It was the emptiness of the house in Nico’s absence that made Vicky think about the Argentinian, how he wanted to be a needle on a record player. How she wished she could be content just letting the world spin around her, creating melodies just because she was there. And for the first time since arriving in St. Kell, she thought about her life back home—her emails, phone calls, full-color advertisements that filled her mailbox—so much information flowing into the abyss. She had spent so much of her life already letting her world spin and she wanted to be the one to make it turn now.
Nico was still gone when she heard the bell start to ring, a cast-iron clang that was unfamiliar in the white house. Vicky walked to the heavy front door and as she got closer heard knocking. She opened the door to find a handsome old man with ice-blue eyes and white hair, his leather-gloved hand holding the chain that powered the bell. He’d been both knocking and ringing simultaneously.
“Laney Enders, I’ve heard so much about you. The doctor tells me you’ve been to see him. You know, I always appreciate guests who use the front door,” said the well-dressed man as he charged past Vicky into the house. He stopped abruptly, removed a glove and held out his hand. “Nils Winter’s the name. May I come in? Oh, look at that, I’m already in. May I stay a moment? I wouldn’t mind a tea. Or coffee, whatever you have that’s hot.”
Vicky went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of tap water. While electricity was procured from a neighbor, no one had thought to shut off the water supply. “I don’t have anything hot,” she said, putting the glass in Nils’ hand. He made his way to the bare living room, where he set down his glass on the floor and began tugging on various chains to pull up the wooden blinds. Vicky was surprised to see the room bathed in natural light. Her eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness of her temporary world and she had imagined the floor much darker. Nils Winter noticed her looking down at his glass and walked over, placing a finger under her chin. He pulled upward until Vicky’s eyes met his.
“The doctor tells me you’ve paid him a visit. Carl has explained his situation and I find very little issue in him re-purposing your father’s name, given the circumstances. It was essential that he continue his work, not dwell on your father and his holey head. And he needed Carl Enders’ passport to come here for the work; I can’t imagine an Argentine passport would do for relocation during his, um, moment of need.” He could see the fire catching in Vicky’s eyes and he released her chin. “Oh, you’re upset that he abandoned Carl Enders, maybe abandoned you in some way. But it was your mother who left, not Carl.”
“I’m not sure who you’re referring to; my mother was always very kind and teaches photography. And the woman who gave birth to me is dead. I don’t remember a thing about her.”
“I’m under the impression that she could stir up some memories whenever she liked. Even find you if she wanted to. I found you from all the way over here. Marka Swandish didn’t get her information on Carl by chance. I tried to reach out to your sister, you know, via the Senator. I thought we could use those eyes of hers for the project. But she sent you. Why is that, Laney?”
“She didn’t send me. She doesn’t even know I’m here, not that she’d care either way. We’re not…close. It was her husband who contacted me. And it’s Vicky. Vicky Victoria.”
“Yes, you are quite familiar with the practice of stealing identities yourself. It seems at some level you always wanted to be your sister, am I right? I’m not sure you should be so critical of the doctor. He met you once, when you were a child, did he mention that? You came to the lab once with your father while he was still working there.”
“He said something like that, but I don’t remember meeting him. I don’t even remember the real Carl Enders, much less the fake one.”
“He was working with your father on falsely coloring some images their boss had taken from the beyond, from outer space. The Pillars of the Universe. They were enhanced by a computer to show different types of gases where stars were forming and Carlos was showing them to you girls, plying you with candy in Marka’s office so Carl could finish his code. Your father came running when he heard screaming; he thought maybe Marka was hurting your sister somehow. His greatest fear was someone using his daughter for her abilities…or misusing her. She was lying on the floor, crying from what she saw. She said it scared her.”
Crying. Vicky could see it now. That bright, shining Victoria Vickie, her eternally blissful twin by birth had cried once in her life and she remembered. She remembered the tall woman with a great puff of hair hugging her sister tight on the floor of her office as she sobbed about the colors.
“She wasn’t hurting her. Vicky was just so afraid, afraid of what she was seeing. She didn’t know what it meant.”
“But you didn’t cry, did you, Laney? You were just fine because you couldn’t see what she saw. Little Vicky was so special that way.”
Vicky drew in a shaky breath. “But I did see it. Only, I wasn’t scared. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, more beautiful than anything I could imagine.” She closed her eyes and continued. “The colors were folding inward, collapsing on each other, but always coming out whole, in thin, tangled ribbons at lightning speed. I can see them like they were painted on the backs of my eyelids. I remember.”
