. In simple language, the gap between the -- call it experience -- of our invented particle and all of its neighbours creates a kind of...tension."
Bahram strokes his pencil-thin moustache thoughtfully, glancing past Drs. Felix and Zoran to the eyes of the students watching the group confer. "What sort of tension?" he asks.
"Seventh dimensional tension," nods Drago enthusiastically. "The attenuation of a micro-dimensional filament, pressed beyond the normal domain, stretching out until it has absorbed enough potential energies to snap back to the equilibrium. The process of this stretching and releasing introduces some oscillations in chance itself, which propagate negatively against time. The result? Funny things."
Dr. Felix nods. "Unlikely events. Statistical anomalies. Hiccoughs in probability."
"You said these oscillations propagate into the past? What does that mean?"
"It means," says Drago, "that the informations we have called upon must come from somewhere, yes. It cannot be created, no. The world renders accounts by the shortest path possible -- and an object with no real history provokes the world to seek its short path by a long route: to the dawn of all times."
"The universe brokers no debt," continues Dr. Felix. "By calling into existence a thing with no past, spacetime is incited to remedy the deficit via the course of least resistance. In this case, the frictive force is probability. The incredible unlikelihood of a historyless particle inventing itself -- without an accompanying anti-particle -- means equally incredible resistance to anything about it being truly actualized." He takes a breath. "But we can force a degree of actualization. That's the cornerstone of what we're doing here at Wiyasakami. Without a real history for the particle, the universe is compelled to...well, to make one up. So, to make a very long story very short, the particle winds up being connected with the only part of the continuum truly susceptible to revision: the very last moments, when all histories become moot."
Bahram frowns. "The very last moments? But I thought we were discussing the dawn of time."
"The dawn of time is the conclusion of history, and vice-versa, yes," says Drago. He then adds in a whisper, "It may sound nonsensical, Bahram, but I assure you -- this is probably the most profound truth to which you are ever being exposed." He nods for emphasis, then steps back again. "In sum, the accelerations of the implied history leaves debris, okay, in the form of separated virtual particles whose super-inflated mass transmutes along negative-T into disturbances in probability. These echo, yes. The echoes are to be felt just outside the singularity of time's birth -- the energies of single electron in a Planck blink, multiplied by every moment of thirteen billion years of existence, misting outward along space and backward through causality in a flash." He snaps his fingers.
"Basically," says Dr. Felix, "if there is a God, we just made him sneeze."
Bahram's expression is hard. He looks back and forth between the two men as he shakes his head. "There is no if about it, Dr. Felix." He turns to face Drago. "My father was right about you. You are the one. This is it." He pauses, a wistful look in his eyes. "How Albert would have loved you," he adds softly.
The trio tours the heavy apparatus floor. The air smells like ozone. Stacked industrial fans cool racks of computers. A skinny young man with oily hair moves between the stacks, checking gauges against a clipboard. Another boy is spending his time wiping down the sides of the hardware cabinets for some reason Bahram cannot fathom. "The key," says Drago, raising his voice to be heard over the fans, "it came to me when I was with the hospital. The key is the compression."
"In a compressed thing, a small amount of actual informations implies the virtual existence of much more informations. And what is informations? It is novelty, yes -- it is a datum where trend analysis fails, a datum not predicted for. In this way you can see that informations and probability are connected, okay, on the very deep level. Novelty is unlikely; informations is abnormal -- in the long view it is just some noises against a backdrop of generalities." His gesticulations quieten as he looks at Bahram seriously, a twinkle in his brown eyes. "And yet it is this one part in a trillion difference that seeded the first gravity wells, long ago before the world is transparent. One part in a trillion difference that makes all the difference -- even if, on the average, it never happened."
"How can something that never happened make all the difference?"
"It is a matter of scale, Bahram."
Dr. Felix nods. "Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to reconcile Einstein's relativity with quantum mechanics? Why should it be that there is a particular set of rules to define grand events and an entirely different set governing miniscule ones?"
"There isn't, of course," interrupts Drago excitedly. "But the world, it is not digital -- it is not a matter on or off, yes or no: instead, it is a matter of thresholds. That is to say, the world is not exact -- it makes approximations."
"Then the universe is not, ultimately, deterministic?" asks Bahram, eyes lingering over a row of blinking lights as they stroll between the hardware stacks.
"I believe that it is," says Drago. "I believe determinism only appears fractured when it is analyzed for the wrong scale. When we look out into the world, Bahram, we see only the froth on top -- nothing whatever of the works. We see only the effect, and never the cause. We see the flowing water but not the pipes that are conducting it." He holds up a finger and wags it significantly. "But there is order there. A strict order, shaped by the unfolding of the ultimate rule -- a complex, multi-level reiteration of a single, primal algorithm, yes. And, like all algorithms, it is a work of supreme economy. It is, in effect, compressed -- the simple signature encoding an entire world's worth of virtual informations."
Dr. Felix puts his hand on Drago's shoulder. "Don't drown the man, Drago. Let's keep it simple. The point is that, on a macroscopic level, the universe is ignorant of the perfect state of its foundations -- it propagates based on levels of criticality sufficiently novel to fall outside the physical rubric. The details fall away in favour of their emergent signature -- the sum rather than the parts. This gap in fidelity can be exploited."
Bahram turns. "Exploited how?"
Drago takes out a grease-pencil and begins jotting a bramble of notes on the side of the nearest stack. "See here, my friend? It is elementary, yes. A complex thing like an electron is felt by the world according to outputs from its properties; we can to simulate these outputs, and the world does not know the difference. It treats the space indicated by the outputs as if there were an electron there, and then -- once it has done some interactions with another particle -- its effects are incorporated into the gestalt signature of the local environment and crystallized into a real electron event." He points to his grease-penciled scrawls triumphantly.
