Doughnutby Tom Holt
The doughnut is a thing of beauty. A circle of fried doughy perfection. A source of comfort in trying times, perhaps. For Theo Bernstein, however, it is far, far more.Things have been going pretty badly for Theo Bernstein. An unfortunate accident at work has lost him his job (and his work involved a Very Very Large Hadron Collider, so he's unlikely to get it back).… See more details below
The doughnut is a thing of beauty. A circle of fried doughy perfection. A source of comfort in trying times, perhaps. For Theo Bernstein, however, it is far, far more.Things have been going pretty badly for Theo Bernstein. An unfortunate accident at work has lost him his job (and his work involved a Very Very Large Hadron Collider, so he's unlikely to get it back). His wife has left him. And he doesn't have any money.Before Theo has time to fully appreciate the pointlessness of his own miserable existence, news arrives that his good friend Professor Pieter van Goyen, renowned physicist and Nobel laureate, has died.By leaving the apparently worthless contents of his safety deposit to Theo, however, the professor has set him on a quest of epic proportions. A journey that will rewrite the laws of physics. A battle to save humanity itself.This is the tale of a man who had nothing and gave it all up to find his destiny - and a doughnut.
Holt's (Blonde Bombshell) unsatisfying science fantasy caper starts off entertaining, when genius physicist Theo Bernstein is unable to find work in his field after blowing up the VVLHC (Very Very Large Hadron Collider). Bernstein is left penniless by a private equity scam, forced to work and live in a slaughterhouse, dumped by his fourth wife, and handicapped by an invisible right hand. Things get even worse when he receives a unique inheritance from his mentor, Nobel Laureate Pieter von Goyen: $5000, an apple, and the multiverses inside a bottle, guarded by mathematical equations. Solving the equations sends Theo tumbling dangerously through parallel universes populated by telepathic green aliens, murderous Disney characters, and western gunslingers. With amusingly absurd set-pieces but inconsistent characterizations, this assemblage of increasingly slipshod humor and illogical plot twists fails to deliver and, true to title, is rather hollow. (Mar.)
A light read from the prolific humorist; a romp round the multiverse."SFX on Doughnut"
Like the deep-fried snack after which it's named, this sic-fi novel is sweet and fun."Sun (UK) on Doughnut"
Holt adds to his repertoire of comedic sf, one of the most difficult genera acts to master. Theo is an engaging hero; his brilliance is counteracted by his laziness and his compassion, which is matched by his sense of survival. Place this title alongside Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, Pratchett's "Discworld" series, and the absurdist works of mainstream authors such as John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino."Library Journal (Starred Review) on Doughnut"
One for physicists as well s Krispy Kreme-loving policemen."T3 on Doughnut"
Blonde Bombshell is a clever, funny, tirelessly inventive, apocalyptic leg-hump of a book."
Christopher Moore,New York Times bestselling author
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By Tom Holt
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Tom Holt
All right reserved.
In The Beginning Was The Misprint
“One mistake,” Theo said sadly, “one silly little mistake, and now look at me.”
The Human Resources manager stared at him with fascination. “Not that little,” she said breathlessly. “You blew up—”
“A mountain, yes.” He shrugged. “And the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, and very nearly Switzerland. Like I said, one mistake. I moved the decimal point one place left instead of one place right. Could’ve happened to anyone.”
The Human Resources manager wasn’t so sure about that, but she didn’t want to spoil the flow. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and smiled encouragingly. “Go on,” she said.
“Well,” Theo replied, leaning back a little in his chair, “that was just the beginning. After that, things really started to get ugly.”
“First,” Theo said, “my wife left me. You can’t blame her, of course. People nudging each other and looking at her wherever she went, there goes the woman whose husband blew up the VVLHC, that sort of thing—”
“Excuse me,” the Human Resources manager interrupted. “This would be your third wife?”
“Fourth. Oh, sorry, forgot. Pauline dumped me for her personal fitness trainer while I was still at CalTech. It was Amanda who left me after the explosion.”
“Ah, right. Go on.”
“Anyway,” Theo said, “there I was, alone, no job, no chance of anyone ever wanting to hire me ever again, but at least I still had the twenty million dollars my father left me. I mean, money isn’t everything—”
“But at least I knew I wasn’t going to starve, not so long as I had Dad’s money. And it was invested really safely.”
“In Schliemann Brothers,” Theo said mournfully, “the world’s biggest private equity fund. No way it could ever go bust, they said.” He smiled. “Ah well.”
“The lot, yes. Of course, the blow was cushioned slightly by the fact that Amanda would’ve had most of it, when the divorce went through. But instead, all she got was the house, the ranch, the ski resort and the Caribbean island. She was mad as hell about that,” Theo added with a faint grin, “but what can you do?”
The Human Resources manager was twisting a strand of her hair round her finger. “And?”
“Anyhow,” Theo went on, “it’s been pretty much downhill all the way since then. After I lost the house, I stayed with friends for a while, only it turned out they weren’t friends after all, not after all the money had gone. Actually, to be fair, it wasn’t just that, it was the blowing-up-the-VVLHC thing. You see, most of my friends were physicists working on the project, so they were all suddenly out of work too, and they tried not to blame me, but it’s quite hard not blaming someone when it actually is their fault.” He grinned sadly, then shrugged. “So I moved into this sort of hostel place, where they’re supposed to help you get back on your feet.”
The pressure of the coiled hair around her finger was stopping her blood from flowing. She let go. “Yes? And?”
“I got asked to leave,” Theo said sadly. “Apparently, technically I counted as an arsonist, and the rules said no arsonists, because of the insurance. They told me, if I’d killed a bunch of people in the explosion it’d have been OK, because their project mission statement specifically includes murderers. But, since nobody got hurt in the blast, I had to go. So I’ve been sort of camping out in the subway, places like that. Which is why,” he added, sitting up straight and looking her in the eye, “I really need this job. I mean, it’ll help me put my life back together, get me on my feet again. Well? How about it?”
The Human Resources manager looked away. “If it was up to me—”
“Oh, come on.” Theo gave her his best dying spaniel look. “You can’t say I haven’t got qualifications. Two doctorates in quantum physics—”
“Not relevant qualifications,” the Human Resources manager said. “Not relevant to the field of flipping burgers. I’m sorry.” She did look genuinely sad, he had to give her that. “You’re overqualified. With a résumé like that, you’re bound to get a better offer almost immediately, so where’s the point in us hiring you?”
“Oh, come on,” Theo said again. “After what I’ve done? Nobody’s going to want me. I’m unemployable.”
“Yes.” She smiled sympathetically. “You are. Also, you’re a bit old—”
“Most of our entry-level staff are considerably younger than that,” she said. “I’m not sure we could find a uniform to fit you.” He could see she was struggling with something, and it wasn’t his inside-leg measurement. He betted he could guess what it would be. “And there’s the hand.”
Won his bet. He gave her a cold stare. “You do know it’s against the law to discriminate on grounds of physical disability.”
“Yes, but—” She gave him a helpless look. “Frankly, I think the company would be prepared to take a stand on this one. We’ve got our customers to think about, and—”
He nodded slowly. He could see her point. Last thing you want when you’re buying your burger, fries and shake is to see them floating towards you through the air. It was an attitude he’d learned to live with, ever since the accident had left his right arm invisible up to the elbow. He wished now he’d lied about it, but the man at the outreach centre had told him to be absolutely honest. “Fine,” he said. “Well, thanks for listening, anyhow.”
“I really am sorry.”
“Of course you are.”
“And anyway,” she added brightly, “a guy like you, with all those degrees and doctorates. You wouldn’t be happy flipping burgers in a fast-food joint.”
“Wouldn’t I?” He gave her a gentle smile. “It’d have been nice to find out. Goodbye.”
Outside, the sun was shining; a trifle brighter than it would otherwise have done, thanks to him, but he preferred not to dwell on that. He had enough guilt to lug around without contemplating the effect his mishap had had on the ozone layer. Cheer up, he ordered himself; one more interview to go to, and who knows? This time–
“Worked in a slaughterhouse before, have you?” the man asked.
“Doesn’t matter. What you got to do is,” he said, pointing down the dark corridor, “wheel that trolley full of guts from that hatch there to that skip there, empty the guts into the skip, go back, fill another trolley, wheel it to the skip, empty it, go back and fill it again. And so on. Reckon you can do that?”
“I think so.”
The man nodded. “Most of ’em stick it out three weeks,” he said. “You, I’m guessing, maybe two. Still, if you want the job—”
“Oh yes,” Theo said. “Please.”
The man shrugged. “Suit yourself. Couldn’t do it myself, and I’ve been in the slaughtering forty years, but—” He paused and frowned. “What’s the matter with your arm?”
