The Secret Mathematic is an original novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your cotton-mouthed host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the twenty-ninth installment.
News: In case you missed it, my novel Simon of Space is once again available to be read for free on the Web. If you don't care for such squinting, the newly-edited print edition is on sale now!
Multimedia: Listen to the The Secret Mathematic Overture in MP3 format, by Syntax Error.
Related reading: Stubborn Town, Three Face Flip, The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer, The Extra Cars
And now, the story continues:
Drago has never been so lonely. The feeling aches and gnaws, then sickly numbs.
It isn't being imprisoned in and of itself that is particularly objectionable: Drago has always appreciated having a space of peace in which to think. Having someone else worry about the laundry has actually been quite nice, and he hasn't eaten with such nutritious if bland regularity since leaving the displaced persons camp. The toilets are always clean, and he doesn't have to bother picking up after himself because he doesn't own anything.
In the morning he gets a paper cup of orange-coloured juice along with a paper cup of pills. The pills make Drago very patient. He finds himself content to lie on his back, caught up in some fascinating detail of the ceiling tiles for stretches of time that might be hours. His thoughts are limp and semi-liquified, but they come to him without effort. Nothing is very exciting, but nothing is too bad, either.
He naps frequently, sometimes without altogether noticing.
Leaves twist and flutter in the wind, but do not break free from their tree as Drago watches from a small stone bench. It's September. The colours of the garden are deepening, flattening, russeting. Soon it will be autumn.
Someone is sitting next to Drago on the bench. The person is remarkable in that she is not wearing hospital pajamas. After a while Drago wonders how long she has been sitting there, so he turns to her and says, "Hello."
"Hello, Drago," says Piroska.
Her hair is drawn back simply, her cheeks rosy from the bite in the breeze. She wears no makeup and has no jewellery. Her jacket is sober and perhaps expensive. Drago blinks at her. "You've come to visit me."
"Yes, I have. Is that alright?"
Drago shrugs, turning back to the trees. "Certainly."
"You've shaved off your beard."
He nods vaguely. "Well, someone did."
She crosses her heavy legs and shifts the purse on her lap. "Are they treating you well here?"
"The doctors and nurses."
"They're all very nice."
She purses her lips, then takes his chin and turns his face toward her. "And how are you doing?" she asks.
"Fine," says Drago. "I like this bench. It has a small worn spot, here, where my bums fits very comfortably. That's nice. If I finish my breakfast quickly I get to sit here. If I am too slow, somebody else sits here and I have to sit over there, by the hill."
"You sit and think?" she prompts gently. "What are you thinking about?"
He shrugs again. "Leaves." He points. "If I'm sitting on the hill I think about the pond."
"You think about whatever's in front of you?"
"Or I take a nap. Naps are nice."
She is quiet for a moment, watching the tree branches sway along with him. Any moment now the driest and loosest of the leaves will surely crack away and tumble free. Piroska clears her throat. "Do you feel that it is helping you, being in this place, Drago?"
"Helping me what?"
"Helping you feel better."
"I feel pretty nice."
She frowns. "What about your work?"
He shrugs. "Sometimes we have spaghetti for dinner. I have devised an equation to describe the arrangement of the noodles. Well, two equations, in fact. One accounts for meatballs, the other does not." He flashes her a slow, sleepy smile. "It's a work in progress, you understand."
"Have you been playing chess?"
Drago blinks, looks away. "No," he says. "There's no one to play with."
Piroska swallows. "What about your sister, Drago?"
"My sister?" he echoes distantly. He half-shrugs, eyes flitting. His mouth works without sound for a moment. "I don't know where she is anymore," he finishes quietly. "She's lost to me, yes. She's gone away."
Piroska touches his arm. He looks down at her hand. There is an irregular freckle behind the dimple of her first knuckle; it is shaped like Cuba. She says, "Drago, I think you need to get out of here. I'm worried. I don't think they're taking proper care of you."
"Dr. Gershwin says I make excellent progress," he offers.
"Toward what goal?" she challenges.
He opens his mouth, then closes it. He repeats his shrug. "Tonight we'll have meatloaf. I'm quite looking forward to it, yes. So you see it's not all bad, no. I try not to complain."
Piroska's eyes flash. "Why?"
"My mother, she asks this of me. I try to be a good son. I try to make it up to her."
"To make what up to her?"
"Dragana," he replies softly. "Dragana is lost to both of us now. I do what I can, yes."
"But what about your sister, Drago? You've let her go?"
He grimaces. "Stop talking about this, please. It is the only thing in the world that makes me sad. The doctors say I must be positive, and to allow only happy thoughts to cross my brain." He brightens, turning to her with another wan smile. "If she doesn't come back, I will be allowed to go home. Isn't that nice?"
"Is that what you want? To go home?"
He shrugs. "Ask me again after my nap. These leaves, swishing on the tree -- they make me sleepy. It's very soothing, yes. Very nice."
When he wakes up Piroska is gone. An orderly is tugging on his elbow, telling him it's time for lunch. There's tuna sandwiches and beet salad on the menu, so Drago follows happily. He is very fond of beets.
