Her only dream since Tuesday had been of its escape. The thing jumping its bounds and flourishing at the expense of creation. But then, it was a part of creation, was it not? The calculations wouldn’t matter anymore. It would be free. And in the lead up to their doom, the people of her planet, and perhaps of others, could only stand and watch.
She’d awake from the dream mildly, the winter morning light dim and struggling, and she’d smoke in bed until the alarm.
* * * * *
Theoretically, if not for the limits of the slate blackboard, the chalk-drawn Finster Cube might have unfolded infinitely, eventually consuming the lecture theatre, the campus, city, planet and universe. Professor Abigail Finster stepped back and watched as her creation repeatedly blossomed like a flower and collapse again, attempting to break the confines.
“What have you done?” said the Provost. He was a jowly man in a tweed jacket, sitting with a startled expression on his face, in the front row of theatre seats. Only he and the Professor were present.
“I’m not sure,” said Abigail Finster. “Isn’t that funny? The equation seems to be disobeying the concept of negative infinity, even though I’ve included it.”
She pointed at a spot near the beginning of the long lines of numbers and symbols.
“You see, the chain reaction begins approximately here, and that’s where it begins to take on a life of its own. It’s where the groundwork begins for the sum to become animated. You can see the result.”
“Yes, it’s being defiant, like a child. Naturally, I haven’t had time to properly analyse what’s motivating it. It may never be completely understood. It’s difficult to see the exact spot where logic-decay begins, and it rebels, and I’ve no idea how many rules of physics are being broken. The Cube could destroy worlds or open doors to Paradise, and yet it can be easily erased with a blackboard brush. Don’t you just adore irony?”
“This is ridiculous,” the Provost said. “You’re anthropomorphising. How can a string of numbers be defiant?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a question for the Philosophy Department. I just know that I’ve encountered some very impetuous equations in my time.”
“Oh yes. Equations can be impetuous, cranky, timid, depressed, gracious, vain, courageous, selfish, boastful, charitable, rude, ruthless and/or perverse. Shall I go on? And believe me, they all share the same twisted sense of humour. People like you just can’t see it. That’s why you’re an administrator.”
The two of them watched the chalky white lines of the cube regenerate and ricochet off of the outer edges of the blackboard, closing and reopening again and again, as though it were trying to break free.
“It’s unbelievable,” said the Provost, looking closer. “It’s too fantastic. This must be kept under wraps.”
“It will be, until I publish. I smell a Nobel Prize, though I’m not sure in what category.”
“You won’t publish.” The Provost stood, taking a chamois to the calculation. “You won’t even share it with colleagues.”
“Erase it if you like,” Finster said. “I have it memorised.”
“Nothing practical can come out of it, anyway,” the Provost said.
“Why is that important? We’re not capitalists.”
“And what if it can’t be contained, then what?”
“I can be speculative, too.” said Finster. “What if the Nazis got The Bomb before us? I’m an academic, and I thought you were, too. This is pure math.”
She lit a cigarette, and watched the Provost feverishly wipe the board clean.
“Who’s seen it?” he said.
“That’s a lie.”
Finster smiled, and blew smoke threw her nose.
The Provost wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and then left the theatre in disgust.
Professor Abigail Finster spent the evening drinking wine, and grading papers in her apartment. She had written the equation out onto an 8×11 sheet of paper, and pinned it to a corkboard, pausing occasionally to watch the Cube shrink and flower. Eventually, she forgot her work, and just stared. It was magic.
the next day
A lifelong resident of the city, Abigail Finster endured the Vancouver rain with meek resentment, as she would an annoying acquaintance whose bad habit was to show up when least welcome. But going out was unavoidable, since the man had told her that it was of the greatest importance in regards to her discovery.
She arrived for the appointment at the café early, shaking off her umbrella at the door. Then, with her coffee, she took a stool at a window, wiping a small hole in the condensation to watch the rain soaked traffic, vaguely recalling the dream, and wondering about the Cube’s character.
Her mathematical equation personality theory had been evolving since her doctoral years. Now it was a bit of light humour she enjoyed during quiet moments, constructing, assigning and assessing. But it had seriously consumed her in her early years as an academic. Mathematical formulas were as varied in disposition as people, after all, and responsible for much more. She’d once even considered it a legitimate thesis topic. Fortunately, her advisor didn’t have a sense of humour.
But, she argued —
Would so much importance have been placed upon E = mc2, if it was revealed that the formula could behave like a neurotic adolescent? Certainly, it was plausible that mass (m) and kinetic energy (E) are equal, since the speed of light (c2) is constant, and that therefore mass can be changed into energy, and energy into mass.