Theo sensed that the man probably didn’t need to hear about the quantum slipstream effect of the implosion of the VVLHC. “Lost it. Bitten off by a shark.”
“Too bad. Won’t that make it awkward, loading the guts?”
“Oh, I’ll have a stab at it, see how I get on.”
“That’s the spirit,” the man said absently. “OK, you start tomorrow.”
In the beginning was the Word.
Not, perhaps, the most auspicious start for a cosmos; because once you have a Word, sooner or later you find you’ve also got an annoying Paperclip, and little wriggly red lines like tapeworms under all the proper nouns, and then everything freezes solid and dies. This last stage is known to geologists as the Ice Age, and one can’t help thinking that it could’ve been avoided if only the multiverse had been thoroughly debugged before it was released.
But things change; that’s how it works. You can see Time as a coral reef of seconds and minutes, growing into a chalk island sitting on top of an infinite coal seam studded with diamonds the size of oil tankers; and each second is a cell dividing, two, three or a million roads-not-travelled-by every time your heart beats and the silicone pulses; and every division is a new start, the beginning of another version of the story – versions in which the Red Sea didn’t part or Lee Harvey Oswald missed or Hamlet stayed in Wittenberg and got a job.
So; in the beginning was the Word, but ten nanoseconds later there was a twelve-volume dictionary, and ten nanoseconds after that a Library of Congress, with 90 per cent of the books in foreign languages. It’s probably not possible after such a lapse of time to find out what the original Word was. Given the consequences, however, it could well have been oops.
The first week wasn’t so bad. Well, it was; but at least he found the work so shatteringly exhausting that all he could do at the end of his shift was stagger home, stuff a pie or a sandwich in his face (for some reason, since he’d been working at the slaughterhouse he seemed to have lost his appetite), roll into bed and sleep like a corpse until it was time to get up and go to work. This suited him fine.
By the second week, however, he found he was coping with the exertion of gut-hauling rather better, which meant that he had enough stamina to allow him to sit staring aimlessly at the walls of his room for an hour before falling asleep. By the end of the fourth week, he could manage three hours of aimless staring with no bother at all. This wasn’t good. Staring at the walls proved to be a primitive form of meditation, in the course of which he analysed his life so far, and ended up reaching the conclusion that it hadn’t been going so well lately. Alone, all the money gone, living in a ghastly little shoebox and spending all day loading still-warm intestines into a galvanised box on wheels; it wasn’t, he couldn’t help thinking, the sort of life he’d quite reasonably anticipated five years before, when he was appointed as the youngest ever Kawaguchiya Integrated Circuits professor of multiphasic quantum dynamics at the University of Leiden.
Still, he told himself, it could be worse; at least he had a job, and somewhere to live.
The week after that, he was consoling himself that at least he had a job; furthermore, he had kind, understanding employers who didn’t mind him turning up to work looking like he’d slept in a cardboard box in the supermarket car park. This was just as well, since the landlord of the horrible little room had thrown him out for smelling overpoweringly of entrails. The cardboard box had been a lucky find. It was big. If he curled up in it like a hibernating dormouse, he could close the flaps and imagine they were the roof of a tiny, tiny little house. Generally speaking it was peaceful in the car park after 2 a.m., when the last of the local kids had gone home. Count your blessings, he told himself, it could be worse.
But then it rained, reducing his beautiful cosy box to brown porridge, and Theo started to feel despondent. His boss, a man with a heart of gold and absolutely no sense of smell, took pity on him and let him sleep beside the guts skip, but only short-term, until he could get himself fixed up with a proper home. He couldn’t, he pointed out as kindly as he could, have employees sleeping rough on the premises indefinitely. It lowered the tone.
Still, Theo told himself, as he wandered the streets one night, waiting for it to be time to go to sleep, think of all the money I’m saving not paying rent. He sat down in a shop doorway and fished out the crumpled brown envelope in which he kept his money. He counted it. Not quite enough for the man he’d once been to buy half a pair of his customary brand of socks, but, to someone lulled to sleep each night by the placid drip-drip-drip of stale blood from the hole in the guts skip floor, a tidy sum. You could buy all manner of things with that much money. Some of them in bottles.
There was a late-night off-licence just down the road. He stood up, folded the notes round his right hand and stuffed it in his overall pocket. Booze had never been one of his problems; but, given his present circumstances, he could see no reason why he shouldn’t go for the complete set. In the distance, the liquor-store window glowed a sort of golden amber, like a lighthouse guiding him home.
Inside the store it was bright and warm. A tired-looking woman stared at him, and her expression changed just a little bit. Just a little bit can mean so much – the length of a nose, the gap between lower lip and chin. Scientific studies of the human face have established that the difference between heart-stopping loveliness and look-the-other-way ugly can sometimes be as little as a quarter of an inch. On this occasion, just a little bit was plenty.
“Small bottle of lemonade, please,” Theo said. “The cheapest you’ve got.”
Later, with his back snuggled against the sharp edge of the skip and his invisible hand loosely holding a half-empty bottle of something that tasted like neat citric acid but wasn’t, he reflected on rope theory. It was a hypothesis of his own: a bit like string theory, except that it was more robust and slightly less prone to tangling itself into knots. In particular, he contemplated the notion that reality is made up of an infinite number of universes, all occupying the same place and time. In which case, somewhere nearby (so close he ought to be able to reach out and touch it) was a universe in which he’d moved that pesky decimal point right instead of left. In that universe, where would he be, right now? Switzerland, probably; in his palatial, air-freshened, carpeted office, working hard on Phase 9 before going home to his comfortable house and his loving wife. He lifted the bottle and stared through it; first through the glass, then through the clear liquid that wasn’t neat acid. The distorting effect of the bottle and the opacity of its contents blurred his focus just nicely. He tapped the bottle with the fingernails of his visible left hand, and admired the gentle, clipped ting. It looked nice and snug inside there, he decided, probably a great place to live, almost certainly better than where he was living now. He could climb inside, pull the cork in after himself, and be peaceful for a while. He’d like that. Then, maybe, after he’d been – what did wine do? – maturing in the bottle for a thousand years or so, perhaps he’d mutate or evolve into something rather better; a genie, obviously, a powerful, magical entity trapped in a bottle but capable of being released, to do good deeds and grant wishes. Maybe. Or maybe he could turn into a message, bobbing through an endless sea, bearing an awful warning.
He glanced at the label, which told him nothing he could understand.
Drowning your sorrows won’t help, said a voice in his head. It sounded a bit like his mother, a woman who’d lied to him about the existence of Santa Claus and was therefore not to be trusted on matters of any importance. Rope theory. End-of-rope theory. At the very end of your rope, you can either hang on or let go, but in most cases it makes very little difference in the long run. Besides, he wasn’t drowning his sorrows, he was dissolving them in acid. There’s a difference.
Here endeth the lesson. He drank a bit more, altering the optical qualities of the bottle, whose value as an instrument of scientific observation he was beginning to question. People reckoned the world looked better seen through the bottom of a bottle, but it didn’t. Just a bit rounder, and sort of an orange colour.
If only the heartburn wasn’t fuzzing his powers of concentration, maybe he could combine string theory and rope theory to make macramé theory; whereby it should be possible to take all those flailing strings and weave them into what you wanted them to be – a lifeline, perhaps, that’d be nice, or a halter, or a noose. Or even – how about this for a really neat idea – one of those South American rope bridges that sway alarmingly above a mind-numbing abyss, seconds before some clown with a machete cuts through the rope, as always happens in the movies, and the whole lot goes twisting and crashing back down into the –
Um. Not the sort of image you want in your mind when you’ve just drunk two-thirds of a bottle of saturated solution of saccharine on top of an end-of-date meat pie. He sat up, which made the world stop swirling. Excellent. Cause for a celebration. He celebrated with three gulping mouthfuls, dropped the bottle, closed his eyes and flopped against the side of the skip.
The bottle didn’t break when it hit the ground. Instead, it rolled a little way, bumped against the toe of Theo’s boot, and stopped. Theo was well away by then, asleep and dreaming the one where he was being chased by giant cucumbers across the shuttle bay of the Enterprise. Accordingly, he wasn’t watching the bottle as the last inch or so of acid drained out of it, revealing a small object.
To identify the object he’d have had to lean forwards and peer closely through the glass. This would’ve had a bad effect, probably culminating in the return of the meat pie, so it’s just as well he didn’t. But if he had, he’d have seen inside the bottle a tiny model of a ship, barely an inch long but perfect in every detail, right down to its gossamer rigging. The ship floated on the outgoing tide until its draught was too great for the meniscus to support it; then it flopped sideways, touched the glass wall and vanished as though it had never been.