“And that,” said Nils with a smile like an outstretched hand, “that is why you’re here, my dear.”
Sometime later and several meters lower, Nils Winter had positioned himself between Vicky and the Vicki. “This machine has been considerably augmented by a special processor. It’s modeled after a human brain. It uses parallel, rather than serial, processing. The Russians have contributed their discretionary spending for the last decade into this. I might add that a voluntary contribution came from one of our observer states as well, our richest observer state by far. They don’t want to sign the Human Rights Convention, but they do like spending money. This project was championed behind the scenes by an off-the-books committee headed by a US Senator. I’m sure you can guess his name.”
“I don’t follow,” said Vicky.
“Your brother in-law has a healthy interest in the unknown, my dear. He’s guided you to this device. This is the culmination of the projects of many important men.”
“But it’s underground. It’s – what is it really?”
Nils came closer. “It’s interconnected. And capable of making new connections. It learns.”
Vicky’s eyebrows went up.
“Well for now it’s just measuring values, logging bits. We’re trying to input our world, but we can only go down to a scale so small. There are always more bits, more detail. What we need is some analog analysis. That’s what helps us recognize patterns, but the Vicki doesn’t see the forest for the trees. There are more colors that the machine can pick up, but we need to tell it where to draw the boundaries. We need you to define the colors, turn them into usable input. The Vickie has a digital eye that can discern wavelengths, measure the colors. But we need your eyes to make sense of what it’s ‘seeing’. Once we have a type of key, we can make quick work of the data. Our universe is more simple than it seems, I’m afraid. We’ve created an accurate recording of our world, Laney. Our goal now is to calculate the code that created it, compress it down to pure math. We want to make an equation out of our world.”
Nils went into more detail than Vicky’s comprehension of the light spectrum would allow. But she understood completely the intentions of the wayward Secretary General and the subterranean doctor. They claimed a need for understanding, but Vicky recognized the desire that she’d seen in countless iterations. It was a desire not only to know, but to own. Nils and Carl’s desperate work was an effort to reduce the universe to something they could scrawl onto a napkin and slip into their pocket, hoping the fire of knowledge wouldn’t burn its way through. Vicky’s mind had wandered, considering compacting everything she could know into a string, but stood at attention when Nils mentioned Nico.
“I wouldn’t trust that mole you’re shacking up with by the river. I thought we’d closed up the access from underground rodents, but after your visit, I see that’s not so. Remind me to fix that. Nicolas seems to think that chamber below belongs to him too. Most people don’t understand our project, I’m certain he wouldn’t. Did you know he’s only calling himself Arbogast to wring money out of me? His grandmother’s supposed house is where the prison nursery will go. He thinks there’s some old yellow paper somewhere that says the house belongs to Arbogast so his rat family never changed their names back after the Saint Kell Solidarity in the 40s. He’s a liar, an untrustworthy kid, that Nicolas.”
“I think the kid is almost 30, Mr. Secretary,” said Vicky with a slight blush as she thought proudly of her younger, rattier companion.
“Well, he’s a tiny, thieving little man. I have to pay him 600K for that rotten little heap of a house just to tear it down,” said Nils, looking Vicky squarely in the eye. He added, “Be wary of people who impede your progress, Laney.” But Vicky’s eyes didn’t center on Nils. They were focused on the periphery, where they clearly detected Nico squatting in the shadows, his finger to his lips.
When Vicky emerged through the basement of the castle house she was greeted by candlelight in the round room. Nico was seated cross-legged in the middle, having returned via the tunnels while Nils Winter’s chauffeur dropped Vicky off in an impossibly shiny black car.
“Is it true, Nico, that you’ve stolen someone’s identity? What does that even mean, that you’re not an Arbogast? Don’t you want to know who you really are?”
“And you? Vicky Victoria? That doctor says you are someone else.”
“Laney. Yes. Laney Enders was my name. That’s not who I am anymore. But I know my family, my roots. They’re Victorias. I know the whole mangled tree, back to England, Austria and Germany.”
“But that is not you then, you talk only of your adopted family.”
“I adopted their past. It’s better than the one I was born with. I guess you’ve just done the same thing, Nico, but for money. I just find it dishonest. You’re taking someone else’s inheritance. You’re stealing.”
