Wednesday 9 January 2008

The Secret Mathematic - Chapter Three

The Secret Mathematic is a science-fiction novelette told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your metaphysically curious if somewhat drunken host, Cheeseburger Brown.

Chapters: 1|2|3|...

Related reading: Three Face Flip, Stubborn Town, The Long Man, The Extra Cars

And now, our tale continues:


"Herr von Steissbein, I salute you!"

The Turk pours another round of his unspeakable liquor into the bottom of each greasy glass. Albert pinches his violin under one arm to take his, then all four men tilt back their heads and drink. Three of them wince, but the Turk smiles.

"It's vile!" swears Conrad, wiping the residue from his moustache. "Is it Turkish?"

"I have told you, I am not from Turkey," grins the Turk, teeth gleaming in a swarthy face framed by a black Van Dyke beard. "And you drink like a small child, Herr Habicht."

Maurice laughs, then coughs. "Oh my Hell it's terrible stuff," he agrees between hacking giggles. "But in Romania we have worse. My grandfather once fermented a cow-pie for liquor, I swear it's true."

(Nobody believes him, which is appropriate since it is a lie.)

Albert places his violin and bow inside their case with exquite care, snaps fast the lid, then stumbles drunkenly into the side of the kitchen table and crashes to his knees. His friends guffaw. He cautiously stands, bracing himself against the back of Conrad's chair as he reaches for his pipe fixings. "Will someone at this time please read out the minutes prior to our little musical hiatus?"

"You are a man of remarkable focus, Her von Steissbein," says the Turk.

"At this time I remain unmarried," admits Albert. Everyone roars.

The laughter dies quickly. The tone in the cramped little flat has changed now that Albert has called for the minutes. Conrad puts his spectacles back on and consults the notes on the table. Albert takes a seat in his moth-eaten throne. Maurice notices that the forgotten music is skipping, and leans over to reset the needle on the Zonophone. He straightens and blinks attentively, blowing crumbs away through his moustache.

(It's 1904. You can tell because of the wallpaper. And the moustaches.)

Conrad reads out the minutes. The young men stroke their moustaches. Albert strikes a match to light his pipe, then wobbles precariously on his seat. He crosses his eyes and with a stubborn effort completes the task, then puffs contentedly. "Do you know how I know this to be true?" he asks when Conrad has finished. "Because it's beautiful. Only God is so elegant."

Maurice snorts. "You sound like a Pythagoran."

"You've never heard of a Jewish Pythagoran?"

"If we follow the thought experiment to its natural conclusion," says Maurice, "the symmetry is ultimately broken. It's no longer a matter of -- elegant, as you put it -- duality when one is but a tangled property of the first. They're not exchangeable so much as disentangleable."

Conrad shakes his head as he takes out a cigar. "That's sophistry. As far as the mathematics are concerned the two are perfect equivalents. Albert is right: it is a peek into God's blueprints." He strikes a match, his face revealed in a brief, bright glow.

Maurice frowns. "That's romance. That's Pythagoran. That's confusing your awe for the perfection of numbers for divine awe. One is a model, one is Creation itself. It's a kind of intoxication, and it can only drive your point of view further from reason."

The Turk clears his throat. "Permit me to raise, then, a comparatively pragmatic consideration." The others turn to look at him, brows open. He continues, "If indeed there is a primal equivalence between matter and energy, what if men learned to trade them at will?"

Maurice considers this, waving Conrad's cigar smoke away from his short, angular nose. "The tools to build matter are beyond our reach. In a dozen centuries, perhaps, but at present it is inconceivable in any frame save unrestrained fantasy. Suddenly we leap from mathematics to Jules Verne."

Albert nods, his pipe bobbing. "It might be understood, but not realized."

Conrad draws on his cigar, eyes flitting. "But the same cannot be said of the opposite: to unweave matter into its constituent energies. That, my friends, might be done, if crudely. It would be an act of blind, high-energy violence, an order of magnitude beyond apes smashing open nuts with rocks. Never the less..."

Albert is still nodding, his eyes half-closed. "...If one were to secure a critical quantity of an appropriately giddy isotope -- of thorium, perhaps, or uranium."

"It could be boiled in a neutron ray!" cries Maurice, standing up from his seat and grabbing at his hair. He pauses from his histrionics suddenly, brow crinkling. "But it's impossible. How could the energy ever be harvested? Any experiment would devastate the laboratory!"

"The key, then, would be a kind of ultimate kiln," adds Conrad excitedly, "a crucible for withstanding the concussion of the phase transition, incorporating a turbine apparatus for converting the heat into work!"

"An atomic furnace, in other words," agrees Albert between pipe puffs, his dark-haired head lost in a swirl of smoke.