"It's like peer pressure," suggests Dr. Felix to Bahram's baffled look. "It says to itself, 'If everybody around me thinks I'm an electron, I must be an electron.' The universe, rather democratically, consents."
Drago nods. "At first we tried to pattern an electron response directly, but the energies to involve were astronomical. We might as well be building a particle acceleration machine at that point, no. But then I went away for the hospital, and I learned the knitting."
Bahram pauses, head cocked. "Did you say...knitting?"
Drago nods again. "A knot is not a knot until it is drawn to the point of secure resistance. Until you pull it tight, it is nothing but strings laid with strings. In the same way, we did find a way to create an electron pattern without expending massive energies working on the tiny scales. No, instead we lay out the elements of the electron large and loose. Instead, we build an electron-like cycle ten orders of magnitude too large so that it is easy to handle, and then --" He holds up his hands and mimes the pulling tight of a knot; "-- We draw it together, exchanging space for scale."
"Pattern is paramount," says Dr. Felix. "Scale is mutable. We table the local coefficients, map the way the relationships change at different ratios of information fidelity, and..." He trails off.
"And?" prompts Bahram.
"And," picks up Drago, "with luck and with good thinking, we hope to detect and to determine the components for this ultimate algorithm. Now, we take shots in the dark. But then, if we succeed, we could write the world at will. We are doing guessing now, but soon we will be sure. We will find it, Bahram. We will learn the primal signature, yes."
Bahram sniffs. "Let us not mince words, Doctors. I know what you seek. I've been schooled to know it since the day I could speak." He bows his head solemnly, then says, "You strive to know the true and perfect name of God."
Dr. Felix shrugs awkwardly. "I'm not sure I'd put it in those exact terms, but..."
"Yes," agrees Drago, eyes on Bahram. "Yes, my prince. That is what we seek. The Word."
The three men stand in silence for a moment until they are timidly approached by the student with the spray bottle and rag. "Um, are you done with this, Professor Zoran?" he asks. When Drago nods he leans in and wipes the grease-pencil equations away from the side of the computer case.
The cafetorium is frigid. Students huddle in close groups swathed in scarves and toques, their forks clutched in mittens. Random snippets of conversation surface from the babble: of tensors and gauges, of exotic quarks and their implications, of number theory and sets that may or may not contain themselves...
Dr. Felix balances three lunch trays as he weaves between the long tables to find his companions. A respectful space surrounds Bahram and Drago, though the students and staff can't help but look over between bites. Drago is gesticulating wildly. "...And, with that, Bahram, it can be understood that the future confirms the past -- that is, it crystallizes merely probable events into certain ones. Think of a stone, spinning in space. As asteroid."
Bahram nods his thanks to Dr. Felix, accepting his tray. "Alright. I'm imagining an asteroid."
"It has very few interactions, this stone. Starlight from some stars falls on it in greater or lesser proportion, yes, and over some years it may collide with streams of molecular hydrogens. It is tugged in an orbit by space curved by a sun..."
"Never the less, over time the interactions accumulate -- with so many variables the complexity of the response is enormous from even from the smallest touch," says Bahram, poking vaguely at the steaming mush on his plate. He makes a face and looks up. "Nothing exists in isolation. Isn't that your point?"
"Quite so, quite so! A single atom perturbed by a wayward neutrino, jostled against neighbours, the net temperature nudging upwards, then the heat misting away along one of any number of roads." Drago pauses to scoop a mouthful of potatoes into his mouth. "It would be monstrous to work out with the paper, and even so one would be left to track ranges of possibility rather than statistical facts. Yes, it's so: even a spinning stone in space is a weak amplifier of novel results." He holds up a fork as he chews, then swallows. "Now consider a stone in a field on a fertile globe like this Earth -- instead of vacuum, it is surrounded now by a soup of other forms of dense matter, each a lattice of uncountable atoms, connected directly via a sea of atmospheric fluids, crossing together through some field lines of a common magnetic influence."
"Every action instantly spawns innumerable responses."
"Again correct, Bahram. And some of those responses have effects in objects of a higher order of organization -- a stone that shades a blade of grasses so it becomes thirsty for light engenders a more complex response than a stone that deflects some neutrino. In the latter, a trajectory is changed and energies is exchanged, okay -- in the former circumstance, chains of events begins in the grass blade that touches every chloroplast in the system, each of which is itself formed from organized matrices of some billions of parts. So you see..."
Bahram nods quickly. "If the state of a given particle becomes explicit when a certain threshold of interaction is achieved, interacting with more complex constructs results in an exponentially more intense confirmation effect."
Drago smiles. "You are a genius, Prince Siraj. Exactly so!" His expression becomes cunning, and he leans in conspiratorially. "Can you anticipate the final step?"
Bahram smiles back. "No. Tell me."
"A living thing. A mindful thing. Cogitation trumps simple reflection or absorption. A thinking entity just observing our stone engenders effects a hundred orders of magnitude more dense than our blade of shaded grasses. A mind models the observed thing: it creates a compression signature that represents the thing, and this symbol is in turn manipulated inside the brains. Imagine now, our thinking entity takes a decision based on his observation -- he tells others with his language, putting virtual objects inside their minds in turn. The specific state of each mind -- already such complex things -- hinges upon the fact of the symbol, the symbol upon the observation, the observation upon the stone."
Bahram is staring. His smile is gone. "If I follow you, Dr. Zoran, you're saying that...our minds make reality more real."