The guts next morning were mostly sheep: grey, tubular and pungent. He tried not to look at them, with the result that he missed the trolley with a heaped armful and dumped them on his feet instead. Stooping to pick them up was no fun whatsoever. Something broke loose inside his stomach as he bent over, and he could feel his intestines being eaten from the inside out. A year ago, he told himself, just over a year ago, I was running the simulations for the quantum phase feedback inversion trials. Maybe at some point I swallowed the reactor pile, and I’m only just starting to feel the effects.
One year; how time flies. How would it be, he thought, as he slopped the last few yards of sheep gut into the skip, if I took this remarkably fine trolley and pushed it down this well-tiled corridor as fast as it can go; really fast, until it’s travelling at the speed of light? Then all I’d have to do is jump in, and – no, no point. I’d go forward in time, not back, and forward in time would probably find me still here, and that’d be too depressing for words. Oh well.
Eleven trolley-loads later, he looked up and saw his boss waddling towards him down the corridor, his nose buried in the filthiest handkerchief he’d ever seen in his life. The smell, presumably. Odd. Theo hadn’t noticed the smell for weeks.
“Got something for you,” his boss said.
His boss nodded. “Came in this morning’s post, addressed to you.”
What? A refrigerator? A camel? “A letter?”
The boss nodded. “Here.” He took an envelope from his pocket. It was white, apart from a big brown thumbprint. “Who’s writing to you, then?”
The address was printed, not handwritten. “No idea. Thanks,” he added.
“You going to open it, then?”
Theo nodded. “Later,” he said. “In my own time.”
His boss shrugged and walked away. Theo waited till he was gone, then looked down at the letter. He didn’t get mail any more. For one thing, who knew where to reach him? The writer of this letter, obviously. He frowned at it, then stuffed it into his overall pocket. The only place the letter could possibly have come from was the past, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to have anything to do with all that, thanks all the same. The past had been nice to him for thirty-odd years, but they hadn’t parted on the best of terms. If the letter was from his wife’s lawyers, he wasn’t in the mood.
His iron resolution lasted three minutes. Then he perched on the edge of the guts trolley, wiped his hands on his overalls and carefully prised back the flap of the letter, like an engineer defusing his thousandth unexploded bomb.
Dear Mr Bernstein
He glanced up at the letterhead and saw a bunch of names, huddled together like penned-up cattle. Lawyers. But not the bunch of timber wolves retained by his ex-wife. He frowned.
Dear Mr Bernstein
This firm acts for the executors of the late Professor Pieter van Goyen. In his will, Professor van Goyen –
Time inverted, distance collapsed, and just for a moment he was a brilliant, arrogant, twenty-three-year-old research fellow (the youngest ever in the university’s history) unpacking his books in his new rooms in Leiden. A faint knock at the door; vexed at the interruption, he calls out, “Come in, it’s open”; suddenly there’s a man standing in the doorway.
A tiny man; four feet ten, if that, and almost perfectly circular; two perfect circles, head and body, with no perceptible neck, no hair, and huge, perfectly round spectacles that made his face look like a Venn diagram. An immaculate dark blue suit, with the trousers turned up almost to the knee, tiny fingers poking out of the turned-up cuffs like little pink worms. Carpet slippers. “Hello,” said a soft, impossibly deep voice, “you must be Theo Bernstein.” Not a request for information, not even a statement; more like an order, to be obeyed without question. Pieter van Goyen.
Professor Pieter van Goyen, the greatest physicist of his age, triple Nobel laureate, the man whose drive and vision transformed the Very Large Hadron Collider into the Very Very Large Hadron Collider; the man whose life work he’d blown up. On the day Theo left Leiden, at 5 a.m., disguised as a nun to avoid the photographers, Pieter had been there to see him off, a magisterial Michelin man in a bespoke camel coat whose unadjusted hems pooled around his feet, silk pyjamas and flip-flops.
“I’m sorry”, Theo had mumbled.
A slight shrug. “Stuff happens. What’ll you do now?”
Theo couldn’t stop his face cracking into a jagged grin. “That,” he’d said, “is a very good question.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll fix everything.” And, for a fraction of a second, he’d believed it. Except nobody could fix it for the man who’d just turned an entire Alp into a cloud of fine dust, currently grounding all air traffic from Istanbul to Reykjavik. “It may take a little time, but I’ll see to it, don’t you worry.”
Then the taxi had taken him away, and now Pieter was dead. The world’s shortest giant was gone for ever, and that – well, the things that had happened to Theo Bernstein since he left Leiden had been annoying, verging on tiresome, but Pieter’s death was bad.
He looked down at the letter;
– left you the sum of five thousand US dollars and the contents of his safe deposit box.
Theo never remembered his dreams, even the ones with cucumbers; so, when he woke up on the train to Leiden with a crick in his neck and a mouth that tasted slightly worse then the guts trolley smelt, he was amazed to find that there were scenes and images in his head. It was like finding a stranger in his bath.
The dream, however, was no big deal; in fact, it had been so dull he could remember yawning, stretching, vainly fighting the unbearable heaviness of his eyelids, and waking up. He’d been in the audience at one of those conferences he’d always found an excuse for not going to. Pieter van Goyen was up on the stage, back turned, writing equations on a huge blackboard. The maths didn’t work, but Pieter didn’t seem aware of it; he carried on chalking and scribbling until he reached the end, whereupon he scrawled x = 7 and triple underlined it with a great flourish, and everybody started to applaud. But x didn’t = 7; a ten-year-old could’ve pointed out the flaws in the algebra. Still, the audience were on their feet, a full-blown standing ovation, and Theo realised he was the only one still sitting down. He shifted uncomfortably, and then he was sitting in the same seat in the same auditorium, next to the same thin woman with glasses and the same tall, bald man, and Pieter was up on the stage writing out more equations, but it was a year later. The equations didn’t work this time, either; but everybody seemed so engrossed in the proceedings that he didn’t dare say anything. Instead, he covered his face with his hand, and that was when his eyelids started to droop, and the clacking of Pieter’s chalk blurred into a raindrops-on-roof soothing lullaby, and he’d yawned and stretched, and –
Woken up on the train, feeling as though he’d been lynched twice by an apprentice hangman. His left foot had gone to sleep, and so had his right hand. He blinked and licked his lips, and noticed that the seat next to him, which had been empty for the last four hours, was now occupied. Furthermore, his right hand (the invisible one) had gone numb because it was wedged between the armrest and the thigh of the new occupant, a pretty girl in her early twenties.
Oh, he thought.
It wasn’t easy to think with his head full of sleep, but he had a stab at it. Apologising and explaining – no, probably not. Gently easing his hand away could well cause more problems than it solved. He’d almost decided on standing up as quickly and as sharply as he could and walking very fast to the next compartment, until he realised that he couldn’t do that, not with a left foot he couldn’t feel any sensation in. That just left staying perfectly still and pretending he was still asleep; an unsatisfying plan, but the best he could think of under the circumstances. Unfortunately, before he could close his eyes and do the deep, regular breathing, the girl looked up from her book and smiled at him.
“Hi,” she said.
It’s like this, he rehearsed. My right arm’s invisible, because of an industrial accident, and you got in after I fell asleep, and my right hand – no, not really. “Hi,” he sort of gurgled.
“You were fast asleep,” she said. “I hope I didn’t disturb you.”
“What? Oh, no, not at all.” He tried to sit up a bit straighter, but his trapped hand tethered him like an anchor. Any moment now, he thought, she’ll go back to reading her book, and then maybe I can sort of wriggle my back up the seat a bit and get straight.
She really was very pretty, which didn’t help; straight, shoulder-length black hair, deep brown eyes, and she’d been reading Hawking and Mlodinow on string theory. Under different circumstances this wouldn’t be a bad place to be. As it was –
“I couldn’t help noticing,” she said. “Your book.”
“What?” He glanced down. In his lap, where it had fallen, was the copy of Greenidge and Chen’s Macrodimensional Field Inversion Dynamics which had sent him to sleep in the first place. Properly speaking, in fact, this whole mess was their fault. “Oh, that.”
“You’re a physicist.”
“Was,” he said. “Not any more.”
“Wait a minute.” She was looking at him, and he was sure he could see the usual signs. Very occasionally, people recognised him (his face had been all over the TV for a short time, while they were shoring up what was left of the mountain) and their reaction was always the same. Fascinated horror, embarrassment, curiosity. You’re the guy who blew up the VVLHC.
“You’re Theo Bernstein,” she said.
Here goes. He sighed. “Yes.”
“Oh, this is so amazing.”
It was as if he was a boxer, and his opponent, having just belted him in the solar plexus, had leaned forward and kissed him on the nose. “Excuse me?”