Drago's roommate Zenobio is very nice. He has given Drago two pillows to use, because Zenobio doesn't care for them. He is a very hairy man with the untanned silhouette of a medallion at the base of his thick neck.
Zenobio has trouble recalling the proper words for things. He can think of the idea, but he cannot express his thoughts freely until someone supplies him with the appropriate label. Until he has been handed that key, he cannot describe -- except obliquely -- the objects within his own mind. When Drago asks about his condition Zenobio replies, "hysterical aphasia" and Drago says "gesundheit."
Drago often lays in his bed with his hands crossed on his chest, watching the ceiling and listening to Zenobio frustrate himself by mentally stuttering as he rambles.
"...And we'd go -- my cousin and me -- we'd go down and stand -- we'd stand on this...this thing over the water. It was...sort of...not a tree or a person...kind of...a thing for standing, but not made for it."
"Yes, a rock! It was grey and speckled and heavy and hard, and we would dive from it into the water. My cousin was a great swimmer. Um, and we could see...something like a very big rock going into the sky."
"Yes, a mountain! Snow-capped peaks, all around us, changing colour as the day went on. Such beautiful country. In winter we would ski there."
Another one of Drago's friends is Dini. She sits by the hill and knits. Her children bring her fresh yarn when they visit. She is very protective of her yarn, and won't let anyone else touch it. In an effort to share in the fun, Drago spends a week carefully unravelling the extra thick blanket for his bed and then rewinds the free strands into a ball. He shows it to Dini, and asks if she will teach him the craft.
"You'll need needles," she tells him.
He produces two snapped-off metal television antennae. "Is okay?"
Dini knits hats and mittens and tea-cozies and little booties, but Drago knits only the same endless scarf. In a matter of days he has invented and integrated an error correction routine that allows him to verify each row before pulling it taut and rendering the loose loops to knots. Dini is not impressed. "That's not how you do it," she says testily.
"This way is better. The yarn, it is smarter than I am. I like letting it keep track of itself."
"Yarn doesn't keep track of anything. It's just a thing."
Drago shrugs. "So, at the roots, are you and I."
"You and I have got memories in our heads."
"The yarn has a memory, too. It remembers where it has been with its tail." Drago holds up his scarf to demonstrate. "It knows if it crossed over or crossed under, because the tail is still there -- like a bookmark for past events, yes."
She shakes her head. "You're an odd duck, Mr. Zorro."
Dr. Gershwin asks about the scarf, and Drago explains to him the meditative quality of making decisions about malleable line segments with memories. Dr. Gershwin examines the long coils of knitting with an appraising smile, spreading out sections between his hands and scanning the perfect regularity of its construction. "You do very fine work," he says. Then he frowns, poring over one of the newest lengths. "And this is quite an advanced technique, is it not? These embroidered words are very striking."
Drago nods knowingly, though inside he quails. He has put no words into his scarf. He accepts it dumbly as Dr. Gershwin leans over to hand the project back. He mumbles, "Thank you."
"You haven't mentioned your sister for a number of sessions now. Is there anything you'd like to say about her today?"
Drago considers this. "I miss her," he admits.
Dr. Gershwin nods and he makes a note. "Very good." He looks up. "I think we're going to move you to a lower dosage of your medication. If everything stays on track, we can start to talk about your going home. How would that make you feel, Drago?"
"That sounds nice, Dr. Gershwin."
When Drago gets back to his room he closes the door and spreads the scarf out on his bed. Zenobio sits up from his own bed, scratching his head with a wide, hairy hand. "Hey," he calls amicably, "is that one of those...um -- what do you call it? Winter-things?"
"Scarf," mutters Drago.
"Yes, a scarf!"
Drago beetles his brow as he stares down at the unravelled length. There is indeed a run of artfully laced words, the letters looped and spaced in an elegant cursive design through his careful cable-knit hatching: DRAGO * JA SAM IZGUBLJEN * SPAS M...
The trailing M is almost lost, half-formed in the rows Drago had just been knitting as he waited to see Dr. Gershwin. He takes a few steps backward, away from the bed and the talking scarf, a wave of gooseflesh crawling over him. He jumps as Zenobio puts a hand on his shoulder, leaning in enthusiastically. "That's amazing. What does it say?"
Drago takes a shuddering breath. "It says...Drago."
"I can read that part. What's the other part?"
"It says...I am lost." He pauses, his brow twitching. "And then it begins to say, I think, Rescue me, but letters are missing."
"Is that Macedonian?"
"Do winters in Serbia come with a lot of...you know, water that isn't wet? What do you call it?"
Drago doesn't reply. He's staring at the scarf. His forehead glistens with sweat.
Zenobio massages his temples. "It's not hard or soft, but it can be both, and it never falls in summer, and you need it for certain sports, and I can't think about winter properly without knowing the name of that stuff. Why can't I? Isn't that funny? Why should it matter? There's got to be more to winter than that stuff that isn't really any colour I can think of. What's the name of it got to do with...oh -- you know: the time when everyone comes over and gives -- um, boxes?" He smacks his own forehead, leaving part of a red palm imprint, then squeezes his eyes shut. "It's all connected, isn't it? In my memories. They've been smeared together by my brain. One pull on the wrong string and all the knots slip out." He pauses, then cocks his head oddly as he eyes dance. He whispers, "Snow; Christmas; presents; chemistry set; teddy bear; Papa helping me; hot wax, candles, cookies, hugs and love." His eyes widen, and he grins triumphantly. "I'm..." He falters, screwing up his face. "I'm...it's like when you fix a car, but for people. What's that word?"
