Friday, April 27, 2018

A POCKETFUL OF STARS is live on Kindle!

I think there's some way to make the picture clickable, but can't remember and don't have time to fool with it. Just click the title. It's only $2.99, and if you like reading this blog, you'll like it... and if you don't like reading this blog, what are you doing here, anyway?

OK. That's as close as I can come to a hard sell. Try this snippet, why don't you, and maybe it'll make you want to know what happens next.


I was mulling over the Klein bottle problem when he interrupted me.
Coming out of a strong visualization can be tricky. Fortunately, I wasn’t exactly trying for one. I was just thinking about the fourth-dimensional version of a Möbius strip and wondering exactly what would happen if I could hold an image of it in my mind and traverse the dimensions. I wasn’t all that eager to find out, so the image in my head was rather fuzzy.
This meant that I was able to respond to the interruption relatively quickly. Fingers drumming on my desk, check. Do not whack fingers with a book, good for me. (No matter what Ben says, I have never chopped anyone’s fingers off with a cleaver. I don’t even have a cleaver in my desk.)
Fingers… attached to a man who might have been attractive if he hadn’t looked so impatient. Oh hell, scratch that. Even wearing that unfriendly expression, he was hot. Being a little, dark Greek type myself, I’m a sucker for that California beach boy look. This one had the blond hair, a little too long, and a squarish Northern European face with – of course – dark blue eyes. And you could sort of tell that under his loose-fitting jacket he had a body no surfer need be ashamed of, compact and muscular. With impressively broad shoulders.
I blinked. “Well… what?”
“Aren’t you going to offer me a chair?”
“No.” I’d never seen this man before; what was he doing in the Research Division? He shouldn’t even have been able to find it.
He dragged a chair from the corner, ignoring the horrible screeching sound of wooden legs on a wood floor, and plunked it beside my desk. Then he sat down, straddling the chair and resting his arms on the back. “I need to talk to you.”
“How did you get here?”
“Huh? Jet Blue, rental car from the airport.”
“Here. The Research Division. Topologically speaking,” I hinted, although I didn’t for one minute believe he would have been capable of the necessary visualizations. He’d initiated contact; his pretty blue eyes met mine whenever I glanced at his face; he was, right now, invading my personal space. Almost certainly not a mathematician.
“Walked up the stairs and through the door.”
I waited.
“With Dr. Verrick.”
I relaxed slightly. That’s the other way to find the Research Division; get escorted by someone who already qualifies. This guy himself didn’t have the talent; he had already convinced himself that there was a door in the wall that he’d been Möbiused through. But if Dr. Verrick had personally escorted him, he must want me to make the man happy… whatever that took.
Could be interesting.
I was still thinking vaguely about making him happy when he began removing all desire to do so.
“I’m from your sponsoring institution.”
“The Moore Foundation?” He didn’t look like a Foundation person.
“If you like.”
An odd answer. I’m pretty sure that if we had any sponsors besides the Moore Foundation, I’d have noticed, if only because of the time wasted to appease them. Dr. Verrick makes all of us dress like adults and stand around at the Foundation’s occasional formal parties. (If they throw any other kind, I haven’t been invited.)
“We have need of some information that you people may be able to procure for us. We want you to look at the computer user behind a series of messages and find out what he’s planning and who his associates are.” He plopped a folder onto my desk and knocked off Darth Vader, five poker chips, An Overview of Hyperbolic Geometry and my notes on strongly connected graphs.
(Don’t you know that a neat desk is a sign of a sick mind? Countless studies confirm the link between a messy workspace and creativity. And I happen to be very creative.)
“Aren’t you even going to look at the messages?” he asked while I was still giving his folder the evil eye.
“After you pick up my things.” I folded my hands in front of me and stared off into the distance. Well, where the distance would have been if it hadn’t been blocked by a bookcase.
Grumbling audibly, he condescended to abandon his chair and collect the stuff that had fallen off my desk. When he stood up again, he placed the textbook, my notes, and Darth Vader in a neat stack, very precisely. He put the poker chips in a separate stack, perfectly aligned, beside Darth Vader. As body language went, it was an excellent projection of “I’m patiently putting up with this tiresome female.”
“Now let’s get down to work,” he said, straddling the chair again. He wasn’t that tall, but I felt like he was looming over me.
I don’t take well to being loomed at.
“Not so fast! We’re a research institution. We don’t just take on odd jobs from every Tom, Dick or Harry who strolls in here.” Not that Tom or Dick or Harry would have been able to stroll in, unless they were really good at visualizing and mentally traversing a Möbius strip - or were escorted by a staff member. Well, you couldn’t get a higher-ranking escort than Dr. Verrick himself. If this fellow’s story was true, Dr. Verrick presumably wanted me to cooperate with him, and I should comply.