The Turk chuckles drily. "You are gentlemen, you tender boys, and you forget what most men are like. While you djinnis of numerology jump immediately to harvesting the energies released, the natural man has already stopped thinking. His conclusion: why contain the energies at all?"

"What possible purpose would that serve?" asks Albert, pipe momentarily forgotten.

The Turk's face tightens seriously. "Destruction," he says. "Why struggle to design an atomic locomotive when you can wipe your enemies from the face of the world using Hell's own breath?"

"Jesus Christ, Herr Siraj," interrupts Conrad, "no one is that mad! Barbarians in your Oriental deserts, perhaps, but not men of tools and opportunity."

The Turk smirks. "No civilization is beyond sin, Herr Habicht." He turns away from Conrad, withdrawing his own cigar from a pocket of his ornate velvet coat. "My real question, however, is this: should it be shown that such a method for unleashing unrestrained energies from matter could be realized as a mechanical reality, whose moral responsibility would be the first bomb?" He paces in a tight circle, squaring with each of the young men's eyes in turn. "If there were a holocaust of atomic devastation, who would be its true author -- the man who riveted closed the casing? Or, perhaps instead, you?"

This question hangs in the smoky apartment for a long moment. The Turk sucks on his cigar, gaze cast out the grimy little window and into the square, at the silhouetted spires of Berne occluding the lowest stars.

Albert says, "Science is not secret."

"That's right," agrees Maurice quickly. "Only in an environment of open collaboration can we make progress. History proves it! Utter transparency is paramount. Science can have no borders -- national, ethnic, religious, military, superstitious."

"In this way science has friends instead of allies or enemies," adds Conrad, gesturing emphatically then hitting the table and making the glasses jump. "In this way it remains an enterprise to serve all mankind!"

The Turk's brow arches. "And so science is absolved of any application of her pursuits? She is untainted by any crime her knowledge engenders?"

The flat is quiet again. Outside the window the city is quiet, too. The sun will be coming up soon. The air is cold. The first farmer's horse-carts are plodding their way to the markets, lonely iron footfalls echoing off the building fronts.

Eventually Albert stirs, putting aside his dead pipe. "You have given us something to think about, Herr Siraj." He turns to face the Turk. "For that I thank you from the bottom of my heart," he says, then yawns. "But now I have to sleep. I'm due at the patent office in just a few hours."

The others have already risen. Conrad puts on his hat and rubs his eyes. Maurice is spilling into his overcoat, his cigar perched on the edge of the table. The Turk watches the preparations and then ceremoniously sees them to the hall with Albert. He pauses then, watching the friends leave. "Herr von Steissbein," he whispers, "I have more to discuss with you. This matter is of principal concern to my father."

"The meeting is over," says Albert, leaning into the doorjamb wearily. "And I leave my presidential name in the drawer, next to the Olympian Academy minutes." He gestures vaguely behind him at the notes on the cluttered kitchen table. He frowns, because one of the notes has begun smouldering on account of Maurice's forgotten cigar.

"I have more to say on the subject of secrets," the Turk persists.

Albert turns back to him, smoothing down his black moustache anxiously. "You must excuse me, Herr Siraj, but I believe my kitchen is on fire." He begins to close the door, bowing ceremoniously. "This is a discussion we can take up at our next meeting. You are invited, of course. It was a delight to have you with us." He sniffs worriedly. "I really must say goodnight now."

The Turk bows in turn, his mouth a tight, resigned line. "I thank you for your hospitality, Herr Einstein." The door clicks closed. "Until then."


Anonymous said...

Wow. This is the Long Man tie-in, then?

It took me two or three "Albert"s to realize who he was. Fun with history!

I just wonder how long it's going to be until we can get some resolution on these disparate plotlines. Ah, the trials of reading on the cutting edge...

Did you all get safely home last night? Thanks for the latest post; it's wonderful to have multiple chapters in a single week (but don't overtax yourself).

Dan said...

Patience, Sheik. you know the payoff will be grand. Two posts in a week! Dost the flat tire prevent you from going to work?

you can feel the storm a brewin'

THE Danimal

Simon said...

That's effin awesome. I have a special place in my heart for drunken scientific discussions. Reminded me of a long walk home from the bar in university where one of my friends posited that it would far more efficient to get drunk by hooking up some sort of beer IV. Another then quipped that the osmotic pressure of the alcohol already in our veins would only sober us up and cause the beer to become MORE alcoholic. Fun with geeks!

Also, CBB, some spelling errors:
"...She is untained by any crime her knowledge engenders?" Should probably be untainted, eh?
And, I think the very first "Her" should have an extra "R" in there.
Lastly, when Einy says, "In order words," should that be "other"?

We're jumping around in time and across various plot threads here. I cannot wait to see it come together.