Drago blinks and looks over at him. "Cured?"
"Yes, that's it. I'm cured!"
Drago presses his lips together ruefully. "I am not," he says.
Over the next week things begin to change for Drago. He feels more nervous, but he works hard to conceal it; he represses the urge to fidget or to let his gaze wander, cultivating the image of a man at peace. His thoughts are restless, occasionally wild, swooping and flashing out of his control -- but whenever he is asked what's on his mind he repeats one of the personal mantras from the group therapy sessions or simply names whatever he can see in front of him.
"Leaves on the trees," he says, saying nothing. Or, "I am the master of my own peace garden; I own the power to pull any weed; I am the master..."
Everybody's happy. Drago swims in lies.
Dr. Geshwin asks, "How are you feeling today?"
"Nice," says Drago. "Very calm. Optimistic. Relaxed. Empowered."
He wages war on the scarf. In his room he knits fiercely. He has proper needles now and they click against one another in a rapid tattoo. Drago lets it go only when he is in the common areas, putting the project aside to eat or stare blankly at the pond just long enough to seem sane. But back where only Zenobio can see him he rages with the needles, the ever lengthening scarf drooping and folding out of his hands as steady as a conveyor belt.
Zenobio shuffles over. "Can I help?"
Drago begins to shake his head, but hesitates. He looks up, his face coated in perspiration. "I need yarn."
Zenobio nods. "I'll find you some. Of that. Rope stuff. Sheep."
The scarf begs, PREKID BORBENI MENE, DRAGO!
Drago makes every effort to keep to his basic cable-weft design, but errors creep in. He tries to compensate, opening uneven periods in the course, and before he knows it he has become complicit in the formation of yet another letter. He swears at the scarf. He throttles it. He throws it across the room and then retrieves it. "Can't you just leave me alone?" he screams at it. "Otherwise this is home forever!"
Nurse Simard frowns in the doorway. "What's the situation here, Dracko?"
Drago smiles. "It is an exercise from group," he says, trying to chuckle. "I am to pour my negativity into this hobby project manifestation of the guilt from death of my sister, yes."
Nurse Simard leaves. Zenobio returns a few moments later with his pajamas puffed out by concealed balls of yarn so that it looks like he's sprouted a pair of pubescently firm breasts. He falls against the door, slamming it, then fishes from his furry chest two balls of exceedingly rich yarn: baby soft, hand-twisted and threaded with multiple colours and thicknesses. "Mission accomplished!"
"Where did that come from?" gapes Drago.
Zenobio grins. "It came from -- well, er. What's the term, exactly? It's sort of a...well, imagine if you had a...h'm." He sags. "I'm afraid I can't say."
"It doesn't matter," says Drago. "Thanks to you very much." He picks up the scarf and smooths it out, rearranging the active edge so he can re-insert his needles...
Dr. Gershwin flips through his notes. "How are you feeling about your progress, Drago?"
"Clear," says Drago. "Balanced. Solid."
Dr. Gershwin nods. "Starting tomorrow they will only be one pill for you each morning. Does that make you nervous at all?"
"No, Doctor," says Drago. "I feel strong. I feel good to walk without crutches."
His next visitor is Dr. Felix. Drago rushes across the lounge to shake his hand, then allows himself to be drawn into a cologne-scented hug. Dr. Felix pushes him back, his hands squeezing Drago's shoulders warmly. "You've gained weight," he says. "It looks good on you, my boy!"
Drago smiles sheepishly. "I am very glad to see you, John."
They take seats on either side of the checkers table by the window. Outside, the garden has turned yellow and red, the trees denuding with every glance of wind. Dr. Felix shakes his head sadly. "It's infuriating, Drago, trying to wade through this morass of red tape. Your mother has your power-of-attorney, of course, but we can't reach her."
Dr. Felix sighs, folding his hands on the checkers board. "Her fiance, this Vassily Tchechenko, he's been implicated in a very serious fraud ring. Before your mother understood that he meant to defraud her, too, she destroyed evidence on his behalf." He pauses, looks Drago in the eye with compassion. "They are both being held in a Russian jail awaiting trial. There's nothing to be done about it. I'm really very sorry."
Drago doesn't know what to say. He blinks, his expression pained. "Mama..." he whispers. "No..."
"The complicating factor here is that without her consent your release from his institution can only be secured by the doctors treating you. You are, Drago, utterly at the mercy of the system. And the system is quite badly broken in today's Quebec, I'm afraid."
Drago shakes his head, undeterred. "The doctors say my progress is good. I will quit this place, John. I know it. I only have to keep my healthy show for them a small while longer."
Dr. Felix cocks his head. "...Show?"