“Ouri Arbogast, the real one who has his name on the deed of Mamama’s house? Well he was a car thief and Jew, just like the car thief Jew that’s his father. My family is one of many to save him and his. I don’t believe I owe him more than that. They survive on account of us, my people. When the Jews get their property back after the war, and all the residents of Saint Kell find their old names in the keller, Mamama keeps the name of Ofira and she gets to keep her rabbits. The minimum, the least he can do, Arbogast can give me his house, that pile of crap next to prison, yes? Best thing that happens to that place is to tear it down. The money is for this place, this house. I will buy it, I will live here legally.”
“Then you’ll let the light in?” asked Vicky in the candleglow.
“Yes, I’ll open the volets when it’s mine,” replied Nico, standing as he spoke. Vicky gathered he was talking about the hideous, roll-down shutters. “Why do you care anyway? There isn’t any real Arbogasts left to claim it. I say it’s mine as much as anyone else. I did live there during 18 years.”
“You aren’t even curious though? To know their names? I mean your family’s real name?”
“Why, you afraid we’re cousins?” he said with a smile before applying a full-pressure kiss.
“No, I guess I just like mysteries,” she said before laying down next to him. He wasn’t smoking today and, yet, here he was, talking to her in full sentences. The dim light gave her the courage to ask what she’d been poring over for several nights. “Nico, why do you burn cars? I mean, they belong to people. You’re not just breaking things, you’re hurting people.”
“Insurance probably pay for it. We’re not in the quartier around the Assembly. People expect stuff around here. Expect fires. You should see St. Sylvestre.”
“No, St. Sylvestre is New Year. New Year’s Eve? It is a parade of burning automobiles in place like this,” he said with a mischievous smile, only irking Vicky more.
“But you’re intentionally making Saint Kell into an armpit. That’s terrible. You’re terrible. Aren’t you?” She’d been hoping her assumptions about his vehicular arson were wrong.
“How else can someone like me live in a castle by the river?” spat Nico, with mounting defense. The cynicism shone in the narrowing of his eyes. He propped himself up on one elbow and glared at her. “I keep the market in check for my future purchase.”
Vicky looked at him critically, both disgusted and intrigued by his selfishness, and wondering if he intended for her to stay in his new home. He threw back a blanket and stood up abruptly. “I work on bus stops too,” he said nastily as he walked out, presumably on a quest to break municipal glass.
Nico didn’t come home the next day or the following night. When he finally came back the day after, he rang the bell of his own front door. Vicky opened it to the smell of stale smoke and unwashed clothes. “Will you come with me?” he pleaded, although Vicky wasn’t sure if he’d pronounced any words. The desperation carved into Nico’s face implied that he meant it in a larger sense, like he was trying to grab her hand as he jumped off a cliff.
“I will,” she replied steadily. There sure was something to be said for saying she was sure about something.
They returned to the place they’d met, Nico’s doomed childhood home, awkwardly glued next to the prison wall. He unlocked the front door and held her hand as she walked through.
“This is where the nut from the Assembly want to put the babies.”
“The babies? What are you talking about?”
“For prison. He rips this house down for build a nursery.”
“I thought he meant a nursery for plants. A greenhouse.”
“Nils Winter calls it a human rights issue. Not kosher to separate criminal mommies and babies. So instead of letting the mothers out, they’re letting the babies in. The best part is, they think they help. By having babies born prisoners, they helping.” Vicky tried to respond, but Nico continued, “Two kids from my school end up in there – only one is released. Every time another Turk or Beur dies in there, they say this was a suicide. There must be awful lot of misery in there, my Mamama say. And with misery come the opportunity.” Nico walked over to the dark kitchen and brought a handful of potatoes back. “This is where I work, Vicky. At least until this place goes. Let me show you.”
He handed her a potato and her fingers moving over the fine silt made her shiver. She turned it over in her hand, but didn’t know what to think. “Do you sell potatoes?”
“I sell very small quantities of very special potato.” Nico took the tuber from her and pressed the side with his thumb. A pre-cut tube of potato came out the other side. He turned it to reveal a small cavity, with rolled up euro notes inside. “This arrive in my yard yesterday. I always ask for the money up front.”
Vicky looked perplexed, but was obviously amused. “So, what now?”
“Now we fill the order. How much is inside?”
