Tuesday 20 December 2011

Burden of the Flake

Before we get back to Bobo, here's a short winter's fibbing for free:

Until his recent death Stuart Castle lived in a modest motel off Highway 89. His death was not mysterious. He died of being very old. But his life story is beyond belief.

I learned that story during an interview conducted in the late autumn of 2011. We met just before the first snow. The parking lot of the motel was still strewn with dried out leaves when I pulled in. I double-checked the room number in my notes before knocking. When the door opened it was still chained.

"What's the password?"

I gave him the password he'd told me on the phone. He let me in. Castle was skinny and bent but he held his chin high. What remained of his hair was neatly oiled in place. His RCMP uniform was of a style long retired, but its pleats were freshly ironed and there was no hint of lint. Shined shoes, clipped nails. His handshake was hard. "You're the young man here to see it?" he asked in a papery voice. "You're Lasagna Smith?"

"Cheeseburger Brown," I confirmed. "I'm with Footprints. Thank you for agreeing to this."

"It's time the world knew," said Castle.

The room was clean. The bed was made. There was a hotplate and a stack of postcards on the table. A duty log lay open next to them, with every carefully written entry identical except for the date and time: "Object remains secure." The shelf above was packed with similar notebooks, those on the near end very new and those on the far end yellowing and faded.

Castle had kept his secret for sixty years.

"The facilities we had back at the beginning were really something else," he told me, smiling toothlessly; "state of the art engineering, redundant systems, three shifts of guards, a dedicated satellite for coded communications, on site laundry -- the works."

"What happened, sir?"

"Cold War ended," said Castle with a sniff. "Budgets slashed, personnel discharged. Just because the damn Soviets were out of the game the powers that be figured we were in the clear."

Castle slid a couple of old paper photographs out of a Manila envelope. With a shaking hand he pointed out his slightly younger self and a small cadre of key staff posing in front of an industrial-sized refrigerator. "In the nineteen nineties," he explained, "they moved us into a shared space in the cryogenic lab at Lakehead University. Ill-mannered young turks kept storing dead mice in my top secret containment facility! It was a humiliating time to be in charge of a covert project."

"Is it here now?" I asked him, looking around.

"It is," he said with a solemn nod.

"You've got some kind of hidden cold-storage system set-up?"

"Pretty much," he agreed. "Which reminds me: it's probably about time to get another bucket of ice."

In a dented orange camping cooler under Castle's bed was one of the most dangerous objects in the world. While I watched he poured in a fresh bucket of ice from the machine chained up outside the motel office. Curls of vapour rolled up from the cooler, obscuring what lay nestled inside within a cube of protective acrylic glass…

"You've heard, of course, that each snowflake is unique," he said, a dramatic look on his wrinkled face. I nodded. Castle continued, "The chances of finding two identical snowflakes are one in a quadrillion septillions."

I looked up from my notes. "Would it be possible for you to express that number in terms of needles and haystacks? I don't know if most people know what quadratic super-zillions are."

"The point, Mr. Brown, is that the existence of two identical snowflakes defies all statistical likelihood. If such a pair were ever brought together, the universe itself might blow a gasket – a total implosion of probability as we know it."

"Would that be bad?"

"Probably, yes."

I looked down at the steaming cooler again. "So what you've got here…is a snowflake? The world's most dangerous object is a stinking snowflake?"

"No, Mr. Brown. The world's most dangerous object is two snowflakes. Inside this cooler is only half of the pair."

"Where's the other one?"

"A secret facility deep within the Swiss Alps," he said, pointing to the stack of postcards on the table with his cane. "My counterpart and I exchange coded messages every week."

I went over and picked up one of the postcards. In a precise European cursive it said, Dear Stuart: How are you? I'm fine. The weather here is quite beautiful. Today I went to the Alpine Zoo and saw a reindeer! Yours, Hans.

"Are you sure this is a coded message? It just seems like he enjoyed the zoo."

"'Reindeer' is our code word for six-fold crystal symmetry," said Castle.

"Ah." I turned the postcard over. It had a picture of a lady in a bikini sunning herself under the headline WISH YOU WERE HER! I put the postcard down. "How exactly did you end up here in Innisfil, sir?"

Castle sat down on the bed and sighed. "Well, the government stopped paying me when Chr├ętien went. Since then I've funded the effort personally, with my retirement savings and bingo winnings. What else could I do? It's the universe that's at stake, possibly."


"It's a matter of statistics and such!" he snapped. "Didn't they teach you anything in school?"

I raised a skeptical brow at him. "Does Stephen Hawking know about this? You might want to get a second opinion on the physics of it, sir."

Castle lay down on the bed and smoothed out his uniform. Then, staring at the ceiling as if I were his psychiatrist, he recalled how in years past he had relied on detailed biannual reports from top quantum probability statisticians and expert snow engineers to keep tabs on the risk the pair represented, but without grant money the scientists wandered away like ducks from a pond with no breadcrumbs, quacking quietly.

I blinked to shake the image of quacking scientists. "So...why don't you just let the thing melt?"

Castle lifted his head off the pillow to stare at me. "Are you insane, son? There'd be no way to recognize it that way, because it would just look like common water. How would I do my job then, I ask you? There's nothing more sly than an identical melted snowflake." He lay back again, then speculated that such a flake could theoretically "go ahead and evaporate itself right into the hands of al-Qaeda, and Canada's policing and intelligence agencies would be none the wiser."

Finally I broached a sensitive subject. Since be believed the project to be so critical, had Castle arranged for any kind of successorship? Would the world be safe if he were lying in a hospital somewhere on life support? Who would refill the cooler?

In reply Stuart Castle pointed to the ice bucket with a gnarled, shaking finger. "Room's paid up to the end of the week," he said.

"What? I can't --" I started to stammer.

Castle lay back on the bed, closed his eyes, and folded his hands over his heart. I tried to rouse him but he didn't respond. By the time the paramedics arrived it was too late.

His will was written on a postcard. He left the cooler and the room key to me.

I sighed and went to fetch ice.


Sheik Yerbouti said...

Umm... 'kay.

Entertaining to see that CBB presented himself as the more intellectually capable party in this interview (as opposed to the usual positioning, not because I think his mental faculties are somehow impaired).

Anonymous said...

As with previous Footprints installments, I'm pleased with the juxtaposition of the supposedly-stupid self and making it crystal clear that you know what septillions are.

SaintPeter said...

This is the sort of raw, industrial grade fibbing that I've come to expect from Mr. Brown. In the old days you could still get quality fibbing off the shelf, but now-a-days the fibs you buy at the local store are pale imitations. If you need a PROPER fib, you really need to go to the Cheeseburger.

Fun little ditty. I do worry about your ice bill, though. Nothing sneakier than a melted identical snowflake.

SaintPeter said...

Right, check the checkbox.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

This is technically an exclusive piece this time. Though it has been accepted for the magazine, the next issue won't be coming out until February. Never the less, I'd already scheduled it to run as a reprint for this week and I'm too jammed to change the schedule...so the magazine version will be the reprint and this is the first run.

I'm sure we're all anxious to return to Bobo. There are more chapters ready to roll, and the next will go live after Christmas. Maybe on Boxing Day. I haven't looked at a calendar lately, because they scare me.

I hope everyone has happy holidays with their families, or if they are hateful loners I hope they pass a nice holiday writing angry screeds and cleaning their guns.

Yours somewhat harried,

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Woohoo! Boxing Day presents!

Have a lovely Christmas etc., CBB. The calendar is scaring me too lately, though I think I might risk a glance after Sunday.