"I will not speak of it here," hisses Drago. "But, trust me my friend, every day I am feeling more like myself again. My mouth does not feel as if there is cotton inside. I am growing back my moustache, and sometimes I even get the hard penis. Soon, when there is no more medicine in me, I will have freedom in my mind again. And I am on the verge of something, John. Something grand. I feel it, yes. Very strongly."
Dr. Felix shifts awkwardly. "I want you out of here as much as you do, my boy -- I assure you. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater: when you first talked about coming here you had my support, because there were some genuine concerns about the state of your health." He opens his hands in appeal. "Just because you've been trapped in here by circumstance doesn't mean the entire exercise was without a point."
Drago purses his lips. "This place has not been without its lessons," he says quietly. "I have become what I suppose many peoples have wanted me to be over the years: I have become an actor."
"I know, John, that I have been like a man who is also a child, wearing my hearts on my shirt-sleeve. I have given my trust easily. I had faith peoples could find persuasion in reason." He straightens in his chair and combs the stubble on his upper lip with a finger. "But to play the games of life properly, a man must have two faces. I know that now. I am ready."
Dr. Felix looks at him for a long moment, then sighs again. "We really do need you back, Drago. And badly."
"Even if I am crazy?"
Dr. Felix lets himself smile, then nods. "We're at a standstill. We've put our trinkets through their paces, and if our applications go through the patent portfolio is about to become considerably more valuable. We have not, however, found a way to actually move ahead." He chuckles, but it's forced. "The students say 'there's no Oz without the wizard.'"
Drago looks up. He puts his hand on Dr. Felix's, squeezing it reassuringly. "Have the patience, John. I will be home before you know it. Tell them. Tell them to expect me."
Dr. Felix nods. "I will."
Buoyed by hope for his imminent release, Drago finds whole new depths of knitting to explore. Zenobio has to practically drag him from his room to get him to eat. One day when negotiations fail Drago attends lunch with his ridiculously long scarf in train, unwilling to leave it behind as he had made Zenobio promise to force him to do. "You're going to look nuts," warns Zenobio. "Everyone's going to say -- hey, that thing is really...um. What's the opposite of short? It rhymes with orange. I think. Or Montana."
Zenobio takes to carrying loops of the trailing edge of the scarf, so that when Drago enters the dining hall he looks like a bizarre, stubbled bride with a bouquet of needles. "Is today macaroni day?" he asks without looking up.
The man dishing out the macaroni eyes the knitwork with a lopsided grin. "Hey, you making a muffler for a dinosaur, man?" He laughs. "Get a load of this guy's dragon's scarf!"
"Dragon's scarf?" echoes the soup lady.
"Gesundheit," says Drago, still knitting. Zenobio shoves his tray along for him.
He takes his seat. Zenobio puts his own tray down, then gathers up coils of scarf and lays it on a vacant chair next him, the active segment stretched across his lap to Drago. Few of the others take any notice. Most of them stare blissfully into space as they dumbly stir the steaming macaroni. The dozens of bowl collectively squelch.
Drago's needles click. Zenobio watches his progress as he eats. Sharp footsteps approach. Zenobio looks up, chewing. He stops, turning pale beneath his five o'clock shadow.
"That's my yarn," declares Dini.
Drago looks up. "Pardon?"
"This here on the seat back. That's my Casbah Sock Merino right there -- a skein or more or you're calling me a liar which I'm not. Where do you get the nerve to steal from me? Speak up for yourself, Mr. Zeppo!"
Drago doesn't know what to say. He looks at Zenobio. Zenobio starts to cry. He tries to say something but fails, then takes to staring into his lap. The hair on the back of his neck dances as he trembles. Drago sighs. "I am very sorry, Dini. I did not know --"
"Don't even try to fill my ears with such pudding! You're thieves, the both of youse. And I'm taking this to Nurse Simard right this instant so that she..." Dini trails off, blinking down at the length of scarf she has snatched from the seat back. She looks up. "What in the name of Mother Mary is this?" She gathers up another fold. "This is just plain wrong. How is this even hanging together? This whole course isn't even stitched through!"
Drago wags his finger. "Look closely: it is secured. The hook loops are two further down, and two further up. You see, yes? The load is distributed to non-local anchors, creating a tension deficit I can cash in later with a new brace of the crossing cables."
"But you haven't finished those yet -- so what's holding it together now?"
"The implication of their future construction."
She shakes her head in disbelief, continuing to rifle over the scarf's length. Her eyes widen as she takes in a cross-laced circular swirl design. "You've been copying Celtic knots off of somewhere. Where'd you see Celtic knots?"
Drago shrugs. "I make it up. It has a twist that pleases me."
Dini takes a breath, eyes darting over the knitted swirl. "I'm...impressed."
"You haven't yet seen the best part," croons Drago.
She frowns as she draws the pattern closer to her face. "But it's supposed to be symmetrical, mirrored along the central wale. Doing it like this you're going to see all kinds of tatters on the reverse..."
She trails off again as she turns the scarf over. Her brow furrows. Dini flips it over again, then back. "That's impossible," she whispers.