Vicky unrolled the wet, colorful money. “60 euros, no 65,” she said as she found a smaller blue 5 euro note in the center of the wad.
“Then we need bigger potato,” said Nico, grinning. He grabbed a potato from the bag on the floor and used a metal tube to cut a new core. He then carefully hollowed out a portion of the cylinder. He took a plastic bag from under the sink and pulled out a wrapped plastic pouch. Vicky couldn’t see through the many layers of plastic wrap, but she knew what kinds of things came in small packages.
“So you’re a drug dealer in addition to being an arsonist and an identity thief?” Her even tone reassured Nico about the things Vicky couldn’t say. She’d accepted him that morning when he’d reached out his weathered hand, all of him, and anything she could learn about him now just filled in her sketch of him, adding detail and relief.
They walked outside with the hash potato and Nico’s thin, muscular arm tossed it nearly straight up, but with just enough angle to fall back down behind the prison wall. Ten seconds went by, then a pair of anonymous voices shouted, “Merci.”
“This is what you wanted me to see? To see if it’s too much?”
“No, we just here at the right time today. The product must arrive between 10:10 and 10:20, if no we wait until next day. Mamama set up the planning; business goes strong for three years now. But, no, you come here so I show you something else. My old room.”
Nico’s tone suddenly became monotone as he spoke, too serious to be excited as he led her down a tight hallway. “I don’t understand at first, it take some time. When I hear you talk to Nils Winter the other day, it starts to become clear. When he mention that the Vicki has an eye, artificial eye, I know. That machine under the prison is Dajjal. A beast. The messiah, but fake.”
“You think an underground computer is the antichrist?”
“The Dajjal is deceiver. What that machine show you, what it creates, not the truth. No verité.”
“I don’t even understand what it’s supposed to create, what it’s supposed to even do.”
“It creates a false world. Imposter. One that seem real in all ways to observer. But created by man, not by Allah. No, no, not even by man, by machine.” Vicky only shook her head as Nico continued and gripped firmly onto her elbow, directing her slowly down the dim wallpapered hallway. “My book says Dajjal need to be thrown into flames. Look, Vicky. I make a machine of my own.”
There were wires connecting a laptop computer and an immense, wooden rectangular box, containing more than Vicky cared to know. The resulting apparatus was a frightful marriage of technology and heft.
“It’s a bomb, Vicky. Powerful one. It will take down the beast, but I need you to get me to it. They convinced you have some powers to turn it on. I need you make sure it never turn on, never be used. This is why we never find tauroctonie; it have not happen yet.”
“What is the tauroctony? I think you’re lost, Nico. I-“
“No, not lost, Vicky. I never am so sure as now about where I am, why I am here. Tauroctony is Mithras, killing the bull. Same scene in every one of his temple. But the Mithraeum, the room where the Vicki want to come alive, it never had this usual statue. Because Vicki is the bull. You must make it happen.”
“Make what happen, Nico? You want me to blow up that machine? Is that all you wanted me for?”
“You are Mithras, Vicky. You’re Ubermensch. You’re the Superman, not your sister. You need to go to this cave and slay the bull.”
Dreams came that night, too many to remember. Nightmares that bled into wakefulness. Semiconscious visions that shrunk Nico’s bomb down to a vest. Dreams that she was the bull, slain like Saint Victoria. Dreams of her lover standing over her with a sword in hand, surrounded by flaming cars, making her the martyr she’d never asked to be.
Then, she’s Laney again, playing a piano, the imported Fazioli with the cracked soundboard at Grandma and Grandpa Victoria’s house. But there are more notes than her fingers could possibly be playing. She looks to her left and sees Vicky, her 4 year-old twin, shining and smiling as she plays by her side. Turning in the other direction, she sees Ping, her slender fingers tinkling across the tops of the high notes. But next to Ping, like Russian nesting dolls are all the Victoria sisters, Hua, Li-Hua, Meilen and Jade, lined up with hands outstretched over the endless row of keys. Millions of notes play like a rainstorm on the piano as colors churn and condense to form outlines of the round space.
Vicky woke up alone on the cold floor, half off the mattress, but Nico had placed a stocking cap on her head before leaving. She lifted it up as the static electricity pulled her hair and a rush of cold poured in. She pulled the cap back down and started to get dressed. She had to pay someone a visit.
