by Jamie Mason
“I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.”
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Thursday, August 23rd, 2007
Hotel Splendido, Nogales
Have come here to die. This fly-blown border town with its beggars and bodegas, wholesalers and whores will be the battlefield. Either I or Antonucci’s Equation will yield. This is to the death.
Am probably a mystery to the concierge who checks me into the decidedly less-than-splendid Hotel Splendido (- am definitely a cut above his usual clientele with my laptop bag and sports jacket). Fortunately, my MasterCard is good enough for him. Am glad, because it, the clothes on my back and the items in my bags are all I have left.
Arriving at my room, I lock the door, draw the curtains and position my laptop and notebooks on the desk. Down three pills with a swig of plastic-flavored water from an old bottle and settle down to work. While the laptop whirs to life and before uncapping my black felt-tip, I place the small, black-framed photograph on a corner of the desk.
Benito Antonucci, el Maestro. Looking up from work to the bald professor’s bug-eyed stare always inspires me to greater exertions. The frame is the perfect size for him. I know, because it once held Lisa’s picture.
That picture – along with Lisa herself – burned off as I achieved escape velocity. Both are now orbital debris enshrouding a forgotten world.
Within minutes, the room falls away. Am reabsorbed in the problem of melding self-similar structural expressions with fractal inversions. Have developed a set of tables to reconcile the X Ì Y subset variables. As I work, voices accumulate on the patio outside. Some kind of fiesta in progress. Who cares? Given the current rate of exchange on the peso, my savings should stretch for another three months down here. Plenty of time for fun later. Meanwhile, Nothingness beckons.
The concierge at this place is an expatriate American named Haggerty who doubles as bartender. He is awake at 2 AM, reading USA Today in the taverna and chewing on a toothpick when I wander downstairs for a drink. The fiesta has long since vanished.
What brings you to Nogales? he asks once I’m settled at the bar with a glass of red. I tell him it’s complicated but that I’m on something like a research sabbatical. Research? What kind of research? Mathematics. He shakes his head. I was never too good at math, he says. You must be some kind of smart. I shrug. Since the most advanced math he ever heard of is calculus, he asks if I do calculus. I don’t. So I explain.
The notion of adapting fractals (“mathematical expressions describing natural, non-geometric shapes such as those of coastlines, blood vessels, galaxies”) to null space was pioneered by Dr. Benito Antonucci (el Maestro). The problem of measuring volume and density for non-geometric solids was solved by Archimedes (“Eureka, eureka, I’ve found it!”) in the Second Century, BC. The idea of melding the two is mine.
So you’re calculating volume and density of null space – in other words, Nothing, says Haggerty, dispensing a second round and waving away the money I offer. He rights an inverted glass and pours some for himself.
Exactly, I say, excited. That’s exactly right.
Forgive me, doc, he says, leaning with his forearms on the bar, but of what use is that? Is there a … an application to this research?
There is, I reply. Null space – dark space – may be the most plentiful component in the universe. It’s the physical embodiment of the space between sub-atomic elements. My adaptation of Antonucci’s Equation will enable us to map, measure and calculate these voids with great precision.
The space between people, says Haggerty, staring into his wine, is the biggest space of all.
Friday, August 24th, 2007
Awake in a cold sweat, remembering Lisa. Thrash out of my bedclothes to stand naked and trembling, gulping breaths of air. Reach for my pills. Do they keep me anchored in reality, or push it far enough away from me to deal with? Can’t remember.
I sit on the patio after a morning’s work on the subset variability tables, eating a late brunch of juevos rancheros with wine, remembering Lisa.
We were happy in the six months between the end of graduate school and the beginning of my work with Antonucci’s Theorum. Lisa’s Masters in literature was sufficient to get her hired onto the faculty at the University of Arizona, teaching undergraduate composition twice a week while finishing her novel. I taught remedial math to adults at community college and supplemented this with a little tutoring. Had just finished an evening session in the U of A library with Antonio, one of my frequent flyers, when a dog-eared paperback caught my attention.
Abandoned in a study carrel. Balanced on the edge of the desk so it fell as I walked by. Fate. I bent to retrieve it. General Remarks on the Theory of Fractal Inversion by Benito Antonucci. And on the cover, a bald, bug-eyed character who seemed the product of unholy union between Mussolini and Albert Einstein. Opened to the first page and began skimming.
Three hours later, they herded me out of the library, still reading.
Like many geniuses, Antonucci dared the tightrope between brilliance and insanity. I thrilled, on the bus ride home, to his bizarre explanations of null space (“a dusting of sugar left on the napkin used to grasp a powdered doughnut”) and dark matter (“the hole in the doughnut”). He had a fixation on food imagery and a tendency to use too many prepositions (perhaps that was his translator’s fault). But where the prose lurched, the mathematics sang. Reading line after line of his switch-blade equations was like listening to an aria – your mind was enervated, not dulled, by the effort.
Arrived home to find the lights out, the place setting for a candlelit dinner abandoned on the table. Lisa had gone to bed, miffed. Poured myself a glass of wine and kept reading.