Dini takes a step back, stumbling slightly against the chair behind her. People stop eating to watch the scene unfold. Dini's hands are shaking. "How...how can it twist to the right on both sides at once? It doesn't make sense -- it doesn't make sense at all!"
Indeed, the spiral is skewed clockwise whether viewed from the front or the rear. It never seems to flip, and yet when the scarf is turned over the design has been inverted. Dini turns it over again and again.
"I am very proud," says Drago, "for having knit the world's first extra-dimensional scarf."
Dini drops the scarf. She clutches at her face, shaking her head. "What?"
"It's not so hard," opines Drago, holding up his needles and their active course at the fringe of the scarf. "Look: I simply knit e, purl pi, knit e, purl pi; then apply the square of the preceding weft-count to this tensor --"
Dini makes the sign of the cross, then falls backward over a chair. Macaroni goes everywhere. "Devil's work!" she moans from the floor, covering her ears. "The devil's got Mr. Zantac! Help, help!"
Drago tries to help Dini to her feet but she squirms away, throwing handfuls of dropped macaroni at him. She scoots under the table and then reappears on the far side, seizing the scarf and tearing it apart with a wild look in her rheumy eyes. Zenobio covers his head with his arms and wails. Drago bumps his head on the table and swears, and seconds later a platoon of muscled orderlies in starched whites descends on the scene and pulls the participants apart. Nurse Simard rushes in, then blows the safety whistle which means everyone has to go back to their rooms.
Dr. Gershwin studies Drago's dossier quietly for a few moments before saying anything. Drago sits deep in a the maw of a comfy chair, tapping anxiously on his knees. Dr. Gershwin finally sighs and looks up. "I think it's fair to say we've had a bit of a setback. Do you agree?"
Drago shrugs. "The knitting helps me for feeling centred and positive."
"Stealing from other patients isn't very positive behaviour."
"I didn't know. I asked, but Zenobio was missing a word he needed to tell me. I'm sorry."
"Dini says you were embroidering Satanic messages in your muffler."
"No," says Drago. "I have no interest in Satan. Maybe Dini is the one having some setback."
"Never the less," counters Dr. Geshwin gently, "I'm going to recommend we increase your dosage again until you stabilize. Let's schedule a further two weeks of observation, shall we?"
"I do not think I'm needing the pills, Dr. Gershwin."
Dr. Gershwin presses his lips together in a pretense of consideration. "Well, I'm going to stick with my own assessment for the time being. Let's just see how things go, alright? We can discuss any concerns you might be having at group."
After breakfast Zenobio heads out to the garden. Drago mumbles something to him and then rushes back to his room where he spits out the remains of his pill and then shoves the wet, misshapen debris into a crack in the baseboard. It squelches, joining a week's worth of its peers.
Drago sits on his bed, the tattered remains of his violently unravelled scarf sitting around him in loose piles. He plays idly with his knitting needles, the sound of their click bouncing around the small room and reminding him of the hope he felt last week. He closes his eyes to enhance the illusion of time-travel, and finds that the report of his clicking can describe the shape of the room and its furniture to him through his ears.
Intrigued, he sets to undoing every stitch of the late extra-dimensional scarf until he has several lengths of crimped but usable yarn at his disposal. He then sets to extending his ears by stringing several cables across the room, secured at the bedposts, leading back to a single high-tension string wrapped around the tip of one needle.
Experimentally, he clicks the needles together again. The echoes from the room's geography cross his suspended harp, causing it to wobble sympathetically, its signal amplified and then fed to his control string. The control string sings, vibrating in place, its decaying period causing ghosted loops to flutter along its length. After more trials, Drago is able to identify the dimensions of the beds reflected in the guttering loops.
"So much data..." he muses, "reduced to a simple signature of sound."
When Zenobio returns after supper Drago knows he is coming from the way his characteristic footfalls cause the web to shudder. Zenobio hangs at the threshold, gaping at the labyrinth of taut yarn now stretched across nearly every available cubic meter of space. "What are you making?" he asks. "Oh wait, don't tell me: it's one of those...um. What do you call them?"
"It's yarn-based sonar," says Drago.
"Yeah but, how am I supposed to get to my...sleeping spot?"
"I left you a tunnel. See, yes? It's for the crawling."
Zenobio gets down on his hands and knees and carefully manoeuvres beneath the webbing, coming up at his bedside as if he's coming up for air, taking a breath and wiping non-existent water from his eyes. "This reminds me of that thing people do in water," he says. "You know, thrashing around and everything."
"No. Happier than that."
"Yes, swimming! I like girls in bathing suits. At the sandy part near -- er, a wet hole."
Drago closes his eyes, drawing the needles close to his ear. "I can hear your speaking inside the yarn," he says. He pauses, his face screwing up with concentration. "I can hear Dini, also. She's upset."
"I can't hear Dini. You're imagining things."
Drago shakes his head slowly. "If I make the web tighter, I can hear more. Here, you will help me?" He opens his eyes. "I need two mens, so we can pull at the same time." He then freezes, cocking his head oddly as the window panes rattle with a cold, autumn wind.
"That's just the wind," says Zenobio.