Wooden beams arched up in a 1960s fashion that made the Assembly look like a church. A large front desk with 3 uniformed agents asked for her ID and who she was visiting. “The Secretary General, Nils Winter. He invited me, he just didn’t know I was coming today.”
The agents eyed each other suspiciously and one finally spoke up. “Nils Winter is no longer the Secretary General. His second term ended years ago.” Vicky assumed they were trying to screen out crazed people from the street showing up in unwashed clothes and ridiculous stocking caps.
“But he told me to come here. He came to see me, actually, in St. Kell.”
The two agents look at each other again, this time amused. “Yeah, he never gets tired of this place. He still does work here, but he’s now the Swedish Deputy Permanent Representative to the Assembly. There are no meetings today, but his Residence is just down the street from here. I can give you the address. He always likes to see contractors from the St. Kell project personally.”
Vicky’s anger built as she approached the frilly cube that was the Swedish Permanent Representation. She knew he hadn’t gotten it wrong; he’d specifically asked her to come to the Assembly. She imagined how everyone saw her, a tool to use for their own devices. All their passions and plans funneled through the girl from the dark. Vicky was sure Nils was making her go on a chase; convincing herself through her actions that she needed to find him. Surprisingly, it happened exactly as planned and by the time she reached the Representation, she was more than eager to see Mr. Winter again.
She walked up the front steps and banged on a ridiculously tall door. Nils Winter opened the front door himself and smiled, making his tiny blue eyes shrink even more. He looked so much older without his navy blue suit, clad in dark jeans and a polo shirt that displayed a desire for anonymity.
“Deputy?” said Vicky with raised eyebrows.
“Well, yes, I suppose I am a Deputy. Aren’t we all really? But the particulars of this handsome title allowed me to remain in Strasbourg after my retirement. I’m not that keen on heading north again. It’s too cold. Speaking of cold, come in before all my heat gets sucked out into the wind. Wonky radiators in these old buildings. Nice hat, by the way. Are you some kind of revolutionary?”
“I-what do you mean? It’s just to keep my head warm. It was a gift, I guess.”
“A gift? That’s a rather strange one. Look at how it falls forward on your head. It looks like the Kàffeewärmer.”
“Well, come in! If we’re going to talk revolution, at least let it be over tea.”
Vicky followed the tall, handsome old man as he barreled through a great hall with a curved staircase and into a room decorated with conspicuous gold trim. “Could it be something stronger?” she ventured. Nils turned around and winked, then snapped his fingers and left her at an ornately carved table.
He returned nearly ten minutes later with two paper cups, placing one in front of Vicky. She took a sip. She smiled as the drink burned its way down her throat, tracing a line to her stomach. “That’s considerably stronger than tea, Nils.”
“This is one of my old Canadian intern’s recipes. Caribou. I’m glad you like it. So, what were we discussing? The revolution! Yes, your bonnet rouge. Let’s go for a walk, Laney. Some stories require illustration.”
A short stroll down uneven cobblestones brought them to the foot of the cathedral. Vicky wondered if it was the church that was drawing her back and not Nils. She’d stayed right here with Suresh not long ago, but it seemed like a century now. “Like the one in Paris, this one’s also called Notre Dame. Notre Dame de Strasbourg. I thought you could do the Doctor a favor here, you know, light a candle?” Vicky looked at Nils’ light blue eyes and tried to read what sort of captor he was; the Doctor was clearly not able to leave the prison like a normal worker, yet Nils obviously had compassion for him.
“What about my hat, Nils?”
“That particular type of cap is a symbol of the French Revolution, among other things. I believe your US Senate even uses it in their seal. Perhaps Mr. Vickie would know about that. Anyway, here, the hat is the symbol of freedom, and perhaps freedom gone too far. See, the revolutionaries were inclined to remove any signs of religion or inequality from their landscape, but they got a bit overzealous in their efforts. They wanted a simple world, one that was categorical and flat. They changed the months, the days, even the hours.”
“Why change the months?”
“They wanted to scrub off the taint of any gods. May had been named for the goddess Maya so it became Floréal, for the flowers. No one ever really knew what day or what time it was, just floating through the ether they were. And what a revolution it was! They started over with year one. Because they had ten fingers, they said everything should be based on tens. Ten hours, ten months, ten years. But the moon doesn’t have ten fingers so it wasn’t brilliantly on-board with the plan. Anyway, they also wanted to lob the top off Notre Dame de Strasbourg.”
