Nils Winter had planted the book on a dark oak coffee table next to a dark oak paneled wall eight months prior. Marten had to dust it off from time to time between soirées as it tended to gather dust more profusely than any other object in the dark oak room with the dark oak floor. Maybe it had to do with the glossy technicolor cover, a magnet for stray particles in the air. Something had changed in Nils when he first saw the pictures from that book, their larger versions on display as part of a traveling exhibition from Bremen called “Frontiers of Chaos.” Each picture spoke a thousand words echoed from the bedtime stories of Aunt Vicky. He’d purchased the coffee table book a year ago and walked away with a piercing desire to understand his surroundings.
This evening was another opportunity for his wife to light copious quantities of candles and for Marten the chef/butler/book wiper to charm the guests with lightly smoked salmon and green pea purée. The dessert would be raspberries and chocolate or chocolate with raspberries, depending on Nils’ mood. There would be singing, hopefully only the pretty Azeri Permanent Representative and not the Czech Ambassador, but you never really knew, did you? The Irish office assistant who always wormed his way onto the guest list would throw back soft cheeses and champagne while playing piano at steadily increasing volumes. Still, Nils held out hope that a partner for his venture would make him or herself known at his last official reception.
The Secretary General told a few holiday jokes from his mount on the stairwell, trying with his all not to mention Christmas, his favorite holiday, as the institution he represented was firmly secular. The ringing bells and foie gras canapés were for the New Year. Or snow. Or something. Nils Winter raised a glass and tried to connect human rights to meatballs with lingonberries, then paused for light applause. His speechwriter’s contract didn’t include social events and after two 5-year terms, fresh material was as hard to come by as a non-navy blue suit in his wardrobe.
The night was winding down as fur coats and small talk started to swish through the grandiose doors into the cold night. Marten the doorman/dishwasher/fire marshal had been let off early to celebrate 1 year of cohabitation with his delightful American companion, with whom he’d verified the candles and their proximity to flammable secular wreaths before retiring to his suite above the garage. Nils took his post near the cloakroom and went through the motions of initial goodbyes with the stream of darkly-clad diplomats who had served him in Strasbourg. When the last spouses had sufficiently commented on Mr. Winter’s eye for photography and his wife’s avant-garde taste in coral statues, Nils removed his shoes and walked back into his favorite dark oak room. There sat Andrei Soltanovsky, the Russian Ambassador, engrossed in the book on the dark oak table, his feet lightly bouncing on the dark oak floor.
“Andrei,” said Nils, not the least bit disappointed that a straggler had remained, “my friend with the deep holes.” He was referring to the Kola Superdeep bore hole project, meant to drill through the earth’s crust. Andrei and Nils had met a few years back at the celebration party when the drill had reached 12,000 meters in Andrei’s Russian hometown in the fringe country of the Assembly’s reach. Nils had felt optimistic about Andrei ever since, due to his apparent love of exploring the unknown. “How goes the drilling, my friend?”
Andrei didn’t take his eyes off the book, but responded. “It’s been twenty years now that we’ve been drilling, Mr. Secretary. Imagine our Earth is an apple. We haven’t even broken through the skin yet.”
“But you will soon, my friend,” said Nils. “You will indeed.”
Andrei looked up from the book. “You know, Sir, it’s hotter than hell down there. And yes, it is a very deep hole, but if we go much farther our drills will start to melt.” He took a long pause while his buffed nails stroked the spine of the book in his hand and then continued. “We must be careful about things that prefer to remain hidden underground, Mr. Secretary. My son in-law was an engineer at Kola. He killed himself when they got too deep. Said he heard screams from hell down there.”
Nils remembered the condolence book he’d signed last year and made the connection to Andrei. He risked dumping the wrong name for the deceased to win over Andrei’s trust. “But I thought Boris died in the hospital,” he replied.
“He drank 2 liters of vodka, Sir. Even in Russia, we call that suicide.”
Andrei realized he was making his de facto boss uncomfortable and brought his attention back to the book. “What am I looking at here, Mr. Secretary?”
“Math, Andrei, and please, call me Nils. You’re looking at an equation. It’s like a heat map—the colors show intensities of the input values. It’s the beauty that makes up our universe, Andrei.
“Math?” was his one-word response.
“These are visual representations of the Julia Set, a set of numbers that work in an equation. This one you will like even more, my friend,” said Nils as he turned to a page near the middle of the book. Andrei traced his fingers over the spiraling shapes.
“It looks so familiar, like I’ve dreamed this page.”
Aunt Vicky’s voiced bounced into Nils’ head. “Or lived it somewhere,” he offered. “It’s the Mandelbrot Set, another equation. Take a look at this one.”
Andrei looked. His eyes drank in the color and winding shapes of the page. Here. Right here he thought, without speaking.
“That’s Seahorse Valley, Andrei. I know how to get there. We don’t have to dig, well not far.”
Andrei looked up with the tired eyes of someone who hadn’t been allowed to believe for such a long time.
“I always knew you were an explorer, Andrei. Come find this valley with me. Meet me in my office at the Assembly tomorrow evening, at 8. You will meet a business partner of mine from Paris. I can safely say that he, too, is interested in seahorses.”
The next day, Marten the waiter/speechwriter/security detail approached with a tall chef’s hat and a tray full of small glasses filled to the brim with clear liquid. “Aquavit or Wodka?” he demanded politely, his paper chef hat lightly scraping the ceiling of the pristine office. Andrei selected the drink of his host’s homeland, only to find with the tiniest sip that it was merely a tiny glass of water.