Drago does not blink. "Yes. In this way, minds directly affect the world -- collapsing waveforms of probability into facts at a rate many, many times that of some passive matter. The cascade of collapses give momentum to the succesion of events. In other words, it is now our understanding, Bahram, that time acquires its direction and flow from the presence of sentience."
Bahram shakes his head. "But how would time flow in uninhabited regions? Even if you imagine life is common, space is vast."
"So is life's scope. Each time you look at a night sky, how many suns are you touching? One little look and a hundred thousand waveforms collapse a hundred thousand years later." He sits back, crosses his arms. "But your point is still valid, okay -- local time might be subsumed by the universal frame, static and absolute. But it does not happen: there is, instead, a base state of time that runs in absence of local observations." He takes a breath, holding Bahram's eyes. "My prince, the world is unbalanced, yes, and therefore dynamic -- it flows to restore the equilibrium. Once one recognizes this, there is only one satisfactory explanation."
"That the world -- the whole of the world -- is observed," whispers Drago earnestly. " Or was, rather. Or will be, I suppose. Our traditional terms for causes and effects are not adequate. The point is this: if the whole world were to be observed by a sentient entity, a compressed model of the entirety of all happenings would be rendered in its mind by the act of recognition. We know the model would be compressed, because otherwise such a model would occupy as much spaces as the world itself. We know it must be semantically meaningful, or it could not be recognized." He leans forward. "To know such a thought would be to collapse the waveform of the universe itself, to send a shiver of confirmation cascading backward through history to the root -- the effect and the cause become one, with the gap of fidelity between the perfect state of the world and the compressed symbol creating this imbalance, yes, that inspires informations to flow from one point to the other -- to gather in a singularity whose only response to history's potential can be to unfold, to unfurl, to decompress into actual events."
"The Big Bang."
Drago nods. "The Big Bang, Bahram, yes -- the physical expression of the primal algorithm, of the world's true name. It is both the attractor and the cycle, both a question and its own answer, a cup and the liquid within it simultaneously." He folds his hands on the table. "If this hypothesis is correct, a terrifying possibility is raised."
"If God lives at the end of the world instead of the beginning, he is vulnerable to history." He swallows heavily. "And, as we have just proved in the experiment hall, history is vulnerable to us."
Bahram blinks. "Oh...my."
"Yes, my prince. Mens are on the cusp now of attaining the powers to undo our own existing, and to wreck the world. Now I realize the price of our failing is not ignorance, no: the price of it is the desecration of all history and the unwinding of the laws for physics. It is not enough that we discover the name -- if we are to protect the world's process, we must also contain the name. This...this is where my heart turns sick."
Dr. Felix clears his throat. "That is not science, my friend. Why would we strive to uncover something only to hide it?"
"If we do not uncover it, someone else will. We are not the only smart mens in the planet, John."
"Then any attempt to contain it would be fruitless, would it not?"
Bahram smirks. "That depends on the genius of the container. The wiliest puzzles seem not to be puzzles at all, but rather solutions in and of themselves." He turns to face Drago again. "Preparations have already been made...and I have complete confidence in the man that will perfect them."
Dr. Felix's eyes narrow. "You're talking about designing some kind of a...red herring? A ruse?"
Bahram purses his lips. His thin moustache twitches. "A distraction. A loop with an exit clause we control."
"That's preposterous!" cries Dr. Felix, hands open in appeal. Several heads turn in their direction, surprised to hear his raised voice. "You can't wilfully misdirect the entire scientific establishment! It simply can't be done. It would be idiotic to even try."
Bahram's voice remains low. "It has been done before. And you are doing it even now."
Dr. Felix's eyes widen. "What?"
"Your patent portfolio," says Bahram smoothly. "It is discreet. You wouldn't have me imagine that isn't by design."
Drago interrupts by wagging a spoonful of rice pudding. "This is my doing, Bahram. I want no one to anticipate my final model."
Dr. Felix nods emphatically. "There's no distraction going on. Nothing of the kind! We've simply compartmentalized certain sub-sections of the problem space --"
"Indeed," interrupts Bahram. "You've broken your research down and scattered the pieces. You obscure the keys that connect them. You've introduced boundaries where none belong, to throw off your competitors."
"There's been some very legitimate concern about priority," snaps Dr. Felix.
"Yes," agrees Bahram, breaking unexpectedly into a smile. "How right you are, Dr. Felix. Please don't misunderstand me. There is no one who appreciates our obligations to priority more than I, except perhaps the Shah himself. Priority, dear doctor, is everything."
Dr. Felix shifts, then lets his shoulders drop. "Well, I do feel reassured that we're at least agreed on one point."
"These puddings are excellent," says Drago, licking his spoon, apparently oblivious to the continuing tension between his companions. He turns to Bahram. "Does my double like puddings?"
All three turn in concert along with everyone else in the frigid cafetorium as the doors at the end burst open. A tall, stoop-shouldered girl stands in the open space, eyes wide. She bellows, "Professor Zoran!" as a cadre of companions skid to a stop on the floor behind her.
Drago drops his spoon and stands up. "Hello?"
"We've done it, Professor!" she cries, "we've solved it!"
Bahram turns to Dr. Felix. "What does she mean? What has been solved?"
Dr. Felix looks stunned. "That's Padida -- her team is working on pi..." He turns to consult Drago but Drago is in the midst of vaulting over the lunch tables, the tails of his white labcoat flapping behind him. Students whisk their trays out of the way as he jumps from one bench to the next, finally spilling out gracelessly to stumble into the doors. Padida takes his arm and together they rush away. The door swings shut as their harried footfalls fade.
"Aw crud," laments a lone nerd; "I have a footprint in my meatloaf."