Vicky craned her head straight back to look up the facade of the 800 year old sandstone cathedral. It was dizzying in its height and complexity, but also strangely fitted with only one spire.
“They wanted to decapitate it, remove any reference to religion or inequality, take off the one spire that she had. I suppose that would have made her symmetrical anyway: A bit of an odd duck as churches go, isn’t she? Well, a local locksmith was the voice of reason – and he lived right there.” Nils swung around and pointed to a building on the square. “To get his message across, he had to use the symbols of the revolution. He fashioned a giant tin hat and painted it red to look like the one those fools wore in the name of equality. Just like you, the Cathedral of Strasbourg wore a giant red Phrygian cap. You could see it all the way from Germany on a clear day. The church wore that hat for 8 years and was saved from destruction. So your ‘gift’ is quite a commanding piece of headgear.”
Vicky removed the hat once again and turned it around in her hands, feeling the tug of two men who craved too much commitment from her. It suddenly seemed easier to be repeatedly abandoned; at least there was no choice involved. She considered her words carefully, evaluating in real time whether she was betraying Nico as the piano music from her dream kept playing in the background of her thoughts. “I think the person who gave me this thinks I’m something I’m not. He thinks I’m important, like you do, but in a different way. Nils, I’m afraid the project may be in jeopardy because of his…passion.”
“I have a feeling you’re referring to Mr. Arbogast? I wouldn’t think him capable of much, Laney, he’s a vagrant with mental issues. But I appreciate your concern. Your help will move us to the next phase and we’ll be out of the woods, as they say. Nothing can stop true knowledge from shining through.” He smiled and sipped his Caribou from the now dented paper cup as a strong wind whipped around his scalp at the base of the church. It was difficult to tell where the current of air stopped and his hair started. “Shall we go inside? Do your duty?”
Once they were inside, Nils motioned to a modern-looking stained glass window. “Look right up there. That’s a gift from my Assembly after the worst of the wars. The bombs pulled the original glass clear out with the wind so the Assembly gave the city this gift. See the top? No logic, there, no ten, orderly stars. We even had ten member states at the beginning. It would have made sense. But we put twelve.”
“Because we were following our leaders, Vicky. Our past. Even when we don’t know why, we still want to commemorate something. Twelve disciples, twelve months, twelve signs of the zodiac.”
“The twelve knights of the round table?”
“How far back do you want to go? I raise you twelve Olympians. Twelve Titans! We don’t know why, but we make sure to preserve things that seem important. Our project is part of that.”
“Part of what?”
“Well, just like for this church window dame, we’re not completely sure yet. She’s the secular symbol of Europe, although no one knows what she represents yet with her fancy headgear. People like symbols, even if they don’t know what they symbolize. Even if they mean different things to different people.”
“You’re a great leader, Nils. You’ll make this project happen…Whatever it is you’re trying to do.”
“Laney, I can’t make anything happen any more than you. But I can keep going forward. I’m getting old and I don’t know what I believe, where I can go. But leaders aren’t blazing trails, cutting through vines to choose the path. They’re just driving on tracks that are already in place, dragging you with them. So if I’m a great leader, all I can do is go forward, and hopefully carry some souls with me along the way.” He half-smiled as he looked at Vicky for a long minute. “Shall we light that candle now for dear dad?”
They emerged from the Cathedral as Nils chattered about the great astronomical clock inside, drawing parallels with astral bodies and days of the week, finishing by mentioning that he was ravenous. They crossed the cathedral square and he paused to point up at a cannon shell embedded into the corner of a hotel. “That was a gift from the Kaiser,” Nils said with a wink and then walked into a courtyard with a dining area. Vicky started for a table, but Nils took her elbow and motioned to a stairway leading down. They dipped underground into a cave-turned-restaurant.
The restaurant was vast with vaulted ceilings and several hidden corners. They followed an aproned employee down and around, then back up and down again to a room that looked like a smaller version of the room with the Vicki. A grand piano took up nearly half the space and the rest was crammed with tables for two, although Nils and Vicky were the only ones present and each felt like they had been invited by the other.
Fully accustomed to meeting Nils underground, Vicky drew on her midnight learning from hours ago. The music in her head was louder now in the presence of the piano and she tossed an analogy on the table as they peeled off coats. Tilting her head toward the piano she asked, “Nils, do you play?”