"No," says Drago, eyes still closed. "It is my sister's whisper."
Night comes. The doors are locked. The hospital becomes very quiet. Zenobio snores in his bed, murmuring about girls in bathing suits.
Drago sits at the nexus of a world of yarn that quivers in sympathy to every small movement, its taut ribs stretching from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. "What is it you want me to hear?" he hisses in the dark, voice ragged with frustration.
Footsteps walk up one side of the corridor outside and then down the other, testing each room's doorknob to be sure they are secured. The wind whistles past the windows. Drago raises a brow significantly.
The footsteps fade. The first drops of a cold rain spatter on the glass. Naked tree limbs sway, silhouetted against the orange clouds of Montreal's glow. "Do you really think it is possible?" Drago asks the air. Zenobio stirs, rolls over.
Drago pads out of bed, working his way carefully between the strings. He crouches by the door, face level with the lock. He taps his knitting needles against the jamb, then the knob, then the lock cylinder itself. Amplified through his control string, he discovers that he can attend every detail of the cylinder's internal structure -- eight tumblers, a shear line clocked at twenty degrees off axis against the plug.
The wind blows. Distant thunder rumbles. Drago plucks the control string and listens to the reverberations rattling the tumblers.
An image crystallizes inside his mind.
Thunder cracks. Zenobio's eyes fly open. He cries out when he learns that he cannot move: he is hemmed in from all sides by tight chords of yarn. "Help!" he breathes.
"Be still!" says Drago. "Don't move. Don't talk. It's almost ready."
Zenobio rolls onto his side so he can see past his own body to the end of the room where Drago crouches by the door. Zenobio whispers, "What are you doing?"
Drago licks his lips. "There is a sound that will unlock this door," he declares, eyes burning with intensity and sweat shining on his brow. "A single sound, just perfect, that will jiggle the pieces into place." He frowns at a string just beneath his nose, then pulls on a loop at a nearby vertex to tune the connection. "Of all the sounds in the world, there is one that is shaped and sequenced just right, yes."
"That's nuts," claims Zenobio.
"You should understand better than most mens," says Drago, checking another connection. He tests it by bouncing a knitting needle off it gently, then cocking his head to listen to the low, throbbing vibration travel over his woolen harps. "The sound is simply a signature. It is the name of the event -- the physical name of the unlocking. And what is a name? It is a label that encodes anchors for a greater body of data, yes. It is shorthand. It is a marker for a class of classes, an attractor for a set of subsystems, a flag to mark a country of informations."
"I don't know what any of that is supposed to mean."
"It means," continues Drago fervently, "that a name is a kind of reductive algorithm whose form implies more; we keep rules, yes, to extract what is more and fit it to context. In the best of all systems the rules are encoded in the key, encrypted by the key, and are in fact one in the same with the key."
"The name. It is a fold in the data, telling us there are additional vectors of informations we cannot be directly sampling. Like your brain, my friend: it cannot store every thing you need to know without compression -- it uses sets and sets of sets, each encapsulated by a label, a distinct pattern for firing the neurones. To synthesize the informations, we can manipulate the symbols instead of the databases themselfs: this is why mens can think as they do -- so quickly, so broadly, so insightful." He pauses from his work and casts Zenobio a serious look. "This is broken in your brain. But it is not broken in the world."
"What about the world?"
"It is holographic," says Drago, nodding somberly for emphasis. "These walls, these airs, these molecules and atoms -- they are not the core, no. They are emergent things. They are signatures. They are lines of compression that imply the geography of microscopic dimensions. Can we detect them? No, not at energies found in a normal world. Can we manipulate them, though?" He smiles. "Yes, we can. We can manipulate the symbols."
Zenobio blinks. "You don't say?"
"We look at a door, at a lock, we see four dimensions --"
"--But there are more. We cannot touch them, but we can touch the things that touch them." He taps one of the strings again, eliciting a second melodious throb. "We can even excite them, given the right combination of the frequencies. We can trick the air itself into doing our bidding, yes."
Zenobio makes a face. "You're going to trick the world?"
Drago nods. "The pattern is paramount. Patterns that rhyme are intechangeable. Like a skeleton key, the universe does not know the difference." He sniffs, resting back on his haunches. "I don't know why I could never see it before. Really, it is very simple. Really, it is obvious." He points to his control string. "The question is, is amplification symmetrical? Will the wave still rhyme with itself when it has become small? Can we preserve these critical harmonic resonances as we are attenuating the signal to the proper sub-microscopic scale?"
Zenobio shrugs. "Beats me."
Drago poises his needles over the trigger string. "Let us find out," he says with a mischievous smirk. He raises his arm and strikes down.
In response, trigger string makes a fairly mundane sound -- like a plucked rubber band. After a few seconds, however, Zenobio can see (and feel) that the connective tissues throughout the webwork continue to quiver and, rather than decaying, this action is steadily building into a multi-layered hum.
The hum ascends, broadens, grows and begins to ring.