Dr. Felix clears his throat again as he arranges the items on his tray. "Well, Prince Siraj, it looks as if I shall be obliged to continue as your host solo. I'd like to apologize on behalf of my colleague. He is...excitable."
"None necessary," mumbles Bahram, eyes still rooted on the doors through which Drago disappeared. He crumples his napkin and drops it on his tray, then notices Drago's abandoned cane. "He's forgotten his walking stick."
"I think he likes it more than he needs it," opines Dr. Felix, picking up Bahram's tray.
"Well, I'll carry it for him. Let us continue, Doctor. Lead the way."
Moments later the two men are walking through the wide, busy hall of the main building the students call the Wagon Wheel on account of its star of radial corridors leading to the various sections of the station. Students and staff consult crowded bulletin boards as they rush to and fro, some giving Dr. Felix a brief polite, professional or coquettish nod. Many turn to discreetly look after the swarthy Arab in the white summer suit.
Dr. Felix explains, "Drago is an eccentric, of course. He's wont to engage himself in various flights of fancy -- waxing prophetic about history and destiny and recursive causality -- and we indulge him because from it all he somehow manages to pluck insights that leave the rest of us breathless."
Bahram nods vaguely, eyes roving the bulletin boards. "He's an artist as much as a mathematician. This has always been plain. You're wise to accommodate him as you do."
"His methods may be rooted in madness but there's no denying the integrity of the science, once distilled of hysteria." Dr. Felix pauses, hands in his pockets. "And, more than that, he is my friend. There's a funny thing that happens to people who spend any serious amount of time with Drago -- they find themselves unaccountably concerned with keeping him happy."
"I'm glad he has your friendship," says Bahram. "God knows his enemies aren't few or far between."
Dr. Felix smiles uncertainly, gesturing at the prince to turn down the next corridor. "Yes...of course. The enemies. Of God, no less." He sighs and then adds quickly, "May I be frank with you, Prince?"
"I am an atheist. As such I'm somewhat discomfited by discussions of religion and facts being too liberally mixed. One's personal beliefs are their own, of course, but we can't permit them to be included in our professional thinking. We allow Drago to prattle, but we don't seriously consider magic in our models."
Bahram smirks. "Magic? And what is magic, Doctor?"
"A malformed mechanism for ascribing effects to causes that are unquantifiable, unverifiable, irreproducible and quite possibly wholly imaginary -- superstition: chasing phantom patterns in the noise." He looks over to Bahram as they walk, his expression sympathetic. "It may be sincere, but it isn't science."
Bahram slows and stops. He reaches out and touches Dr. Felix's shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. "I can understand your discomfort, Dr. Felix," he says kindly. "It is, regrettably," he continues, "irrelevant."
Dr. Felix tightens his mouth. "I just wish you would be mindful of Drago's penchant for distraction, Prince. It can be difficult enough keeping him on task without having the wildest aspects of his imagination fanned. Ultimately, this isn't about spiritual beliefs: it's about mathematics, and mathematics are agnostic."
"But Creation isn't, and mathematics describes Creation."
"Respectfully, that's wrong. Mathematics describes itself -- nothing more. It is the science of relationships. It makes no attempt -- it lacks even the basic tools -- to address meaning."
Bahram sniffs. "Tell that to Pythagoras, Dr. Felix. Explain it to Einstein. Challenge any driven man with that drivel and they'll tear it to shreds. The quest for meaning is what drives us to analyze relationships, to hone our tools for digging into the stuff of Creation. You might argue that the method is pure from such concerns, but when it is those very same concerns that inspire the genesis of those methods you appreciate how muddy the waters truly are."
"Sophistry," snorts Dr. Felix. "Pythagoras was a cultist, not a scientist. He looked to mathematics to confirm moral presuppositions, to provide authority for his philosophies. The Pythagorans didn't quest for truth, they quested to find evidence for the patterns they had already decided were meaningful. It wasn't inquiry, it was persuasion."
Bahram smiles. "What if they had foreknowledge that the patterns in the numbers really were meaningful?"
"I'm sure they thought they did. Esoterics always find a way to interpret something or other as prophecy. It's reflexive among the superstitious."
"You say this because their so-called prophecies are -- how did you put it? -- unquantifiable, unverifiable, irreproducible?"
"And quite possibly wholly imaginary."
Bahram nods, hands clutched behind his back, and resumes slowly walking down the corridor. Dr. Felix starts up after him. Bahram says, "What if a source of prophecy could be quantified and tested? Quite hypothetically now, Doctor, what if you came to possess a legitimate prophecy, a transmission of information from the future to the present? Would you ignore it? What if it warned of dire consequences? Could you ignore it?"
Dr. Felix chuckles unconvincingly. "What is the point of this thought experiment? Is there any useful insight to be gained from stretching a scenario to the point of absurdity?"
"Why do you say it's absurd?"
"As I mentioned, Prince, I am an atheist. I don't believe in any supernatural entities with foreknowledge of events to come. How could such messages ever be transmitted?"
"Not an hour ago you and Drago were lecturing me about causes whose effects propagate backward. If you are right, information can travel negatively through time. Given this, is it not possible that, in the future, when Drago's model is perfected, someone might find a way to transmit a meaningful string into the past?"
"Even theoretically, the energies involved would be staggering. One would be obliged to burn an entire star in the space of a second."
Bahram raises a brow. "And what if I told you, Dr. Felix, that that is indeed the exact method used?"
Dr. Felix narrows his eyes. "What do you mean?"