“I’m such a fan of your work,” she said. “Your paper on the supersymmetry of fermions was just so—” She paused and took a deep breath. “It changed my life,” she said.
He frowned. “It did?”
“Oh, yes. It was like I’d been blind since birth, and then suddenly, wham!”
Then suddenly, wham. Not how he remembered it. His abiding memory of that particular paper had been sitting in front of his laptop at 3 a.m. with a violent coffee headache, trying to figure out where the glaring inconsistency he’d just noticed had crept in from, and how he was going to get round it in time to meet a horribly close deadline. Now, after all this time, he couldn’t remember what he’d actually said. “Um, I’m glad you liked it,” he said. “So, you’re a physicist too.”
“Well, kind of.” She actually blushed. He’d never met a girl who blushed. Red-faced with fury, yes. “I’m just starting as a postgraduate at MIT, working on Reimann manifolds, though I’m hoping one day I could join the SGBHC project.” She paused and looked shyly down at her hands. “If I’m good enough,” she added. “Which isn’t very likely.”
It felt like a cue, and he didn’t know his lines. “Well,” he said, “they took me, so they can’t be too picky. Provided you don’t blow anything up, you should be just fine.”
“That was so awful, wasn’t it?” She gave him a look of deep, sincere compassion, which made him feel like he’d just been hit over the head with a million dollars. “I mean, I can’t imagine how you must’ve felt, all those years of brilliant hard work, and then one little bit of bad luck.”
Bad luck, he thought. Not really. His only slice of bad luck was being the older child of parents whose eldest son was an idiot. The sort of thing that could happen to anyone, perhaps, but it had happened to him. “Nice of you to say so,” he mumbled.
“And I definitely think they were all so horrible to you afterwards,” she went on. “I mean, if it hadn’t been for you, there wouldn’t have been a VVLHC to blow up.”
That’s a way of looking at it, he thought. A bit like saying the Allies owed their victory in the Second World War to Hitler, because they could never have won the war if he hadn’t started it. Time, he decided, to change the subject. “Reimann manifolds,” he said. “That’s a pretty interesting field.”
Her eyes shone. “Oh yes,” she said, and spent the next five minutes telling him a lot of stuff he already knew about Reimann manifolds, time he spent vainly trying to figure out a way of getting her to move her leg without actually pushing her out of her seat. At the end of the interval, the numbness in his right hand had been replaced by the most violent attack of pins and needles he’d ever experienced.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but you’re sitting on my hand.”
“My hand.” Oh well, he thought, and gently pulled it free. For a moment or so, the world was a brilliantly coloured firework display, each scintillating hue a variation on the central theme of pain. “It’s invisible,” he explained. “That’s why you didn’t see it.”
“Invis—” She stared at him. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s quite all right.” He spread his fingers out on his knee and took a couple of deep breaths. “It was the accident, you see. I was the only person in the building at the time, thank God, and something really, really weird happened, I honestly don’t remember anything about it; and when I came round in the hospital, it was gone. Only it wasn’t. I tried to tell the doctors it was still there, but they didn’t believe me. They just told me about phantom limb syndrome and arranged counselling.” He shrugged. “It can be a real nuisance sometimes, but what the hell?”
She was looking at the end of his sleeve. “Couldn’t you, like, paint it or something?”
He grinned. “Anything that touches it disappears too,” he said. “There’s an invisible shirt sleeve covering it right now. When I take the shirt off, it’ll reappear.”
“Oh wow.” Her eyes were wide. “That’s just so amazing. What makes it do that, do you think?”
He shrugged. “Like I said, I was a physicist. These days, I’m just a one-armed unemployable. I just try not to think about it.”
“But—” She stopped. “I understand,” she said. “It must be so painful for you. But still, it’s such a waste, I mean, one of the most brilliant minds of the twenty-first century—” She stopped again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll shut up now.”
He grinned. “Actually, I’ve been called worse,” he said. “But you’re wrong. A brilliant mind doesn’t make all that extra work for the cartographers.”
She laughed, then immediately resumed her serious face. “If I had a talent like yours, nothing on earth would stop me using it. I’d force them to listen to me, no matter what. I mean, you actually discovered the twelfth dimension. That was so cool.”
There’s only so much of that kind of thing a man can take. “Tell me more about what you’re doing,” he said. “It sounds really—”
Fortunately he didn’t have to supply a suitable adjective. She launched into another long and detailed account, allowing him time to give himself a stern talking-to. No more self-belief, because look what that got you into the last time. And positively no more falling in love. Absolutely not.
“So I was wondering if…” She’d sort of ground to a halt, and was looking hopefully at him, like a dog that can see the biscuit in its owner’s hand. “I know, it’s, like, so presumptuous of me, and if you say no, no way, I’ll quite understand, I really, really will. But if you could see your way to just running your eye over these equations, see if you can find where I’ve gone wrong—”
Ah. Right. Actually, he was so grateful to her for exhibiting properly normal opportunism that he forgave her completely. It made the whole encounter that bit less surreal. “Sure,” he said. “Let me see what you’ve got.”
She dived into her bag like a trained seal and emerged with the latest model LoganBerry. “The truth is,” she said, “my maths isn’t good enough for me to tackle a set of equations like this. I mean, I can ask the question, but I’m, like, not equipped to answer it, which is so frustrating, because I’m sure I’m nearly there, only—”
“Mphm.” He glanced at the complex patterns of numbers and symbols and blinked twice. Hot stuff. Tuning out her voice, he began to trace his way through the maze.
Halfway down the screen, he stopped. I know this place, he thought.
Or at least, once upon a time I came quite close. So, let’s see: if x is the interface, the dividing wall between dimensions, and y is the energy required to convert that interface into matter, and z is – He frowned. He could see quite clearly that z in this context was a whole lot more than just the last letter of the alphabet, but what, exactly? Hell, if he didn’t know better, he could almost believe that z was –
He realised he’d stopped breathing. “Are you OK?” she said.
“What? Oh, yes, fine.”
“Only you went this funny colour.”
“I’m fine. Really.”
If z was what he thought it was, and if he followed it through and actually found z, which was more than likely, given the direction the numbers were flowing.
He lifted his head a little and looked at the screen. I know what this is, he thought.
It’s a bomb.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but what’s it for?”
She frowned, just a little. “What?”
“The purpose of the exercise. What you’re trying to achieve.”
She smiled. It was the sort of smile you might come up with if you’d heard smiles described but never actually seen one. “It’s, like, pure research,” she said. “It’s not actually for anything.”
“Ah,” he said. “That’s a comfort. Because you do realise, if you were actually to solve these equations, you’d be able to punch a hole clean through the fabric of—”
With a hideous, ear-splitting screech she lifted both arms into the air, as though grabbing hold of something (but there was nothing there.) In that split second, her face seemed to change. Her eyes turned yellow and sank back into her skull, her nose melted like cheese, some sort of fangs or tusks splayed out of the side of her mouth. Then it was as though a small but intensely concentrated tornado formed around her, twisting her head and body into a thin spiral, like a screw-thread. “So long, loser,” she screamed, and vanished.
He reached the Leiden branch of the Credit Mayonnais an hour before closing time, and was shown into a huge steel box whose sides were lined with small steel boxes. A sour-faced man spent a hundred years checking through the paperwork, and then they performed the holy ceremony of the twin keys. Then he withdrew, leaving Theo alone with a grey stove-enamelled shoebox.
He didn’t open it straight away, even though time was running short and they’d be along any minute to throw him out. Instead, he sat in the wobbly plastic chair and looked at it. A tin box. A container, an enclosure of space. A quotation whose origin escaped him floated into his mind and got stuck there, like sweet corn skin in the gaps between the teeth; one little room an everywhere. Well, quite. The box only seemed small because he was six feet one inch tall. If he was a trifle shorter – say one inch from head to toe – he could live in it quite happily, raise a family there, maybe even rent out the bit he didn’t use to bring in some extra cash. Thanks to science and technology, the days when human achievement was limited by what a man could lift or pull were long since gone. A race of one-inch-tall life forms would have no difficulty conquering the galaxy if their technology was sufficiently advanced. And a box could hold an entire world.
Thanks, Pieter, he thought, as he reached out and turned the little key. True, he had no idea what he was going to find in there. Knowing Pieter it could be anything, from a kilo bag of uncut diamonds to a small pile of pencil sharpenings; but how many people would give you an entire world? On the small side, maybe, but one thing was for sure. It had to be an improvement on the one he was living in right now.
He opened the box, and found in it –
A small bottle
A brown manila envelope
A pink powder compact
Ah, he thought. He picked up the bottle and shook it: empty. The label was starting to peel off. There was a picture of a planet and some stars, and several columns of tiny lettering too small to read. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed; it smelt vaguely of spring flowers, stagnant water and horse dung. He put the cap back on and rested the bottle gently on the table.