Found at dawn, on the bottom of page 343: an incomplete equation – and my life’s work.
At the bar for a midnight pick-me-up. Haggerty asks about the pills I shake into my palm from their orange bottle. Tranqs? he asks, peering. I can get you the good stuff – Codeine, Percs … you name it. I shake my head. They’re stabilizers, not tranquillizers, I say. Psychoactive maintenance drugs. Necessary to prevent the fragmentation of consciousness.
Although his expression is a frown, I read sympathy there.
Some kinda’ condition draggin’ you down, doc?
No. My work.
Saturday, August 25th, 2007
A courier envelope is waiting for me at the front desk when I go downstairs for breakfast. It’s from Chandler at the Math Department. My severance check. I ask Haggerty to cash it against the balance owing on my room. No problem. Head out to the patio with my notebook and pills. Order a Corona and breakfast. It’s overcast today.
Swig of beer. Uncap my black felt-tip. Bend over my notebook. And away we go.
Equations spiral across the page in black ink. Am unraveling the corollary of Atonucci’s Second Theorum, which posits optimal f values for non-empty subsets. As it always does after a few minutes of concentration, the ink takes on a life of its own. I finish four lines and stare at the result.
For a blurred instant, it’s as if the characters writhe and twist, squirming on the paper like small black worms. I have a choice: whether to blink and dispel the illusion or follow where it leads. I opt for the latter.
Unconstrained by typeface, fashioned in the freeform scrawl of my own handwriting, the very shapelessness of the characters themselves begins suggesting other characters. A 5 grows a tail and becomes a 6. An s, badly formed, shimmers and elongates to become a cursive f and I suddenly see the second line in an entirely different light.
I push the felt tip through the first three lines (- a giant black serpent crashing through the worm colony -) and start again. I take care to form my characters precisely so they won’t distort. By the time a second Corona and breakfast arrive, I have five lines of creditable equations.
I frown and sip my beer, slipping a pill between my teeth.
The lines of equations form a perfect square. Stared at from above, they are a series of concentric boxes, diminishing in size to a vanishing point far below.
My fascination with Antonucci and his work burgeoned. I bought a copy of General Remarks and kept it on the bed-side table. Began tutoring less and reading more. Took to spending long hours at the U of A computer center, running Mandelbrot models of null-space for use in testing equations developed from el Maestro’s fractal inversions. Autumn and Thanksgiving passed in a blur. The day before Christmas, I arrived home to find Lisa’s things gone and a note on the kitchen table.
“You’ve been so busy measuring Nothing that now we have nothing left.”
Have to stop work early today.
Was hot on the trail of a new format for the n theorem set when I blinked and the characters on the page shimmered, transforming into a mass of writhing black night-crawlers. Hatching themselves from the undisciplined scrawl of my handwriting, they slithered off the notebook toward the edge of the desk, oozing black slime in their wake. I howled and leapt back, upsetting my coffee, barely missing my laptop.
Hunched over by the bathroom door, hands on knees, breathing heavily, looked up to see my notebook exactly as it had been a moment before.
Something’s happening to my eyesight.
(Later, August 26th, early morning)
OK, I explain to Haggerty, I didn’t exactly lose my job. I knew where it was … They just didn’t want me back there anymore.
We are sitting alone in the hotel bar at 3 AM. He asks: Isn’t it kind of hard to lose a job as a teacher? Don’t you have to, like, have an affair with – or else try to kill – one of your students?
Try not showing up to teach.
For how long?
Haggerty looses a long, low whistle. I grin in response, but fight to swallow in a dry throat, steadying my thoughts while I do. It’s as if my seat remains stable while the edges of the room come unclipped from their moorings and begin spinning around me in a dark blur. Perhaps it’s all the work. Perhaps it’s the wine or the pills. Perhaps both.
Figuring this equation, he says, must be pretty important to you.
He nods quietly, not understanding, but sympathetic. More wine and he changes the subject. You know, he says, there’s going to be a lunar eclipse tomorrow night. Not a partial, either – a total. Should be visible from down here.
Gripping the edge of the table where we sit, am assailed by dizziness. Earlier, when working in my room, looked away from my notebook into the light and saw the shapes of letters and numbers hovering in the air before me like the after-images of a photographer’s flash. These images recur now. I see: n. I see: 5. I see: x.
It’s going to be an amazing sight, Haggerty continues. Ever seen a full lunar eclipse? The moon doesn’t so much disappear as fade to a dull orange. Like amber. Or blood. That’s the last thing you see before full dark.
The spinning slows. The room returns to normal. But where Haggerty’s face should be, I see the outline of a variable hovering in the half-lit bar.
Tomorrow night, he says.
At the dim edges of my vision, serpents writhe.
Full darkness, baby.
Monday, August 27th, 2007 – Eclipse Day
Antonucci’s unfinished equation was everything.
El Maestro struggled near the end. His tenure at the University of Turin threatened by funding cuts, his papers dismissed as insignificant by marginal thinkers, his proposed mathematical revolution in ruins, the work was all he had left. Unifying his ideas into a single mathematical expression became an obsession. The finished equation would be the crown jewel of fractal inversion theory.