Bahram lowers his voice, his eyes locked forward. "Believe me when I tell you that my father knew of Drago long before Drago was even born. He's been waiting for him. And he's not the only one. Scraps of the prophecy are known to several parties, but none have a more complete picture than the Shah."
"You're talking about an actual prophecy now."
"Yes. It is encoded between the lines of an ancient volume known as The Jamijama."
"The Jamijama is a myth. It doesn't exist. It is my understanding that most academics hold that it never did exist."
"Indeed. Arrangements were made with those who professed otherwise."
"Arrangements? By whom?"
Dr. Felix chuckles humourlessly again. "Are you next going to tell me the story of how you stole into the study of Sir Wilfred Chamberlain himself late one night in eighteen twenty-six and convinced him to falsify his findings in his presentation to the Royal Society?"
"No," agrees Bahram. "That was my mentor. And he accosted Sir Chamberlain in Hyde Park, as a matter of fact. All he had to do to win the man over was offer to let him see the pages missing from the manuscript he had recovered. Curiosity can be a kind of lust, you understand, among certain sorts of men."
"You're having me on."
"I'm not at all."
"So then, please do tell me, what is Drago's destiny according to prophecy?"
"He said it himself: he's to make the most significant discovery in history, and then protect us from it."
"Indeed? And what about me?"
"You?" Bahram pauses, his mouth pressed tight. "Well...your name is remembered."
They pass outside briefly and then into a small building crowded with desks, each occupied by a solitary worker pouring over notes or squinting into computer displays. The atmosphere is quiet and studious. Whiteboards crammed with equations line every wall, bolted directly over faded and ignored maps and charts that betray the nominal purpose of the geological research station. In places the walls and even the furniture is marked by faded patches of grease-pencil notes in Drago's jangled hand.
Dr. Felix clears his throat. "While it isn't as flashy as the experiment floor, this is truly the heart and soul of our project. This is where the real work happens."
"What are they doing?"
"Mathematics," he replies simply. "They're using the most timeless tools we have available: pencils, paper and neurones. This is where Drago's insights gain form, and move from notions to models we can test. Rigour, reproducibility, formality, exactitude: this is the filter, where fancy is confronted by fact." He gestures at the array of desks with pride. "We have some of the sharpest young minds in mathematics working here. The concentrated brain-power in this building is such that in the event of a disaster the collective average IQ of the planet would perceptibly drop."
They wander into a new wing, Bahram panning his head slowly from side to side to peek into each shared office. "Of course," he says breezily, "it doesn't matter, from a certain point of view, whether the prophecy is accurate."
Dr. Felix gives him a suspicious, sidelong glance. "How so?"
"Because it is believed by others. Others with resources and will. Others who will act upon the information they have, irrespective of how things turn out. If they are wrong, they will find out in the future; such a realization would change nothing of their past behaviour, except perhaps to inspire feckless regret. Do you see my point, Doctor?"
"I'm not sure that I do."
"It is their faith and not yours that propels their actions. No matter what happens, they will come."
"What do they want?"
"Then why haven't they taken him already?"
"They are too afraid he could not be compelled to continue his work while being denied his perception of freedom. They worry that placing Drago under duress might stall the process, and make all their careful calculations of time and place useless."
"Calculations performed via numerology and animal sacrifice, no doubt."
"None dare to interfere until the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour, Doctor. They do not wish to capture Drago but to align themselves to be ready for the moment, at which point they will fall over themselves to seize it."
Bahram leans against the wall, toying with Drago's cane. "It is the Shah's understanding that unlocking Drago's mathematics as a full set is a special event, tied through time and space to other instances of similar mathematical actualization. We believe that in that moment of completion a kind of portal will be opened, directly connecting our time with the other instances. For example, the Shah's archaeology teams are convinced that the earliest human iteration of the full set occurred some twenty thousand years ago; they speculate that another iteration takes place a few centuries from now. The fulcrum between them is our time. The event that binds them is Drago's discovery."
Dr. Felix pauses with a cockeyed smirk. "You really believe Paleolithic people were capable of that kind of computing power?"
"No," replies Bahram flatly. "I believe the event was anachronistic."
Dr. Felix sighs. "So you are taking about time travel?"
He shrugs. "We might as well move on to discussing faeries and goblins next, don't you think?"
"You are still missing the point," says Bahram sharply.
"What is the point then, Prince Siraj?"
Bahram takes a breath, then squares his shoulders. "Dr. Felix, there are parties who believe -- believe fundamentally -- in what I have said. They are prepared to live or die for their faith. Your incredulity is mere wind. Regardless of what you believe, they are coming. They are already watching. Their agents are surely working to penetrate this establishment, to put themselves as close as they can to Drago and his work."
Dr. Felix is quiet for a moment, looking into the prince's brown face. "Let us assume I'm with you on that. If so, what could we do about it? This isn't a military installation -- we don't enact rigid access control policies on a person by person basis."
"You will," says Bahram. "As we speak my office is transmitting the new security policies. You will need to review them carefully as they go into full effect in a little less than two hours."
Dr. Felix blinks, then frowns. "Who are you to dictate how we --"
"Your patron," interrupts Bahram.
"Not all of our funding is --"
"Yes," interrupts Bahram again. "It is. Even the vectors of financing you might consider utterly unrelated to Anwar -- I promise you, they are in our influence." Bahram pauses, wandering over to a bulletin board on the wall where students have posted notices for items for sale or trade, lost or found, desired and pined after. He turns back to Dr. Felix. "Furthermore, we have conducted an exhaustive review of personnel. Some have questionable connections. We will guide you in safely severing relations with them."