There was, of course, the envelope; another container, infinite in its possibilities until he opened it. He ripped open the flap and teased out a folded sheet of paper and a smaller white envelope addressed to someone whose name he didn’t recognise. The sheet of paper was a letter, starting off Dear Theo. He leaned back in the chair, reached for the apple, sank his teeth into it and started to read.
About the only good thing I can think of about being dead is being able to give you something I was too selfish to share with anybody while I was alive. Enjoy it.
You’ll have forgotten, but I clearly remember when you were a second-year undergraduate and I was your tutor, and I set you a pretty routine assignment (I forget what it was about). You handed in your answer, and when you got it back I’d crossed out the whole thing in red and written, ‘wrong – do it again’ at the bottom in capital letters. You did it again, and I gave you full marks. I can still see the sad expression on your face the first time. You apologised.
Well, now I’m dead, so I can tell you the truth. Yes, the answers were all wrong. According to the rules of mathematics everybody uses, your equations didn’t work. I remember marking your paper, putting it down, going into the kitchen to make myself a coffee. Then I stopped dead, turned round, went back and sat down again, and I looked at the figures on the paper, and I thought: yes, but—
Damn, I wish, I really wish I’d asked you, back then, what in God’s name you were thinking about. Those calculations of yours couldn’t work in our universe. But maybe I was missing the point. I went back and read it through from the start; not looking for what I was expecting to see, but actually reading what you’d written.
What the hell. If Columbus, aged twelve, had been set a geography test – the world is (a) flat (b) round – he’d have got zero marks. But the world is round. It was that sort of a moment for me.
I spent the next seven years trying to figure out what mathematics would be like on a round world. The result is in the bottle you’ve just looked at. Take very good care of that bottle. It’s one of only five in existence. Read the label very carefully, and do exactly what it says. You’ll have to work out the maths for getting inside by yourself; I don’t want to leave instructions lying around where anyone could get hold of them, even in a safe in the Credit Mayonnais. But you shouldn’t have any trouble. You always were a bright boy.
The letter you’ll find in this envelope is addressed to a very good friend of mine who runs a small hotel on the edge of town. When he’s read the letter, he’ll give you a job. I expect you need one. The world is an unfair place. Blow up just one multi-billion-dollar research facility, and suddenly nobody wants to be your friend.
Except me, and I’m dead. You, on the other hand, are going to have a really amazingly good life, thanks to the bottle. Enjoy it, that’s the main thing. At times it may get scary, dangerous, harrowing, agonisingly painful, even life-threatening. It may quite possibly kill you, who knows? But whatever happens, always remember. It’s supposed to be fun.
Your friend & colleague
Pieter van Goyen.
Crazy, he thought. But, on the other hand, consider the source. If Pieter van Goyen were to give you an enormous grin and tell you he’d just found out he was a teapot, your first reaction would be to look round for a tea cosy to keep him from catching a chill. He finished off the apple, looked round for a bin or something to dump the core in, found none and put it in his pocket. A job in a hotel; well, better than the guts trolley, but he couldn’t really see what a hotelier would need a quantum mechanic for, even a disgraced one. Maybe his job would be to prove the hotel still existed each morning, before Pieter’s friend went to all the trouble of cooking breakfast. No, properly speaking you’d need a philosopher for that, not a physicist.
He caught sight of the clock on the wall; two minutes to closing time. He stuffed the bottle and the powder compact in his pocket and picked up the papers, just as the door opened and the guard came in. He shifted the papers from his right hand to his left just in time.
There was something about the hotel he found off-putting. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Maybe it was the burnt-out cars blocking access to the gates, or the thick tangle of brambles that made it so hard to fight his way up the drive. Just possibly it was the faded cardboard sign fixed to the front door with peeling yellow Sellotape: NO ROOMS GO AWAY. Or maybe he was still feeling a bit jumpy after his encounter with the vanishing girl on the train, and it was making him ever so slightly paranoid. Yes, he decided, on balance that’s probably it.
He glanced down at the envelope in his hand. It was in Pieter’s handwriting, so of course it was practically illegible; he could make out the initials A B, and the last name began with an N. The rest of it looked disturbingly like the last desperate squiggles of a vital-signs monitor in a hospital, just before it flatlines. Ah well.
He hadn’t been knocking for much more than a quarter of an hour when the door opened, and a pretty girl smiled at him through the narrow crack between door and frame. “Hello,” she said.
He’d rehearsed a little speech, but for some reason he couldn’t remember it. “I’m here about a job,” he said.
The girl looked desperately sad. She was, he decided, the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen in his life – perfect oval face, shoulder-length wavy chestnut hair, clear blue eyes and all that – but not in the least attractive, as though she’d been assembled by a computer program, with the net result that, when you examined her closely, she wasn’t nearly as pretty as she looked. Nietzsche would’ve christened her the Uberwench. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “But I don’t think they’re looking for anybody right now.”
“I’ve got a letter.”
“And you’re not afraid to use it?”
She shrugged. “That was what we call a joke,” she said. “You’ll get used to them in time. What sort of a letter?”
Rather than try and explain, he held the letter out, as if it was a lion tamer’s chair. She looked down at it but didn’t touch it. “A B – sorry, I can’t read that. What does it say?”
“Ah. Still, it’s a very nice letter. Cute envelope. Very clean.”
He took a deep breath. “It’s from a friend of mine. As a matter of fact, he’s dead.”
“I’m so sorry. What did he die of?”
Actually, Theo realised, I don’t know the answer to that. “It’s a letter to a friend of his.”
“Right. That’d be you, yes?”
“Oh. I thought you said this dead person was your friend.”
“No, a different friend. He had two friends. At least two.”
“Ah. Mister Congeniality, in other words.”
Theo forced himself onwards, like a swimmer battling upstream through a custard tsunami. “My friend,” he said, “wrote this letter to his friend.”
“Fine. So why’ve you got it?”
“He gave it to me,” Theo said, “to give to his other friend. That’s A B thing. You know, on the envelope.”
“Ah,” she said sweetly, “I see. You’re a postman.”
Theo sighed. “The letter,” he ground on, like the mills of the gods with a ruptured bearing, “is asking Mr A B to give me a job.”
The girl looked at him and blinked. “Really?”
“Gosh. Well then, you’d better come in.”
She pushed the door wide, then stepped aside to let him pass. He found himself in a wide, airy hall, standing on a deep, soft carpet. The walls were panelled in a light, honey-coloured wood and there was a handsome walnut desk with phones and a VDU on it.
“So,” the girl was saying, “this Mr A B’s a guest here, then.”
“Um, no.” Theo noticed the ceiling; moulded plaster, painted white with gilded highlights. “I sort of thought this was his hotel.”
“Oh, you mean Mr Negative.” The girl gave him a smile you could’ve grown aubergines under. “Sorry, I should’ve guessed. Wait there a second, I’ll go and find him.”
She nodded. “I know,” she said, “it’s an odd kind of name, isn’t it? Won’t be long. Take a seat.”
She walked away through a doorway he hadn’t noticed before, and he looked round for a chair. There weren’t any. A B Negative, he thought, for crying out loud.
Almost at once a hidden door slid sideways in the panelling and a tall, middle-aged man in a smart blue suit stepped forward, smiling and extending his hand. Theo stuck out his own hand to shake, then remembered and lowered it again. With his left hand, he gave the man the letter.
“Ah,” the man said. “Poor, dear Pieter, such a great loss to us all. Now then.” He ripped the letter open like a wolf savaging a rabbit, and glanced at it. “You need a job.”
“No problem. What can you do?”
“Well.” Here we go. “I used to be physicist, specialising in particle dynamics, but then I—”
“So you’re good with telephones.”
“Telephones.” The man pointed at the desk. “I could use someone to man the front desk. When we’re busy.”
Apart from the two of them (and the girl, presumably, wherever she’d got to) there was no sign of another living creature on the premises. “I could do that.”
The man was peering at the end of his right sleeve. “The arm thing not a problem?”
“Well, we can work round it. Fine. Great. When can you start?”
Theo caught his breath. “Now?”
“Perfect. Just in the nick of time.” He folded the letter neatly four times and tucked it in his top pocket, like a handkerchief. “I’m the owner, by the way. It’s my hotel,” he explained.
The man laughed. “Call me Bill. Fact is,” he added, lowering his voice and grinning, “A B Negative isn’t my real name.”
“You don’t say.”
“I mean,” Call-me-Bill went on, “what sort of a world would it be if we went around calling ourselves by our real names? I’ll get Matasuntha to show you to your room.”