An eerie, unearthly sound fills the room as the yarn harps shake. A central bundle running between the two beds begins to oscillate wildly, its flashing loops coming within inches of the floor and ceiling in alternating swings. Ripples like ocean waves fan out across the sheets of Drago's bed, then break up into little jostling patches. The inner pane of glass on the window shatters, and the security glass beyond it quakes. Both men cover their heads and wince as an inaudible upper harmonic vibrates through their skeletons.
It dies away. Strange echoes linger, barely audible, kicking back and forth in brief standing waves in the corners. Flakes of plaster swim down lazily from the ceiling.
Zenobio opens one eye, and then the other. He sighs. "It didn't work?"
Drago shakes his head sharply. "No. It worked fine. The bolt retracted. But the door still will not open."
Zenobio points with his chin. "There's that catch, there. The security whatchamacallit."
Drago sags. Lightning flashes. Thunder rolls.
The lights outside in the corridor fail. The ventilators go quiet.
"Power's out," whispers Drago into the new deeper darkness.
Zenobio shifts in the shadows. Strings snap with a series of high-pitched twangs. The bed rumbles as it is shoved. Metal groans, and then Zenobio pushes his way through the webbing to stand beside Drago. He overturns the trash can, steps upon it, and then raises a dislocated bedpost and begins industrious clubbing at the security stop bolted to the jamb.
The clanging is incredibly loud, but it isn't long before the security stop snaps free from its base and drops heavily to the floor. The door creaks slightly as it drifts open.
"Very nice," says Drago.
"Not everything can be solved with finesse," explains Zenobio. "Sometimes you've just got to smack the living shit out of it."
Drago straightens, then steels himself with a few deep breaths. He turns to his friend. "Let's go."
Zenobio crosses his arms, staying in place. "Oh, not me. I don't mind it here. My brother's coming to visit me tomorrow. He'll bring...um, baklava. Yes, baklava! I love baklava."
Drago hugs him. "Thank you, my friend."
Zenobio hugs him back, then waves cheerfully. "Good -- uh...what's that thing that makes everything go the way you'd hoped?"
"Yes, luck! Good luck, Drago!"
Drago nods and begins working his way up the corridor. Patients in some of the other rooms are moaning plaintively now, or shouting about the dark. He rounds a corner and becomes confused, then tracks his steps back, desperate to find the stairwell. How could a space so familiar become so instantly strange in the dark?
He pauses suddenly and flattens himself against the wall. Then, very quietly, a shadow pads past him, moving down the corridor, counting the doors. Drago holds his breath.
The figure hesitates as it draws abreast of him. The silhouetted head pans from side to side, cocked to listen. Drago feels his heart pounding inside his chest, and feels certain its frenetic work must be audible.
The shadow moves on.
The instant it turns the corner Drago slips away. He almost trips, his slippers striking something unyielding on the floor. Lightning flashes him a clue through the skylights: it is one of the orderlies. He is unconscious, but breathing. Drago blinks, chilled and bewildered.
He hears a door thrown open. "Where is Patient Zoran?" asks a curt voice.
"Who the heck are you?" replies Zenobio.
A muffled thump. Drago's eyes widen. Now quite seriously alarmed, he crashes his shoulders into two ungiving doors before stumbling headlong into the stairwell and teetering precariously on the edge of falling down a series of concrete risers. The stairwell is lit feebly by a set of emergency lights on batteries nestled above the door. Drago takes the steps two at a time, his bad knee wobbling but holding.
He pushes out of the stairwell on the ground floor, his slippers causing him to skid across the linoleum to crash into the opposite wall.
He cries out when a hand reaches down out of the dark and grabs his shoulder. He rolls over and crawls backward away from it, staring blindly at the shadow looming over him as he pants. "We're here to help," says a voice. "Come now, Dr. Zoran: we must hurry."
"Who's there?" he gasps as he is hauled upright by another set of hands.
"Friends," says the speaker. Lightning flashes through the windows, giving Drago a brief and ghostly view of a slim young man in a crisp white shirt and pleated blue pants. "The Source is with us," continues the young man, "but time is short. This way!"
Drago finds himself jogging along the corridor surrounded by a silent cadre in white shirts and blue pants. He slows as the reinforced door at the end swings open and one of the orderlies stands facing them. "Everyone needs to get back in their rooms now!" he barks. "You hear me?"
The orderly raises his taser in warning.
The cadre, however, does not slacken its pace. The first among them simply strides unswervingly toward the orderly, pointing at him with an extended index finger. The finger sways left, and so do the orderly's eyes; the finger sways right and again the motion is tracked. The extended finger circles and swoops in a complex pattern and then is jabbed high in a sudden thrust. The orderly's eyes roll up into the back of his head, giving his assailant the split second he needs to walk right up to him, executing a rapid series of precise taps on the orderly's chest that culminates in a seemingly gentle poke in the solar plexus.
The orderly rocks back on his heels and then silently collapses.
They step over him and through the door. "What did you do to him?" cries Drago, but none answer.
They approach the nurse's station. A second group waits by it, a third group visible beyond them in the lobby. The young man holding Drago's elbow offers a crisp salute as they meet the second group and come to a halt. "Target acquired," he reports. "Have the van brought around."
The leader of the new group shakes his head. "We've lost contact, sir. All channels are drowned in noise."