Dr. Felix scoffs. "You make it sound as if we're imbeciles, Prince. I can tell you we're perfectly capable of handling such things ourselves. Why, only last week we discharged a graduate student from the project -- it was a bit of a scene but no harm came of it."
Bahram's eyes widen. "You've let someone go -- without a system in place for tracking them?"
"Tracking them? What sort of Orwellian standard are you holding us to? This is a research institution!"
Bahram waves that off. "Who was it? What happened? What were the circumstances? Where is the student now? Have any materials been removed from the station?"
Dr. Felix backs up a step. "Please, Prince, calm down. I'm happy to share all the details with you. But to understand the context, we'll need to take a look at Project B."
"What is this Project B?"
"Drago's Flying Circus."
It is impossible to explain along the way; instead, they bend themselves against the wind and trudge foot over foot across a snow-lost courtyard to a ramshackle line of extra-wide trailers sitting on cinderblock foundations. The trailers are connected by short sections of plastic tunnel. Dr. Felix yanks open the door of the closest cabin and then slams it behind the men, causing the faux-wood panelled walls to shake violently.
A woman with a clay-speckled face looks up from a spinning pottery wheel, her fingers pinched around a wet torus to lathe it into a flattened ring. "Oh, hello!" she says, then looks down as her distraction has warped the clay into a swooping oblong, one end drawing rapidly fat from inertia. "Damn it."
"We're very sorry," says Dr. Felix after blowing on his cold hands.
She kills the motor on the wheel and stands up, wiping her hands on an apron. "What can I do for you, John?" Her eyes slide over to Bahram.
"Mr. Siraj is one of our private donors," says Dr. Felix. "Mr. Siraj, let me introduce you to Danielle Charbourg."
"You don't have to shake my filthy hand," she assures Bahram with a smile.
"Madam," nods Bahram, his expression amused and baffled. "An artist-in-residence?"
"Nope," says Danielle. "Fluid dynamics and topography optimization. But I do ceramics and clay every second Thursday for the B."
"The Flying Circus, Mr. Sarong."
"Sorry about that."
Dr. Felix leans in. "Please, don't let us disturb you, Danielle. I'll just be showing Mr. Siraj around." He then takes the prince's elbow and steers him further into the trailer's interior, a space cluttered with sculptures lit in multicoloured swaths from the surrounding windows of stained glass. The forms are all abstract: loops and convolutions of organic arcs, rings and globs. "These," narrates Dr. Felix, "are three-dimensional representations of various mathematical objects: wavefunctions, strange attractors, fractal sets. Some of them are cut by computer, others interpreted by hand."
"They are...uniquely beautiful. But why make them?"
Dr. Felix stops in the middle of the gallery, his hand resting on a spindly, awkwardly leaning triple helix. "As we know, Drago's mind is capable of amazing feats of computation and pattern recognition. He is convinced this is untapped potential we all possess, and so he created Project B in order to explore non-formalist methods for identifying significant relationships. Just as human beings unconsciously evaluate the health of a potential mate by judging their physical attributes against the phi ratio, Drago believes we might have the ability to evaluate mathematical statements emotionally -- on the basis of beauty, basically."
"He hopes to solve problems this way?"
"He wouldn't say so, no. He would say he's sifting for clues...panning for hints."
The next trailer shimmies in sympathy with a strange symphony. The music swoops through periods of harmony into discordant rattles, plateauing again into something almost sublime before plunging back to cacophony. Bahram winces and instinctively reaches to cover his ears. "Gracious!"
Dr. Felix nods in sympathy. "It's got a beat, and you can factor to it."
"These are more of your mathematical forms rendered in media?" Bahram calls over the noise.
"Right. The students are randomly rotated in as listeners to score passages according to various metrics -- some aesthetic, some technical." He walks over and puts his hand on the back of the chair of a boy bent over a sequencer while wearing headphones. The boy jumps. "I didn't mean to startle you," apologizes Dr. Felix.
"Huh?" shouts the boy.
Bahram rubs his chin. "Has this Project B, this Flying Circus, yielded much in the way of results?"
"Actually, it has. One of the emergent higher-order harmonics that arose in a particular musical rendering inspired an insight that compressed a hundred lines of algebra into a single differential equation. It was that early success that prompted Drago to convince me to make the project official."
"It wasn't before?"
"No, it grew out of the students' personal experiments." He pauses. "In the final analysis, we might have provided more oversight."
"Let's just say that some personal interests proved to be more appropriate than others."
Bahram looks up. "You're referring to the student who was terminated from the project?"
Dr. Felix swallows uncomfortably, then nods. "Come. I'll show you."
They shamble along another frigid umbilicus of plastic and then through a trailer filled by video monitors displaying psychedelic animations of swirling, folding planes of shifting colour intersecting, cutting holes in each other or in each other's holes. The bewildering shapes turn inside out and smear, extend and flourish along new vectors, pulsing in an irregular but hypnotic rhythm. A row of students sit on milk-crates, watching the screens intently and making notes on clipboards resting on their laps. Bahram and Dr. Felix exit on the far side of the trailer and then proceed through another run of tubing.
Bahram slows, his nostrils twitching. "Cover your nose," advises Dr. Felix, ducking through a zippered plastic curtain.
The trailer they come into seems to be in the process of being emptied; half the contents has been boxed or loaded into yellow plastic bags with biohazard symbols emblazoned on their stretched sides. A janitor wearing a breathing masque is carefully vacuuming along a stained baseboard. He looks up at Dr. Felix and gives him a friendly nod, then bends back to his work.
Against the opposite wall stands an array of metal cages, their lowest bars discoloured. An open refrigerator in the corner is lined with shelves of crusted-over petri dishes. The floor is crisscrossed by scratches.