Calling it a room was accurate but misleading; like describing the Titanic as a boat, or Pol Pot as a bit of a scallywag. Theo had been in rooms like it before, but there’d been lots of other people there at the time, in evening dress, dancing. In the exact centre of it there was a bed, and, far away on the wall opposite the door, a small wardrobe and a plain, straight-backed chair. Apart from that, it was empty. “Staff quarters,” the girl told him sympathetically. “Still, it keeps the rain off.”
“It’ll be fine.”
She shrugged. “Staff bathroom’s in the basement,” she said. They’d just climbed twelve flights of stairs. “Breakfast in the kitchen, seven sharp. Well, seven till ten thirty, this isn’t Nazi Germany. Laundry—”
“Excuse me,” Theo said.
“Well.” He had no idea how to put this. “This hotel.”
“It doesn’t seem terribly busy.”
She looked at him as if he’d just commented on the arid dryness of the sea. “We do all right,” she said.
“Oh, I wasn’t suggesting—”
“In fact,” she went on, “this is our busiest year since 1947.”
“Even as we speak,” she went on, “we’ve got two guests. Mr Nordstrom and Mrs Duchene-Wilamowicz. Both,” she added, “at the same time.”
“Ah,” he said.
“So really,” she went on, “you’re a bit of a godsend. What happened to your arm, by the way?”
“Accident.” She was waiting for further and better particulars. “I blew up a mountain.”
“Oh, right. Well, as I was saying, laundry day is Tuesday, just chuck your stuff in the basket outside the housekeeper’s room. There’s a uniform goes with the job, but we’re bound to have your size in stock, I’ll bring it up to you later. That’s about it, really, unless there’s any questions you’d like to ask.”
He looked round at the vast, empty room and the beautiful girl called Matasuntha, his co-worker in the huge, ornate hotel with brambles crowding the drive. “No, no questions.”
“Splendid.” She gave him a big smile. “Ciao for now, then. Bye.”
She closed the door behind her. He stood for a moment like the first man on the Moon, then walked all the way across the room to the bed. He closed his eyes and sat down.
No guts, he told himself; no shiny grey coils of intestine to be shovelled into a trolley with his bare hands. It was something to cling on to. But, that said, a man can get used to hauling guts around. Other stuff can be harder to cope with.
The room, he noticed, had no window; the light came from a gigantic crystal chandelier, hovering way above his head, like a distant galaxy. The bed was quite exceptionally comfortable. He lay back, and, as he did so, something dug into his thigh. The bottle.
He wriggled sideways and fished it out of his pocket. It snagged in the lining, as if it didn’t want to come out. He looked at it. A bottle. Great.
Read the label very carefully, Pieter’s letter had said, and do exactly what it says. He squinted at it, but the lettering was tiny; he’d need a magnifying glass or maybe a microscope. He looked around for somewhere to put the bottle, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere, so he reached down and stowed it under the bed. A slight eddy in his stomach reminded him that he was hungry. He hadn’t, in fact, eaten anything all day, not since the apple in the bank –
He sat up straight. Odd, he thought.
He reconstructed the sequence of events. He’d arrived at the bank, gone down to the safe deposit box room, opened the box. Inside it, among other things, a crisp, delicious, perfectly fresh apple, which he’d eaten. He was no expert, but how long exactly will an apple stay fresh? It was quite possible that the safe deposit boxes were airtight, which would make a difference, he supposed; but he’d eaten elderly apples in his time, and they tended to get soft and waxy, which this one hadn’t been. So; a week, maybe? Two weeks?
It was over a month since Pieter had died. He cast his mind back. The box had been covered with a fine layer of dust, he remembered brushing it off his hands. Strange, he thought. For a start, why would anyone keep a perfectly ordinary apple in his safe deposit box? By the same token, why would the bank have gone to the trouble of putting an apple in there a day or so before Pieter’s heir was due to arrive? No, they couldn’t have done that; the box needed two keys to open it. Pieter must’ve put the apple in the box.
Pieter, now he came to think of it, hated apples.
Beyond all question, there was a perfectly simple, logical explanation for all of it. Bound to be. Just because he couldn’t think of one right now didn’t mean to say there wasn’t one, just as the fact you can’t see the Moon doesn’t mean it’s not still there. If he really applied his mind, no doubt he could come up with a unified theory of everything which would account for the apple, Mr A B not-my-real-name Negative, the beautiful Matasuntha, the empty five-star hotel with the wrecked cars out front, and the empty bottle in Pieter’s safe deposit box. But figuring out united theories of everything; that was the sort of stuff scientists do, and Theo was through with science. Other people, laymen, mundanes, don’t bother with the deep thinking, they just accept stuff and get on with their lives. They don’t ask questions. They don’t read the small print.
So he went down to the lobby, which was deserted, and looked in the drawers of the beautiful walnut desk. Rather to his surprise, he found what he’d been looking for: a magnifying glass. He looked round to see if anyone was watching, then quickly slipped the glass in his trouser pocket and dashed back up the stairs to his room.
Matasuntha was waiting for him when he got there, with a jacket and trousers over her arm. “Your uniform,” she said.
He’d forgotten all about that. “Thanks,” he said. “That’s great. I’ll, um, try them on in a minute.”
She nodded. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“The Theo Bernstein?”
Oh God, he thought. “Yes,” he said. “It was me who—”
“Theo Bernstein who used to do the morning weather on KPXE Kansas City? Oh wow.”
“Um.” He frowned. “No.”
“Oh.” She pulled a sad face. “Sorry,” she said. “I thought you were him.” She laughed. “Stupid of me. I mean, if you were someone famous, what’d you be doing working here?” She leaned past him and looked at the bed. “What’s that bottle?”
It was lying on the pillow. When he’d left the room, it had been under the bed. “That? Nothing. Just an empty bottle.”
She moved forward. “I’ll put it in the trash for you on my way down.”
“It’s no bother.”
A look of deep suspicion settled on her face, like rooks on a cornfield. “That’s really public spirited of you.”
“Green to the core, me.” He moved slightly, so that she’d have to make a serious detour to get past him to the bed. “Do you have any idea what volume of non-biodegradable material gets dumped in landfill every year? It’s enough to keep you awake at night.”
“Quite.” She was trying to peer round his shoulder. “Well, in that case I’ll leave you in peace. Bill will let you know when you’re due for your first shift.”
“Meanwhile.” One last peek, which he blocked with a slight repositioning of his shoulder. “Settle in, make yourself at home. Welcome to the team.”
“It’s great to be on board. Do we get baseball caps?”
“To help foster a shared-goals mentality and a sense of common purpose, going forward?”
“Shucks. Well, thanks again. Bye.”
There hadn’t been many occasions in his life, he reflected as he closed the door behind her, when he’d put so much effort into persuading a beautiful girl to leave his hotel room. Maybe if he had, he wouldn’t be in this particular hotel room right now; no way of telling, of course, because the sea-anemone strands of causality wave and sway in the currents of the timestream, and any damn thing could happen. The main thing was, she’d gone, and he was alone with his bottle. He grabbed it and held it up to the light. Still empty. Well.
He sat down on the bed, took out the magnifying glass and peered at the minuscule letters on the label. It turned out to be the same message translated into a bewildering number of languages, including cuneiform, Klingon, Elvish and one whose alphabet was entirely made up of smiley faces, grouped in strange, cloud-like blocks. Eventually he found English, and read –
Obtain access to the bottle
Follow the instructions
And that was it. He frowned. Read the label very carefully, and do exactly what it says, Pieter’s letter had urged him; also, You’ll have to work out the maths for getting inside by yourself. He closed his eyes. Obtain access to the bottle, for crying out loud. What was that supposed to mean? Take off the lid?
He did that. Then he put it back on again. Clues, he thought, I need clues; I’m too old, tired and disillusioned to relish challenges. In desperation, he turned the bottle upside down and peered at the bottom through his glass. And saw…
Well, of course, he told himself. Everybody knows that. But what, he couldn’t help wondering, was it doing embossed on the bottom of a bottle, instead of the more usual 33cl please dispose of bottle tidily? And, anyway, strictly speaking, since the bottle was a cylinder topped by a sort of distorted cone, shouldn’t that be…?
But that wasn’t what it said; and Pieter’s letter had been quite categorical, do exactly what it says. In which case –
There was the stub of a pencil in his top pocket. Before he realised it, he had the back of the manila envelope on his knee and was jotting down figures. Of course, it simply didn’t work if you had 4-theta instead of 2. But just suppose for a moment that it did. After all, that was what Pieter had done all those years ago, when he’d marked the all-ballsed-up assignment. Yeah. Right. What if…?
He came to a dead end, and scowled at the gibberish he’d written on the envelope. For a moment there, a brief, fleeting moment, it had seemed as though he was on to something. But now the way ahead was blocked, as if (to take an example entirely at random) some fool had just blown up a mountain, and the whole lot had come tumbling down on to the freeway.