"I think we're being jammed, sir."
"Jammed? By who?"
With a series of brief grunts the third group in the lobby is felled one by one. A swarm of figures dances between them, then hops over the bodies with a flutter of robes and begins crossing the hall toward the nurse's station, the swimming shadows of rain sweeping over them as they pass beneath the great glass skylight there. Drago is released as his minder moves to the front of the group. The minder raises his hand, index finger pointing, as he had before the orderly, waving it as if casting a spell.
The first approaching phantom slows, then shakes his head to clear it. Two more shadows step around him without hesitation.
Drago's minder shuffles backward. "I can't get a lock!" he cries over his shoulder. He turns back. "Stop, in the name of Hubbard!" He extends both hands and describes elaborate shapes in the air.
The first shadow meets him. Metal sings as it cuts the air.
The minder's forearms drop to the floor.
Only a fraction of his agonized scream is heard before a hand is clamped over his mouth and he is whisked aside. Lightning flashes, illuminating the scene: scarlet drops on the linoleum, stark animal panic on the faces of the cadre, and a black caped member of the Calumniatorian Guard poised in the middle of the hall with a gleaming sword in either hand. His brown eyes shine above his long beard, the expression between his curled sideburns grim and merciless.
"It's the Jews!" shouts a Hubbardian beside Drago. "Run!"
The hall erupts into pandemonium. Drago is knocked to the floor, finding himself dodging boots and shoes and swishing black trenchcoats, the air filled by a sudden but oddly restrained mix of shuffling, grunts, gasps and the keen of fast metal. Drago carefully crawls forward on his hands and knees, flinching at every movement: the shadows around him have come to life in order to fight to the death.
Someone tries to haul him up by the scruff of his pajamas but an instant later he is released as they tumble away, a hand already clamped over their screams. A cluster of Hubbardians leap upon the back of a Columniatorian; his swords clatter to the floor and then he drops to his knees, and though he has been gravely injured he makes no sound. As his attackers pant with relief and take stock they recognize that each of them has been cut, and their hands come away from their shirts slick and dark and dripping.
The Calumniatorian has a look of satisfaction on his face as he folds, dead. His attackers fall next.
Drago clambers over them and staggers into the lobby, ducking to avoid the hissing tip of someone else's scimitar. One of the blue panted Hubbardians is tossed bodily through the air and she crashes through the front windows, hitting the sidewalk and rolling into the swill-choked gutter. Without missing a beat Drago vaults over a sofa upon which two figures are struggling and propels himself after her.
He hits the pavement hard. His head bounces on the sidewalk, releasing a cloud of twinkling stars into his vision. Working on a kind of autopilot he has already scrambled to his feet, the pounding rain disorienting him momentarily so that he's not even sure from which direction he has flown. All around him is a veil and roar.
He turns in place, panicked and suddenly unable to make a decision. Then he spots a figure through the rain, coming directly at him at a brisk if hobbled walk. Drago steels himself to fend off whatever may come, his wet fists quivering as he raises them, water running off the knuckles.
He blinks, startled, as the apparition clarifies. He shudders and reels back, unable to make sense of what he sees.
It is him.
His mind spins a stream of theories, settling quickly on the idea that Drago has somehow come to face a shop front window -- that he is facing his own reflection. But this hope is dashed as he looks down at his own poised fists and recognizes that the doppelganger's physical attitude is entirely different. The new Drago is reaching out, his arms open, the expression above his stubbled moustache imploring.
"Get away from me!" screams Drago, stumbling backward.
The new Drago shakes his head. "No," he says with Drago's own voice, "you must listen to me, Drago! Quickly now: there's a car waiting for you in the alley, yes."
Drago simply stands there in the rain, dumbstruck into immobility even as the body of a second Hubbardian crashes gracelessly to the sidewalk beside him, a leg cracking loudly as it is jammed against a utility pole. More glass breaks. Someone screams. A fire alarm sounds, its shrill mechanical voice numbing in volume.
The second Drago grabs him and shakes his shoulders. "Go, Drago!" he shouts, then propels him toward the mouth of the alley.
Drago staggers in the puddles, his wide eyes glued to his strange self. "Are you a time-traveller?" he finally manages to stammer.
"No," replies himself, sweeping rain from his brow. "I work for Anwar. You're in danger here!"
"The Shah sent you?"
"Yes, you fool -- now go!"
He tugs up the legs of his soaked pajamas and then steps over the edge of broken glass, passing through the window and into the middle of the melee. Drago stares after him, unable to move until a wind howls down the street, raising gooseflesh on one side of his body and whispering in his ear, willing him onward.
Drago moves. He splashes through the gutter and rounds into the alley, suddenly blinded from the glare of a pair of bright headlights. An engine roars to life. Drago flattens himself against a filthy brick wall as the vehicle lurches forward. The back door pops open.
"Drago. My name is Bahram. The Shah is my father. We've met before."
"The scholarship interview..."
"Yes. Now: in the car. Let's not dally. People are dying and the night is still young. Worse things will happen if we don't move along."
Feeling Dragana's lips against his ear, Drago gets onboard.