All of Antonucci’s ideas, though relevant to the real world, applied mostly to the abstract world of dark matter. The existence of one implied the existence of the other. But how to bridge the two? The equation, itself evolving over the period of its development, became nothing less than a doorway – a window – between the realms of real and null space.
He died without ever finishing it.
I will finish the equation – not because that guarantees me publication, an enviable posting or a place in the academic pantheon. I will finish it because, until I do, Antonucci’s contribution will remain nothing more than an obscure footnote in math arcana. I will finish it because a completed equation will open new vistas in fractal geometry. I will finish it simply because it needs to be finished and I am the only one capable of doing so.
Argued badly with Haggerty over lunch. Was very much left with a sense that he doesn’t want to speak to me any more.
Fine. I’ve got work to do.
Was forced to stop work when spots appeared before my eyes: huge, pulsating, amoeba-like spots the color of novas, the color of night – each the color of the eclipse now beginning to darken the sky beyond my hotel room window. The streets are quiet. I limp around the room, sipping beer and popping pills until I’m ready to resume.
Just then, a knock at the door. Open it to find a bottle of whiskey sitting in the empty hallway. On the whiskey, a Post-It note.
Good luck. – H.
if f » n + P
then f ¹ n(X Ì Y)
n(n+P) + n(X Ì Y)
The doorway opens.
What the eye cannot understand, it cannot see. Nothingness is not nothing – darkness is just the eye’s response to the inconceivable.
Imagine a billion howling consciousnesses condensed to fill every square inch of space-time; the space between stars is not darkness. It is the infinite blast of light from an even larger number of stars downshifted along the color spectrum to a frequency manageable to the human eye. And in the face of infinite light, the only manageable frequency is black.
As I watch and the variables align and the room darkens and the shadow of Earth falls across the moon, the doorway between worlds opens. And I see. I see!
Then, within that darkness, points of light – a million of them. Flickering and coalescing and exploding into distinction until they are a shimmering curtain of flakes gleaming against the Nothing like “snow” on a TV tuned to static. But it is soundless. The room before me disappears to be replaced by this rippling, multi-dimensional curtain. And it billows slowly, as in some cosmic wind.
Expecting the white spots to grow, I am surprised when, instead, the blackness expands. An optical illusion. Accustomed to sunrise, we are surprised by darkrise. Expansion. And not just a widening but a pushing outward – toward the observer. A focus on one beam of darkness emerging from its cage of white flakes sees it approach, twist, widen … then split. Within that one black beam is more white. Which only suggests more darkness – beams within beams. Widening, expanding, rushing toward the observer with ever-increasing speed.
The Nothing swamps me in coiling waves of flesh, twisting, writhing … They are sentient. They are serpents. Worms.
I do not resist. They engulf me.
The dark rush is an oceanic pressure on my lungs. I gasp. Something presses the skin of my wrist. I gaze down to see an oozing anaconda of blackness reared by my side. Only this serpent has no eyes, no discernable features – just a carapace of hardened darkness dripping slime-colored goo. It noses me like a friendly puppy. Then, rearing back as if to strike, it hesitates a second before driving forward.
The impact is like having the wind knocked out of you underwater. I gasp and heave, stumbling at the edge of consciousness, nose and mouth constrained by imploding pressure. As I watch, the creature collides with – then enters – my arm.
My body shivers slightly during the absorption, which forms a ragged aperture. I crane forward to examine the point of impact, expecting blood. But instead of gore, the hole oozes something like light.
The flow drips downward, awakening the carpet of serpents littering my room. They stretch toward me en masse, as if drawn to the luminous blast. Sensing what is next, I stagger into the bathroom and lock the door behind me. Find this journal. Scribble these thoughts as a tidal wash of black creeps across the thresh- …
We are pleased. Here.
An eternity devouring our father’s corpse. A billion incarnations spent proving the hegemony of Dark. Now finished. The work of putrefaction complete. A second lifetime begins.
Beings in this When? Constrained by Form. We chafe in our confinement but accept this body as necessary. It allows us to navigate the hostile air of this alien world. Thus we can be. Act. Open new Gateways.
Surrounding us, the perversion of Light – inhabiting, refracting, absorbing, reflecting Form. Rest comes only occasionally – once every twenty-four hours – and even that is broken by an obscene silver light hanging against the black. We are denied. Nowhere is the pure Dark of Nothing.
Our time will come. Leaving this human dormitory for the chaos of the streets outside, we revel in the possibilities. So many lives. So many bodies. So much Form and light to attack – an infinity against which to proclaim our existence. Where light abides, Nothingness stands ready to co-exist, to persecute its primacy, then prevail. We. Have come here to live.
Another of Jamie’s “sweaty, trembling man” stories, where the character is under an almost unbearable pressure. Jamie is very effectively tuned to this particular emotional frequency, and here he uses this viewpoint to create what might be his cleanest, most forthright short tale yet. This is an under-your-skin affair with authentic emotions in play. Recommended.