Just a moment, he thought. Not a cylinder topped by a cone; a cylinder topped by a distorted cone. He groped for the bottle, stared at it and lunged for the pencil. There was a slight but definite curve to the neck of the bottle; concave, just a little bit, and why the hell, when it really mattered, could he only remember pi to seventy-four decimal places?
Ten minutes later, he stopped and stared in horror at what he’d just written. He’d seen it before, not so very long ago; on the screen of a latest-model LoganBerry, on a train.
Oh no, he told himself, not again. Blowing up a mountain had been bad enough. He was three, maybe four calculations away from arming an equation whose effects would make his previous boo-boo look like a trivial mishap, like laughing while drinking coffee. If he made the same mistake again, after Fate had gone to the trouble of dropping so many helpful hints (career trashed, wife gone, lost all his money et cetera), they’d be justified in keeping him in after class and making him write out I MUST NOT BLOW UP THE WORLD a hundred times. And yet –
Pieter had said, follow the instructions. If that included what was on the bottom of the bottle, not just the label, then he couldn’t see he had much of a choice. He frowned, trying to remember. Now he came to think of it, it had been Pieter who’d got him the job at the VVLHC. Or at least he’d recommended him highly for it, which was more or less the same thing. Could it possibly be that Pieter wanted him to blow things up? Unlikely. Not unless they needed to be blown up, for some obscure but entirely valid reason.
You are going to have a really amazingly good life, thanks to the bottle. It may quite possibly kill you, who knows? Enjoy it. It’s supposed to be fun. He scratched his head, entirely unable to decide what to do. He thought about the girl on the train; so far he’d managed to blot that memory out of his mind, but that wasn’t possible any more, not now that he had the same bomb resting on his knee, recreated from scratch by himself. Was it possible, he wondered, that Pieter had more than one favourite student? One of only five in existence. That left four of the things unaccounted for. Oh boy.
The pencil was still in his hand. Anyone walking into the room right now would see it hovering in the air, like a wingless dragonfly. I could finish the maths, he told himself, that wouldn’t hurt. Just because I arm the bomb doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve got to set it off. And maybe –
Maybe just one small, teeny-tiny controlled explosion, to get into this stupid bottle and find out just exactly what’s going on. Besides, he rationalised, the weird girl on the train suggested that he wasn’t the only one facing this dilemma; and the impression he’d got from her was that she wasn’t bothered at all about the possible risks to the fabric of the multiverse. So; if he didn’t do it, then she, or someone like her, would almost certainly get there first, and then where would we all be? Good question.
It’s a lot of bother to go to, though, just to get inside a bottle. Ah, but you don’t know what’s in there. Fair enough. Let’s find out.
There was a knock at the door. Moving faster than he’d have thought possible, he pocketed the pencil and the envelope, stuffed the bottle under his pillow and said, “Yes?”
The door opened and Call-me-Bill’s head craned round the side of it. “Hi,” he said cheerfully. “Settling in all right?”
“Splendid.” There was a pause, as if he was searching his mind for more small talk to make. “Got the uniform?”
“Right here.” Theo pointed to the jacket and trousers lying on the bed. “I was just about to try them on.”
“Ah, fine.” Another hiatus. “Well, soon as you’re ready, why not wander down to the lobby and I’ll show you what to do? No rush,” he added quickly. “Take your time.”
“No, that’s fine, now would suit me perfectly.” He got the impression that he hadn’t given the response Call-me-Bill had wanted to hear. “If that’s all right with you.”
“Absolutely. Unless you’d rather have a snack or a shower or something.”
“I’ll just get changed.”
“Ah.” Call-me-Bill looked a bit like a chess Grand Master who’s just lost in six moves to a nine-year-old. “Of course. See you downstairs in, what, ten minutes?”
The bottle, he was pleased to discover, sat quite happily in the pocket of the uniform jacket without bulging visibly. The pink powder compact (he’d forgotten all about that) went in the inside pocket, along with Pieter’s letter and the magnifying glass. That was that. He set off down the stairs, thinking hard.
Call-me-Bill had been Pieter’s friend; cling on to that thought, because otherwise he was profoundly creepy. There was no doubt at all in Theo’s mind that his room would be meticulously searched while he was downstairs – by Matasuntha, presumably, since she was the only other living creature he’d seen in the place, and she’d definitely been interested in the bottle. But Call-me-Bill had seemed reluctant for him to leave the room, implying that he knew the search would take place and didn’t want it to happen, but was powerless to prevent it. Crazy. But no problem. They could search all they liked, since there was nothing to find. He thought about the vanishing girl on the train, and the equations on her LoganBerry that were practically identical to the ones he’d come up with working through from the formula on the bottom of the bottle. More bottles like it out there somewhere. But the bottle contained nothing but stale air.
“Here are the telephones,” Call-me-Bill said, and he pointed at them helpfully. “If someone calls up, answer them.”
“Right.” Theo nodded. “Um, what shall I say?”
A slight pause. “Sorry, but we’re fully booked till further notice. And after that, we’ll be closed for redecoration.”
“Got that.” Theo tried not to ask the next question, but failed. “Is that right, though? Matasuntha said we only had two guests.”
Call-me-Bill shuddered slightly. “That’s right.”
“And we’re fully booked.”
And then he was alone again, sitting in a very comfortable chair in the deserted lobby. He moved the phones so that they were exactly square to the corners of the desk. He opened the drawers and found two pencils and a pencil sharpener. He sharpened the pencils. He also found a state-of-the-art Kawaguchiya Integrated Circuits XZP6000 calculator, the kind they’d wished they’d been able to afford for standard issue at the VVLHC, a protractor, an ivory slide rule, two rusty iron keys and a set of log tables. He put them all back where he’d found them and tried playing with the computer, which turned out to consist of a monitor and a CPU but no keyboard. Easy mistake to make, he told himself; maybe they’d got it cheap for that reason.
The envelope, with his unfinished calculations on the back, felt alive inside his jacket, as if he’d got a bird beating its wings in his inside pocket. Absolutely nothing else to do.
Theo was one of those people for whom prolonged inactivity is the worst thing that can possibly happen, with the possible exception of the Earth colliding with a very large asteroid. He knew his limitations. He could stick ten minutes of doing nothing, if he absolutely had to. After twelve minutes, he started scratching his chin or rubbing the palm of his hand with his thumb. Thirteen minutes, and the most luxuriously comfortable chair ever made felt like a medieval torture chamber. Fourteen minutes, and he’d be twitching all over, shuffling his feet, squirming in his chair. Fifteen minutes; unless there was something productive he could do, like count the number of bricks in a wall, he was ready to kill someone.
He held out for twenty minutes. Then he pulled out the envelope, took one of the newly sharpened pencils, and got to work.
He didn’t need the slide rule, the log tables or the calculator. The numbers and symbols just seemed to move gracefully to their allotted places, like actors at a dress rehearsal. When the calculation had arrived at its inevitable conclusion, he leaned back in the chair, as though he was trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and the envelope, and stared at it. Here we go, he thought.
Had Pieter, at some point before his death, found himself staring at the same neat, slender line of characters? Presumably he had; the letter implied that he’d known what the bottle did, and had made it do it. The thought made him feel very slightly better. There’s a difference, albeit only one contour line on the gradient of the moral high ground, between being the inventor of a weapon of mass destruction and the man in the warehouse who uncrates the fiftieth completed bomb. Also, consider this: Pieter had done the maths and found the answer, used it to get inside the bottle, and the universe was still here, still reasonably intact and not-blown-up. Therefore, if he were to duplicate what Pieter had done, there couldn’t be any harm in it. Could there?
It’s supposed to be fun.
Slowly, he put the envelope back in his pocket. It occurred to him as he did so that he’d just made a discovery of a Newton – Einstein – Hawking level of magnitude, and if he was back in the university, if he hadn’t accidentally pulverised an Alp and with it any chance he’d had of being taken seriously ever again, he’d be minutes away from being worshipped as a god. Instead, here he was with two phones and a keyboardless computer for company, and nobody to share the glory with but himself.
He frowned. No, he thought, not me. Pieter had got there first – and Pieter hadn’t blown up any mountains, so there’d have been nothing to stop him publishing his results and clearing a space on his mantelpiece for seventy kilos’ weight of awards. But he hadn’t, and it occurred to Theo to wonder why the hell not. Because –
Quite, he thought. There are some things you don’t share, in the same way that a policeman doesn’t drop by the holding cells and ask if anybody fancies having a go with his gun. It may quite possibly kill you, who knows? Enjoy it. It’s supposed to be fun. Was that what Pieter had done? Invented the ultimate Doomsday equation and somehow reverse-engineered it into a game? And, while we’re asking awkward questions, what exactly had Pieter died of?