A table in the middle of the room holds jars filled with yellowish formaldehyde, each housing an organic specimen. Bahram slowly approaches the table, eyed glued to the nearest jar. Inside it is what appears to be a hairless mouse, its skin wrinkled and convoluted in a complex and symmetrical pattern of large and small interlocked spiral whorls. He looks up expectantly.
Dr. Felix steps closer in order to be heard over the thrum of the vaccuum. "Cassandra," he says, "was obsessed with biologic computation. She started by sequencing project models in yeast strains -- and, in fact, generated some very intriguing results -- but then she...went further."
Bahram straightens away from the mouse in the jar. "Genetically engineered mice?"
Dr. Felix shakes his head somberly. "Not exactly. Gene therapy via engineered virus packets. Basically it's a matter of bacterially cultured logic gates with sequence-encoded ribosomes, introduced via a viral-protein envelope to serve as a template for prion folding within the host organism. The animal's own immune system functions as a parser, culling for strains where the ribosome pattern has been successfully transcoded into working protein calculators."
Bahram chuckles. "Basically, h'mm?"
Dr. Felix glowers, gaze stuck in a corner. "It got worse. She started running programmes through animal brains, hijacking the pallial neuronal arrays as signal processors. Together with the prion-based logic gates this actually put an enormous amount of biologic computational power at her fingertips. The problem, of course, were the hosts."
"They suffered. She was indifferent. Drago was furious. When he discovered what was going on he lost his temper terribly -- banished her, on the spot. I'd never seen him in such a state. He said what she was doing was monstrous."
Bahram is quiet for a moment, surveying the room. "Surely," he says slowly, "the pursuit of knowledge feels no compulsion to accommodate the squeamish." He offers a humourless smile. "Compassion may be sincere, but it is not science."
Dr. Felix's face tightens. "It wasn't only compassion," he says, a defensive edge in his voice. "Drago felt that the scale of organization in a mammalian brain could, through its function as an engine of waveform collapse, inadvertently contaminate the surroundings with escaped math. Again we're back to consciousness, and its geometrically complex relationship with the environment. That danger, coupled with her apparent lack of mercy, caused Drago to come down hard." He looks away. "I'm not sure he has any way of really appreciating what a blow it was to the poor girl."
"Because her academic career has been derailed?"
"No," says Dr. Felix. "Because she was in love with him."
Bahram's expression is serious. "Love can blind," he agrees. "And sour. And yet, given your earlier allusion, I should not be surprised if you were to tell me that no precautions whatsoever have been taken against this girl's retribution, should I?"
Dr. Felix frowns. "What would you have us do? Have her followed?"
Bahram nods. "To begin with, certainly. Where is she now?"
"I have no idea. She flew out on the last supply and sundries run. But, honestly, aren't you taking this a bit far? She took no project paperwork with her, and no electronic records. None of our work has been seriously compromised, and I hardly think she's going to turn up tomorrow with a bomb strapped to her chest or anything like that."
Bahram pinches the bridge of his nose. "This," he says testily, "is exactly why I requested all personnel issues be handled through my agents. With all due respect, you simply haven't the experience, Doctor."
"Experience in what, exactly?"
"Ah yes, the very opposite of science."
"Ah yes," echoes Bahram darkly. "The discipline that might save us all."
They wind their way back to the Wagon Wheel, a tense silence between them. "From now on," Bahram says abruptly, "human resources is my department. Nobody will be accepted to or ejected from the project without going through me personally. Is that adequately clear, Dr. Felix?"
Dr. Felix has his hands jammed in the pockets of his sport jacket. "I'm accountable here, and that means that if it has to go through you, it has to go through me and you. Is that adequately clear, Prince Siraj?"
"Very well. You can assist me in our first termination."
"What?" blinks Dr. Felix. "Who?"
Bahram stops and leans on Drago's cane. "A member of your clerical staff is a career criminal -- fraud, embezzling, forcible confinement, assault, larceny. We have reason to believe they plan to take advantage of their position of trust here in order to rob the project."
Dr. Felix gapes. "You must be mistaken..."
"No," says Bahram sharply. "There is no mistake. This, Dr. Felix, is my field of expertise. You'll show me to accounting?"
Dr. Felix blinks, his ire diffusing into nervousness. "It's right here. In accounting? Goodness -- Sandra's going to be mortified to know someone under her is a fraud artist."
Bahram clears his throat. "Quite."
Sandra looks up from her desk as the two men enter. She pushes aside her computer keyboard and stands up, her every motion executed with graceful, dance-like precision. She begins to smile but it falters as she sees the expression Bahram's face. She looks over. "John...?"
"This is Prince Siraj," he begins. "Prince, allow me to introduce --"
"Justine Schalen," finishes Bahram.
Dr. Felix looks over at him, confused. Sandra turns pale. "No, no," stammers Dr. Felix, "this is my wife, Prince. This is Sandra --"
"This is Justine Schalen, world-renowned con-artist and thief; in a position of trust, responsible for every quadrant of on-site project financing; a heartbeat away from stealing the shirt of your back, Doctor." Bahram punctuates this pronouncement by drawing a narrow envelope out of his inside pocket. He slips open the end and spills the contents on Sandra's desk: photographs of her in various states of disguise. Several of them are police mugshots. He looks up at her, eyes piercing. "Do you deny it?"
Her full-lipped mouth works silently for a moment. Her chin dimples. She takes a breath and wipes at one eye with the back of her hand and then stands up straighter. She avoids Dr. Felix's eye. "No," she says quietly. "I guess there's probably no point, is there?" Slowly, she turns to face her husband. "Justine is my real name."