“Why’s that? Are you afraid that gorgeous white instrument over there is neglected? You may be right. Yes, I reckon I play, but played may be more accurate. Would you like me to kick off some of the dust?” He wore an amused look on his face and stepped toward the piano to press a key. The single key he pressed played perfectly into the music swirling around her brain, completing an ethereal chord.
“Nils, I think we need to work fast, work differently. Let’s speed things up. Accelerate the project. You call a C note a do right? Do, re, mi?”
“I don’t follow, Laney,” said Nils, but his expression could not contain the glee that Vicky was somehow on board with his vision.
Vicky continued, “If you see sheet music and you try to tell someone what note to play, well, if they don’t speak your language, they don’t know what you mean. I don’t know which note is a mi, Nils. We use the alphabet for notes in America.”
“So you show them the music then? They read the notes in their language,” said Nils as he tried to sound non-committal, but brimmed with excitement.
“No, Nils, the sheet music is the world around us. We don’t need your code for that. We can already see it, we just don’t know how to read it, translate it.”
“Whatever do you suggest, my dear?” he said as he furtively pulled a flask out and added more burn to their drinks. How this man could continually combine whiskey and wine was beyond her, but Vicky sipped the stripped-down Caribou of the restaurant nonetheless.
Setting down her glass, she continued. “We need to play the music. Not just learn the equation or the program, but run it. Go live.”
“You mean you want to run a simulation of our world? Our universe? You’ll have to speak to Andrei about that. He holds the keys to that particular conundrum of a castle.”
“Who is Andrei?”
“My most trusted Ambassador and very good friend. We share an unquenchable thirst for order and meaning.”
“Where is he?” asked Vicky, raising her glass again.
“Oh, he’s dead. He had a heart attack back home in Russia.” Nils gazed evenly over Vicky’s shoulder in suddenly distracted thought.
Both sat quietly for a moment, then he dug around in his wallet and pulled out a folded postcard, its texture worn to near fabric after riding around Nils’ pocket for what must have been a long time. He unfolded the card and placed it on the table in front of Vicky. “This is the last time I heard from Andrei. He took his family on a road trip for two days to go see this thing. Read it.”
Vicky turned the card over:
Master Nestor built this church without nails. He used nothing but an axe. When he was done, he threw his axe into Lake Onega so that there would never be one like it.
“He didn’t believe a true creator would make his code open-source. You see, we embarked on a journey of discovery. A decades-long project that Andrei never got to finish. A project to reveal what is going on, what made us and how. But think also about the why. We were not always in agreement about the why. Andrei believed that we could not create, only observe. I suppose it’s a good thing too. Doctor Enders got very close once. He thought he had the formula, the one that would iterate and tessellate and copy and turn, one that would create the seemingly endless place we know as home. But it wasn’t right. There were problems. It was close, but it wasn’t close enough. It was a bit like rounding pi down to 3.”
“So? What happened?”
“Well, he scrapped it. Started over. He couldn’t keep zooming. He kept going further and further down, there was just no end in sight. We wanted you to help with that issue. Not to make a substandard copy of our universe, Laney.”
“And what if we’re already in a copy? Wouldn’t we have the right to do the same? If someone created us and made us capable of creation, aren’t we allowed? Even if we’re a photocopy?”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I feel quite real. I like to think I’m in the original version of whatever this is.”
“Of course you do, Nils. That’s the point. If the Vicki is strong enough to learn the code, it’s strong enough to play it back.”
“Flammekueche!” Vicky realized this last word was meant for a waiter behind her by the waving motion of Nils’ right hand. With no further explanation to what he had just ordered, Mr. Winter continued.
“Laney, your generation is not accustomed to patience. To tell you the truth, mine isn’t either. I suppose your simulation would create a here and now reality with the same baggage of the past to try to actually change things. There’s more than grandparents meeting and unmissed trains though. There’s all of humanity to consider. We humans, for all our supposed knowledge, were here for millennia before we could even speak. Can you quite imagine that in your lightly peppered youth?”