“You there.” Theo looked up and saw a man standing over him, scowling. “Clerk.”
That was the sort of thing you’d expect this man to say; along with we meet again, Mr Bond, or guards, seize him, or I like a girl with spirit or, quite possibly, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Given time and a huge dose of steroids, Arnold Schwarzenegger might’ve grown into his hand-me-down trousers, and he had a thin black moustache, like a fine line of eyebrow pencil drawn on his upper lip with a steady hand, and a perfectly bald head. He was wearing a light grey suit and one of those bootlace ties you occasionally see on senators from Texas.
“Um,” Theo said.
It made no sense; until, quite suddenly, Theo remembered that this was a hotel. In which case, Grendel’s big brother here was a guest. Which made him –
The monster grunted. “Key,” he repeated. “Now.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know—” Then he remembered the two rusty iron keys he’d found in the desk drawer. He yanked it open and chose one at random. “There you are, Mr Nordstrom,” he said, with a degree of composure he found quite remarkable in the circumstances. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Mr Nordstrom nodded. “Get me a bottle of Château d’Yquem 1932. Now.”
“Certainly, Mr Nordstrom,” Theo said politely, and ran.
Through the door that led to the stairs; instead of up, towards his room, he went down. The down staircase was improbably long, straight and pitch dark; he could feel it getting steadily colder as he descended, and when he put his hand out to steady himself against the wall, the surface he touched was damp and rather sticky. He could smell mould, saltpetre and something else he couldn’t quite identify. Eventually, though, the stairs ended in a door, which he discovered by walking into it. He turned the handle, took a step forward and groped until he found a light switch.
He’d found the wine cellar, no doubt about it. He also understood at once why there had been so many stairs. It was like being in an underground cathedral. The ceiling, supported by a forest of fluted marble pillars topped with Corinthian capitals, was so high he hurt his neck looking for it. He didn’t want to guess how big the room was. If you were into model railways, you could probably have fitted in a 1:1 scale replica of the Gare du Nord, but you’d have had to move an awful lot of stuff out of the way first. The room was crammed to bursting with wine racks, whose top layers reached almost to the roof. And all the racks were full; not an empty slot to be seen.
His first impression of Mr Nordstrom was that he probably wasn’t the most patient man ever to see the light of day. Tough. Unless there was a catalogue of some sort, and there was no sign of one, he was going to have to wait a while – years, possibly – while Theo searched for a 1932 Château d’Yquem in all this lot.
He picked a rack at random and squinted at the labels, but they were thick with dust and illegible. Theo didn’t know very much about wine, but he clearly remembered getting yelled at by his father for picking up a bottle and thereby disturbing the sediment; it was something you weren’t meant to do, he knew that much. So he leaned as close to the bottles as he could get and gently wiped at the dust with his forefinger. Château d’ Yquem, he read. 1931.
Too easy. He tried a few more bottles and found the 1930, the 1933, the 1934, the 1935. Would it matter so terribly much if he was a year out? He pictured Mr Nordstrom in his head and decided that, yes, it probably would. He tried the next row down, which proved to be 1936 to 1941. The three rows above were all 1929. He remembered his mother giving his father an incredibly hard time over a wine merchant’s bill, and it occurred to him that the contents of the cellar must represent an absolutely colossal sum of money. Ah well.
At the far left end of the next row, a solitary bottle of the 1932. He sighed with relief and, as tenderly as he could, he picked it up, trying his level best to keep it at the same angle it had been lying on the rack. It felt curiously light.
A thought tore across his mind like a light aircraft making a forced landing in a maize field. The hell with it; he shifted the bottle upright and held it up to the light. The cork and the foil were intact, but the bottle was empty.
He stared at it. What was most surprising, however, was how relatively little he was surprised. He put it carefully down on the floor, then pulled out another bottle at random. Also empty. Likewise the next, and the one after that, and the one after that. It was only after he’d dragged out thirty-odd bottles that he found one that held anything apart from air: a 1968 Margaux contained a very, very small amount of crumbly red dust.
He put the bottles back where he’d found them, shrugged, hefted his 1932 Château d’Yquem and headed for the door. With his hand on the light switch, he paused and turned back. He’d left footprints in the dust, but there was a broom leaning up against a rack not far away. He walked back to where he’d been standing, took Pieter’s bottle out of his pocket and put it in the slot, the one empty slot in the entire room, where he’d taken down Mr Nordstrom’s bottle. Then, as carefully as he could, he paced out the distance from the door to the exact spot on the rack, and jotted down the number on his envelope. Then he swept about fifteen square metres of floor, to eradicate any helpful tracks. He put the broom back where he’d got it from, and grinned. If you want to hide a needle, get a haystack. He shifted the bottle into his visible left hand and started up the stairs.
By the time he got back to the reception desk he was exhausted; the long, long climb up from the cellar, followed by a frantic search for the kitchen, where he found, in a huge and otherwise empty cupboard, a single dusty wineglass. “Sorry to have kept you,” he panted, as Mr Nordstrom looked up from his copy of the Wall Street Journal. “One bottle of 1932—”
“Thanks.” Mr Nordstrom grabbed the bottle, forced it into his jacket pocket (Theo heard a seam ripping) and waved away the glass. “Put it on my bill.”
Theo took a deep breath. How to put this? “If the wine isn’t, you know, exactly perfect—”
“It’ll be fine.”
He must have noticed, Theo told himself, like I did, by the weight. He’d turned his back and was lumbering away towards the stairs. But then, Theo thought, wine’s such a transitory thing. It has no real existence in time. You open the bottle, you drink it, it’s gone, and such enduring pleasure as the experience holds lies in the memory, or the anticipation. You can, of course, soak off the label and pin it up on the wall to impress your friends, but that’s the only lasting trophy you get, like a stag’s head mounted on a board to remind you of the hunt. So; if the wine’s not actually there, does it really matter all that much?
Mr Nordstrom stopped and turned round. For a moment, he looked at Theo, as if noticing him for the first time. “You’re new,” he said.
“Yes, Mr Nordstrom.”
I mean, Call-me-Bill had said, what sort of a world would it be if we went around calling ourselves by our real names? “Pieter,” Theo said. “Pieter van Goyen.”
“Mphm.” Mr Nordstrom nodded and plunged through the door to the stairs. It took some time for the air to refill the volume he’d displaced. It occurred to Theo to wonder if he’d given him the right key, although somehow he doubted whether any locked door would delay Mr Nordstrom for very long.
Still, he thought, it’s a job; on balance, marginally better than the slaughterhouse. And Pieter had arranged it for him, don’t forget that; Pieter, his friend and benefactor. Even so; a million empty bottles, and Mr Nordstrom too. If he was still a scientist, if he cared, it’d be enough to drive him crazy. It’s supposed to be fun. Right.
Not again, he thought, and looked up.
She really was very beautiful. But nobody’s parents would choose a name like Matasuntha. “Hello,” he replied.
She perched on the edge of the desk and smiled at him. “So,” she said, “how’s it going?”
“Oh, fine. I just met Mr Nordstrom.”
She grinned. “He’s such a lamb.”
Maybe, he thought, but where I come from we don’t call them lambs, we call them rhinoceroses. “I fetched him a bottle of wine from the cellar,” he said. “I suppose I ought to make a note of it somewhere, so it can go on his bill.”
“Oh. Right, yes, good idea.” She reached past him and brushed the VDU with her fingertip. At once, a picture of a keyboard appeared on the screen. Oh, Theo thought, and felt vaguely ashamed of himself. “So,” she was saying, “one bottle of – what was it?”
“Château d’Yquem 1932.”
She was pecking at the screen with her fingernails, and various boxes were appearing and disappearing. “I didn’t know we had any of that left.”
“Just the one bottle.”
“You’re right.” She’d brought up a screen labelled wine cellar manifest; and scrolled down a monstrous list of names. “There you go.” She highlighted the box next to Château d’Yquem 1932 and changed the one to a zero. “You found it all right, then? It’s a big cellar.”
“I was lucky.”
“You were, weren’t you? Right, for future reference, here’s the manifest, look; and these coordinates next to the name refer to this plan here.” The screen changed to a diagram of the cellar, with each block numbered in what Theo recognised from his time at Leiden as a cunning variation on the Dewey Decimal System. “Just be sure to update the manifest every time you take out a bottle. Otherwise,” she added with a grin, “it’d be chaos.”
So much, he thought wistfully, for his haystack. “Right,” he said, “I’ll do that. It’s an impressive collection they’ve got down there, isn’t it?”
Excerpted from Doughnut by Tom Holt Copyright © 2013 by Tom Holt. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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