"Sandra!" gasps Dr. Felix, stabilizing himself against a file cabinet.
"But it isn't like he says, John. It isn't at all!" she pleads. "Well," she says after another glance down at the spread of photos, "it was. Okay, that's true. Yes, I did join the project to take you down, John. You personally. I talked to a lot of girls you screwed up pretty badly. I came here to balance things out on their behalf." She swallows. "That's what I do. I'm a sweetheart vigilante. I have been for thirty years." She looks over at Bahram and then back to Dr. Felix. "But...but then stuff changed."
"What changed?" asks Dr. Felix, his mouth dry.
"I did," she says. Her shoulders quake but she doesn't falter. "I fell in love with you, John. That's the truth. You're an idiot and a cad but you're no predator. You're selfish, you're manipulative -- but you weren't what I thought you were. And -- and the more I got to know you all, the more I knew I could never take Drago's dream away. I couldn't be that person."
Dr. Felix and Sandra stare at one another.
Bahram clears his throat. "Convenient contrition," he says flatly, then barks, "Guards!"
Dr. Felix is startled. "What?"
Two of Bahram's agents enter the accounting department, stepping into Sandra's office and taking position on either side of her. One is apparently a janitor, the other a fake graduate student wearing a university sweatshirt and a ski-hat. She glances back and forth between them nervously, her body dropping instinctively into a defensive stance that wobbles slightly on her high heels. "What is this? Am I getting the bum's rush? Please, John, let me explain!"
Bahram shoots his cuff and consults his watch, then cocks his head to listen. The windows shudder as a large aircraft rumbles overhead. He looks up again.
"Render, interview, debrief, secure," commands the prince.
His agents take a hold of Sandra's arms. She wrestles against them, her leg twisting as one high-heeled shoe snaps apart. Dr. Felix wheels on Bahram. "What the hell are you doing? Who the hell do you think you are?"
"I am doing what needs be done. I am honouring my vow."
Sandra is dragged from the office. Dr. Felix lunges at Bahram but the prince quickly raises a strong arm to block him, catching the academian's fist with his opposite hand. "Don't," he says simply.
Dr. Felix tears his hand free and backs up again, panting. "What have you turned this place into with your bloody gestapo?" he cries. "Where are they taking my wife? What's going to happen to her?"
"She will not be harmed."
"I'm going with her!"
"You are not."
"You can't stop me."
Bahram raises a brow, cracks his knuckles, and calmly assumes a martial stance. "I would advise against testing that hypothesis, Professor."
Dr. Felix shoulders past him and runs out into the corridor, but before he can charge after Sandra he is overcome by a wave of cheering students pouring into the building from across the courtyard. They knock on the doors and hoot, stomp their feet and screech, clap their hands and laugh. The frontrunners grab Dr. Felix and hoist him bodily into the air, supporting him on their shoulders as they cavort toward the main hall.
Bahram watches him carried away, and then steps into the corridor after the surge has cleared. Placidly he follows.
In the main hall the crowd meets a second and third parade pouring in from separate corridors, one with Drago held aloft and another supporting with strained effort an extremely portly young man in a Sun Microsystems T-shirt, his unruly beard split with a grin. The sound of their enthusiasm is overwhelming.
"John!" calls Drago as he is jostled along. "It is done, yes! We have finished pi!"
John says nothing, his expression unreadable, faced flushed and mouth small. The students croon, patting each other on the shoulders. Bahram walks over to meet Drago as he is released to stand on his feet again. Bahram hands him his cane. "Good news, Dr. Zoran?"
"Pi is finished!" cries Drago happily. He then seizes Bahram by the shoulders and kisses him on each cheek. "We've found it!"
"What? What have you found?" asks Bahram, smiling despite himself.
"You know this pi, yes, it is an irrational number, Bahram, and transcendental -- mens can calculate it to the trillionth place and still no pattern is apparent, no. But we have found it! First it was determined to be expressible in just four thousand active number operations -- but then Benjamin saw that he could do it in just twenty-six!"
The portly young man, evidently Benjamin, is buoyed upward and cheered upon the mention of his name.
"And then when he showed it to me, my prince," continues Drago as those nearest to him flinch to avoid his gesticulating cane, "I saw that by using the interference pattern between just three active number operations, the whole of pi is revealed at a stroke!" He does a little jig in place. "Do you know what this means?"
"What does it mean?"
Drago leans in close, his breath hot. "It means we have found a component of the name. We have isolated one of the elemental constructs that compose the primal signature!" He grins and throws up his arms, his cane whistling in a menacing arc. "It means calculations that yesterday are to take computer-millennia can now to be accomplished in computer-seconds!" He cheers again, cheeks flushed, then leans in even closer. "Two down, my prince: seventy to go." Then he pauses and backs up, whipping his head back and forth. "Where is John now? John, my friend! John?"
Bahram ignores his search, squeezing the mathematician's bony shoulder. "Well done, Dr. Zoran. Well done indeed."
"But where is John?"
"He had something to attend to. I'm sure he'll return."
Drago is shoved away from him. Bottles of champagne pop as they are opened. Someone spins the receptionist in her hair, scarf flying out behind her. Bahram works his way to the fringe as he slips out a cigarette and inserts it gingerly into the end of a long, ebony holder. He lights it, then checks his gleaming Rolex.
Through the windows he watches his guards fell Dr. Felix with a blast of pepper spray. Another cluster of agents approaches with more terminations in tow, heading for the landing strip where the unmarked Anwari cargo plane has already touched down. Some struggle until they are subdued chemically or physically. Dr. Felix watches from his hands and knees in the snow, burning tears running down his cheeks and freezing on his chin.