Nils chuckled behind him in a group of high-backed chairs that faced the window. “We need clear minds tonight, Andrei. They’re all water. And besides, Carl doesn’t drink.” At the mention of the other name, Andrei noticed an extra pair of feet below one of the chairs. No one stood up or made an introduction so Andrei walked over to the window, going around the chairs to meet their contents.
“Carl, meet Ambassador Andrei Soltanovsky of the Russian Federation. And Andrei, this is Dr. Carl Enders of the Goethe Institute in Paris.” A hardy shaking of hands was bookended by silence and the overweight man did not get out of his chair.
Finally Andrei forced out, “I thought the Goethe Institute was in Germany.”
“We’re practically in Germany here, aren’t we?” offered Nils. “Well, Carl feels decidedly more inspired in Paris and tends to take his work along with him.” Andrei looked at Carl, who still had not said a word. He began to wonder how willing of a participant the doctor was in this meeting. “Come, sit, Andrei.”
Nils flicked on a tv screen next to the chairs with a clunky beige remote and fed it a cassette. An eerily beautiful picture appeared on screen, one reminiscent of paisley lace. The black and white shapes echoed the curves from the book, moving ever closer, the details remaining as intricate the whole way. “These are zooms, Andrei. Close-ups of some of the equations from the book. You keep getting closer and closer and there’s just more and more detail. You never get to the smallest unit. You see, Dr Enders believes that we’re all part of a 3-D version of one of these equations. Like the one containing seahorse valley.”
Andrei chuckled, but couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. “You live in this valley, Doctor? I find it quite beautiful, but I am confident that I am not a resident.”
“Ambassador,” came the voice of the chubby man on Nils’ right side. “I am suggesting that there are far more equations to map. The Mandelbrot is one of perhaps an infinite number of sets. What we’d like find out is which one we’re in, which template we follow. Comprehending our place in the Cosmos is my life’s goal, Ambassador. It’s the only thing that drives me forward. Otherwise I’m always looking back.”
“And what will you do, Doctor?” replied Andrei with a smirk. “What will you do when you know?”
“I suppose I’ll call on an old friend,” said Carl, his eyes cast downward.
“Well let’s say I’m interested,” questioned Andrei. “What do you need from me? I’m not sure my appreciation of your paisley seahorse art will be of much help.”
“Nils has secured a site,” said Carl, now looking excited by the prospect of the Ambassador’s genuine interest, his full chin wobbling as he spoke. “It’s part of one of his prison initiatives.” Both men looked at Nils as he smiled and proudly held up his tiny glass of water in a toasting motion.
“So you’re sending these magnificent seahorses to jail, Nils? I hardly think they deserve it,” came Andrei’s snarky reply. “I wonder-“
“It’s for their protection, Andrei, and ours,” interjected Nils between sips of water. “It really is lovely. Just outside of town, down the river in St. Kell. The site has full-time security and good cover. There’s a deep basement too. There’s less interference underground. It’s perfect. But what we need are some brains and brawn to feed the project.” He turned his body to fully focus on Andrei and continued his explanation.
“Carl has built a machine, a gorgeous machine. Well, the machine itself is not gorgeous, but what it does, oh, what it does is gorgeous.”
“So…what does it do?”
“Well, it reads, I guess. It picks up everything we can’t see. It measures and records everything in our world, all in an effort to create a map. To figure out what we’re part of. You see, Andrei, Carl and I are very curious. We want to know what the art in the air around us is made of. We want to know how our own world is built. We mean to reveal the math of its creation.” Noting the confusion in the lines of Andrei’s face, he added, “Carl, can you explain?”
“It’s a translator, Mr. Ambassador. Or it will be. It takes data and translates it into something tangible that we can understand. I built it to play music from wavelengths of light, but Nils wants to make it stronger.”
“Yes!” cried Nils, now on his feet and fully animated. “In fact, I want to make it much stronger. It will be able to process all the data and tell us what’s going on here, measure even what we feel and experience, everything that happens. This machine will give us the equation of our universe. It’s the ultimate level of understanding!” His eyes flashed with excitement as he continued his plea to Andrei.
“There’s a lab in Lausanne with a true mad scientist, Andrei. He’s brilliant like Carl and building a machine of his own. It’s a computer with parallel processing just like the human brain. If we can get him to contribute a processor to our project, it will be like millions of minds working on this problem. It will surely speed up our work.”
“I still don’t understand my role, Nils. I don’t know anything about computers, not much about brains either, to tell the truth.”
“Yes, but he does. The Professor in Lausanne. I’ve already spoken with him, but he needs convincing from a non-European partner. He wants his tools to reach beyond the European Union and a Russian Ambassador might be just his ticket out. And of course there’s the issue of cost. All that Swiss neutrality and cheese do not make up for EU cash. But the Assembly is grander than the European Union because of its reach. Both Switzerland and Russia can play in this club. You see, we’ve recently lost substantial funding from the Americans and even as an observer state, they were providing considerable resources. I’ve been informed that a voluntary contribution from the Russian Federation was submitted to the Assembly’s general fund and has not yet been earmarked. Perhaps you could make prison reform one of the priorities of your diplomatic mission.”
“And I thought it was only women who wanted me for me money,” replied Andrei with a grin. “I’ll see what I can do, Nils. I’ll see what I can do. Now, on that note, can you please turn this water into wine?”