But, what if E = mc2 was known to suffer like a high school debutant from anxiety, mood swings, confusion and indecision, lethargy, irritability, and dabbled in self-harm? What then? Would we have built the bomb? What if the equation had had a tantrum in the Jornada del Muerto desert in 1945, and zapped the entire western hemisphere out of existence?
Abigail Finster shivered. There were dark numbers at work, controlling everything, unseen yet exceeding infinity. Their sums were rash. Constants were a contradiction. She knew, that in reality, the human understanding of physics and mathematics was the stuff of multiversal pulp fiction.
The man had told her over the telephone that she would recognise him by his fedora and trench coat.
“That’s a little cloak and dagger, isn’t it?” she’d said.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
In the end, he recognised her first, and sat down next to her quietly and without a greeting, with a large Americano and a slice of cake. He was tall. His trench coat was old and the colour of mud, as was his hat, and he wore soft yellow leather gloves. His face was eerily irregular, as though it had been poorly fitted. A birth defect, she guessed, and felt sorry for him.
“You are Professor Finster,” he said, as though informing her.
“You have somehow come across a variant of the Vermillion Equation.” He wasted no time getting down to brass tacks.
“Yes,” said the man. “Vermillion Equation is a sloppy translation, however; Вермильон Уравнение; Vermillion Jafna. I apologise.”
“Apology accepted. What the hell are you talking about?”
He looked at his drink as though it were an animal, then gulped it back.
“Hot,” he said, absently. “It is hot; es ist heiß; meleg van; je horúco.”
“So, you’re a linguist,” said Finster.
“No.” He removed a glove and stuck a thorny finger into the cake. “Soft. Sticky.”
“Look, will you tell me why we’re here. I’m busy. I have papers to grade.”
He took his finger out of the cake, and looked at it, squinting. And after a moment, he put out his narrow purple tongue and tasted.
“Sweet,” he said, then put his finger into his mouth and sucked.
“Oh, c’mon,” said Finster.
“The Cube is not yours,” the man said, removing his finger and smacking his oddly molded lips. “You will shatter planets.”
“How do you know about the Cube? How will I shatter planets?”
“You are more curious than intelligent.”
“Fine.” Finster began to get off of her stool. The man reached over, took hold of her shoulder, and held her in place.
“Shall I shriek now?” she said.
“Nine. Bitte hinsetzen.”
“So, you’re German.”
“No. Spoken languages are difficult, however. P-please sit down.”
She sat, looking again at his crooked face. The eyes and ears poorly arranged. One nostril of the broad nose completely closed.
“You’re not from here, are you?” Finster said.
“Yes it bloody is material,” she said, trying not to raise her voice. It came out as a hiss. “And get your goddamn hand off my shoulder.”
He did, then picked up his fork at the wrong end, and began to eat his cake. Finster snatched it. Then, having turned it round, forced it back into his hand.
“Oh,” he said, looking at the tines.
“What about the Cube?”
“It is unkind,” he said, as he chewed. A chocolatey brown rivulet of saliva dribbled down his chin.
“Unkind?” said Finster, taking a serviette and wiping the spit away. She was experiencing strange feelings of empathy. The man needed a nanny.
“How is it cruel?”
“The equation has seduced you,” he said. “It loves you, and you are smitten. You’re already lovers. It craves kindness, and you believe that only you can come to understand it. However, even though the equation loves you, its sum hates you, which you are too deluded by passion to believe. When it asks, you will set it free. You will write the equation in the sand of an immense desert with a stick, or drop it written on a page, onto the surface of an ocean, and the sum of it, the Cube, will unfold, building momentum, smashing its boundaries. It will achieve its third dimension, no longer be mere lines, and smother Earth first, before it moves on, etc. and on and on….
“You mustn’t succumb,” he said. “You know this instinctively, that this romance is already ruined. But you deny it, and that makes you the most dangerous woman in the galaxy.”
“Say, where’s your spaceship, spaceman?”
“Please, do not condescend. I’ve come to protect you.”
“Me?” She placed a hand above her breast, melodramatically.
“You, the planet, the people, others you don’t know, cannot see. We have invested. You’re no longer merely an experiment. We will go to any lengths.”
The man didn’t stop her now, as she stood and fixed her scarf, preparing to go. Her eyes didn’t leave him as he sat in grim profile.
“What are any lengths, tough guy?” she said.
He ate his cake, and hummed: “Mmmm, cioccolato.”
* * * * *
The next day, as she stood with papers in her arms, waiting for an elevator, a favourite student of Abigail Finster’s nearly commented on the way the Professor’s left ear and right eye had somehow moved ever-so-slightly out of place, giving her face a new noticeably asymmetrical appearance. Her lips seemed thinner, too. The student, however, was even more taken aback by Finster’s refusal to recognise her.