His voice got louder as he reached across the table to pound his index finger on her empty plate. His blue eyes caught fire like pilot lights that had finally been given more gas. “I bet you can convince yourself that I’m not even here, Laney. That I’m someone you’ve constructed. That you’ve already figured it all out, that this is your game and you’ve already saved the princess a billion times over. Without a challenge, without a fight, you’re right to assume that infinite existence gets pretty boring. So you’re reinventing yourself, cheating at Solitaire, playing the role of the battered somesuch or other to make your points in this flittering, fleeting, artificial existence count more. Well, don’t believe I haven’t felt the same, Laney Enders! Felt that everyone—the lovers, the leavers and all the passersby—they’re the same person. The same old you ground up and spit out to teach you something, to make you feel something!”
Vicky tried to interject, but Nils was on a roll. “And you know what they say about women looking for their fathers? I don’t buy it. In your world, which father is that Nico character to you, Carl or Lothaire? You’re not looking for your father, you’re all just looking for someone who mirrors yourself back. The gestures, the looks, the speech of a father are the same traits he’s passed on to you. You’re already reflecting yourself in your perception of your whole world. We’re all narcissists, I get it. And so do you, Laney! But if you can feel that and I can feel that, then aren’t we meant to wait things out and see how the game goes rather than rebooting as soon as we start to understand? These things we’re dealing with, these selfish desires to create, aren’t they too dangerous?”
Tired from his tirade, Nils did a polite version of slumping into his chair.
“Perhaps you’re right about plugging it in,” said Vicky.
“Funny, I was just thinking the opposite,” replied Nils, with the even stare of a partner in crime. “After all, I’m a very curious person.” It appeared that his exhausting rebuke had been meant to convince himself more than Vicky.
“If it’s true that we’re all the same, that we’re all you or all me, what would happen if I tried to take someone with?” asked Vicky.
“In the simulation? The created world? Why? Is Nico so dark that he’s sucked you in? Your twin black hole?”
“I want to take him to the next place, have more time to get to know him. I thought I was meant to be alone. No matter what, I’ve always ended up alone. I’ve woken up a thousand times, knowing someone should be there next to me. Knowing there’s someone out there; that it’s not just me. When I met Nico, I didn’t feel it anymore, feel his absence. Because he was there. Most people can’t see it, see what they’re leaving. They just envision themselves going forward, without realizing they’re leaving others behind. Leaving me behind. I don’t want to do that, Nils. I don’t just want to end with Nico. I want to start with him. I want to keep him.”
“But he’s nothing, Laney. Even you just said it. He’s no one. He’s just a fraction of the greater you. You can’t keep him separate because he’s a building block of who you are. Keeping him as this entity, this self, could only produce an error. He’ll always be with you, but in a different way. He’ll fold back in.”
“No, I want to keep him how he is, the exact configuration. I want him just the way he is.”
“You’re starting to sound like Billy Joel. Ah, our feast has arrived. Have a piece of tarte flambée and think it over. I’d like to afford you the leadership role on this one, Laney. I’ll follow you wherever your track takes you, but you may want to talk to the sister first. Marianne Topoglu. She has power of attorney for Nicolas and knows more than I do about his, how shall we say, stability. She’s been working on the Niedergass house settlement with me, the one I have to buy from Nicolas to complete my nursery. I’ll give you her number and I’m sure she’d be more than thankful to have news of her brother. From what I gather, they don’t speak much. And by not much, I mean not at all.”
Vicky drew her attention back to the tarte flambée, a hot rectangular flatbread that sat steaming before them on a wooden paddle, its sprinkling of bacon glistening back at her. “I’m a vegetarian, Nils.”
“By choice?” he replied with a smile.
“By marriage,” she returned as Nils raised both brows.
“Yes, Carlos mentioned that you started your séjour in St Kell with another beau. May I ask why you’re lobbying to bring Nicolas on this doomed journey and not your husband?” He grabbed a slice of the tarte and folded it, stuffing a corner into his mouth. Vicky had never imagined the former Secretary General of the Assembly of Europe eating with his hands. Her eyes widened as he began licking his fingers.
“My husband moved to India without me. We’re not divorced, just…” But she couldn’t find a word for this particular form of abandonment.
“I believe they call it ‘estranged,’ Laney. And I’m sorry to hear it. Perhaps, as a gesture of your moving on, you could estrange yourself from your relationship with vegetarianism to try this delicious flammekueche.”
Vicky thought briefly about the dietary borrowings from the men in her life. Suresh called beef sacred and Nico called pork dirty. She decided that for this moment, she’d let herself be pulled into the gravity of yet another man, a fairly recent addition to her repertoire, and picked up a slice of the divine from the depths of a Strasbourg cellar.