I couldn't help looking up the other names, and see that there are relations there:

Conrad Habicht was a known friend and associate of Einstein's. But there was no last name in the story for Maurice. Who's he, I wonder.

And Sheik: is the Turk (Siraj) the Long Man tie-in? Like with so many of CBB's stories, the mere mention of a name doesn't necessarily trip a memory for me until it's more strongly reinforced.

Simon said...

Ah, god how I adore thee wikipedia:

Olympia Academy:
"The group was founded in 1902 by Einstein, Conrad Habicht, and Maurice Solovine, and played a significant role in Einstein's intellectual development. Before his "miracle year" (1905), when Einstein was a patent clerk in Bern, the group of friends met to debate books in the fields of physics and philosophy.

...and though a friend would occasionally join them in one of their meetings, the Academy remained essentially just the trio..."

gl. said...

it took me till "I'm due at the patent office in just a few hours," but it was all the sweeter for the waiting. i suspect you're using some of your prior late-night-drunken-talk experience to good effect here, but with velvet coats & pipes.

i loved the description of "an appropriately giddy isotope." one of the things i like about your writing is that you have a style that suggests the universe is having a really fun time.

SaintPeter said...

The theme music for this chapter (in my head) was "The Manhatten Project" by Rush.

Simon -
Thank you so much for making the connections that I do not. You improve my CBB reading experience!

Mark said...

What a fascinating tie-in with "real" history. Simon dug up that gem on Wikipedia just in time for me to have something to say besides, "Oh, boy, CBB, this is a good story." I mean that, too, of course, but I didn't want to look like just another fanboy (or girl).

Anonymous said...

dan: I know, I know, but it's still so hard to wait! Maybe it's good that we're getting this in serial form, or I'd never get anything done once I started reading one of these.

simon: yes... and given that, I'm fairly certain I can guess the direction of his further discussions with Mister One Stone (maybe he was a lightweight when it came to drinking?). Also, I'm pretty sure he's not really Turkish, though of course that's anyone's guess at this point :)

As for the other guy... some people may call him Maurice, but he sounds more like a space cowboy to me.

re. giddy isotopes: I couldn't agree more (though to me it speaks of a creator who has a joyful sense of humor). I was just rereading Three Face Flip and marveling at the beautiful, playful use of language. We have a master on our hands.

Teddy said...

Einstein. When they described nuclear power, I thought "but Einstein didn't do anything practical with the direct association between matter and energy until the forties" then I realized who Albert was. The Patent office proved it.

The Turk is The Sheik, of course, and this is why he's technologically further ahead of the rest of the world - he had an atom bomb (and atomic power) in the first part of the last century! Also, he's long.

Simon - try imbibing alcohol through the rectum. The mucus membranes there will admit the alcohol to the bloodstream without it being filtered by the liver. It's INCREDIBLY more potent, although there are a wide variety of other toxins involved as well. So, you know, it'll probably kill you.

So...we now have the introduction (by proxy) of three characters. A trifecta, or are there any more to introduce? I think we'll see Lallo, but not yet.


Simon said...


Odd that you should mention that rectum thing. And not just odd because it's ODD. I read an article recently where a man who had some sort of operation was no longer able to imbibe alcohol and so as a work around took to consuming sherry enemas. He inserted too much one night and passed out from the alcohol, but his large intestine just kept on absorbing the booze after he was out. He did very nearly die.

Really quite odd.

Moksha Gren said...

I caught the "Albert" thing right off...but then convinced myself I was wrong for some reason. Very cool chapter. And thanks, everyone, for all the relevant history and connections. I'd like to think I would have researched on my own...but somehow I think I would procrastinated it.

Also, CBB, while the writing in this is great, I'm not sure about the parethetical asides. They don't seem to me to need the parenthises and the extra punctuation kinda distracts me. No big deal, just sharing.

gt281 said...

Three stories revolving at once,, lets hope you don’t get
the characters names confused…Is there a time shift in this story?..
The first chapter had tanks at the bridge and glossy photos,, now its
1904…you should warn people before sliding sideways thru time…

Anonymous said...

Teddy, I am not the Turk. Even so, that would be cool to get written into a CBB story.

Rectal alcohol, my butt.

Wait a minute.

Teddy said...

Ah. Excuse me, I meant the SHAH. I think that turkish fellow is the shah of Anwar.


Anonymous said...

Yes. Or, more likely, the son of the current Shah.

Simon said...

Reading through this again, I'm going to disagree with Moksha. I think the parenthetical asides work a little better because of the added punctuation. To me, it lends a personal touch to the sentences. The tone is different, almost a little bit of conspiratorial information, just for us. Bringing the reader a little further inside that we would otherwise be able to penetrate.