If, on the other hand, he’d been smuggled in by Ben or Ingrid as part of an elaborate practical joke aimed at me - which I was beginning to think must be the case, as surely no one could be this irritating by accident - it was high time I stopped letting him pull my leg.
“What I don’t understand,” I said, tapping the folder, “is what interest the Moore Foundation has in your problem, why they should think we could solve it, and why I shouldn’t be worried about the legal penalties for hacking into someone’s computer.” Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t the faintest idea how to do that, and I didn’t think my colleagues did either.
“If you’d look at the messages you might understand better.”
Oh, all right. I flipped the folder open and looked at… a confusing collection of very innocent-looking emails. There was one cluster about a birthday party, another about travel plans for someone’s niece and her friends, another on a hotel in Austin where they could stay.
“What are you, the Division in Charge of Investigating Birthday Parties? I do not see anything relevant to research in pure mathematics, which is the purpose of the Moore Foundation. Much less the relevance to applied topology.”
“I am not… exactly… from the Moore Foundation.”
Aha! I knew it! I looked around. Ben and Ingrid must be hiding somewhere, ready to leap out and yell, “Surprise! Candid Camera!”
If so, they were very well hidden indeed.
“I’m from the sponsor which actually gives the Moore Foundation the funding which they pass on to you, and I’ve been seconded to your group for the duration of this investigation.”
“And that sponsor would be?”
“I’m sorry, but that’s on a need-to-know basis. All I can tell you is that this is a matter of national security.”
An ugly thought chilled me. “If it’s a matter of national security… Was I cleared to read this folder?”
“You are now. The entire staff is cleared to be read in on this investigation.” He looked very pleased with himself. It wasn’t a good look for him. “I do still have some influence within the… agency.”
“Does Dr. Verrick know?”
“Of course.”
“And this silly business is important to your employers because…?”
“The messages are coded,” he said impatiently. “I thought anybody working here would be bright enough to recognize that without having it spelled out. We believe these emails and transcripts are actually from a shadowy group involved in smuggling Middle Eastern terrorists over the border and transferring them to a safe house here in Austin.”
I glanced at the contents of the folder again. All right, I could see that with a simple substitution code his interpretation would make sense. The “niece” could stand for a terrorist leader, the “friends” for his supporters, the “hotel” for a safe house. And I didn’t even want to think - “What does the ‘birthday party’ stand for?”
“What do you expect?”
I expected it stood for something involving bombs and bloodshed. It would have been nice to be told otherwise. “We need to shut this down before the ‘party,’” he went on. “Or - at a minimum - find out the time and place, so that we can increase security.”
“Why would they be based in Austin, instead of closer to the border?”
“People who actually live near the border,” he said, “do not feel nearly so benign about illegal aliens.”
“In Austin,” I corrected him, “we say ‘undocumented immigrants.’” At least, if we didn’t want to get a lecture from Ingrid Thorn about it.
He waved one hand. “Tomato, tomahto. In… the agency… we still speak English. Well, I do, anyway. Austin’s a sanctuary city; as long as these people pretend they’re just helping poor Central Americans to escape violence and find a better life, they’ll get support from most of the population. And anybody raising questions will find themselves the target of a high-tech lynch mob dedicated to shutting down the opposition.”
I had to think about that, but not for long. I’m as apolitical as you can be while still having a pulse, and I haven’t felt the need to have an opinion on border controls and illegal immigration given that everybody else in Austin had already staked out a position. But the bit about shutting down opposition was different. Those were fighting words for Thalia Kostis, Girl Mathematician. I’ve been loudly and vocally opposed to all manner of things during my life, beginning with the family’s plans for me. He was beginning to get my interest.
“But why us? Despite its name, the Center is a pure research facility. We don’t do applications.”
“You do now. As a first priority, you do whatever the sponsoring agency requests. After that, you may play with your little research papers to your heart’s content.”
And I’d actually contemplated trying to make Mr. Nameless happy!
“If you’re representing a three-letter agency, surely you’ve got computer experts and other resources to throw at this problem.”
Now he looked not so much irritated as like someone who’d just bitten into a green persimmon. “There are… various groups within the agency… with various goals. A lot of my colleagues built their careers during the previous administration, and they don’t approve of ‘persecuting undocumented immigrants.’ Even suggesting that we should focus on potentially dangerous illegals made me persona non grata. Oh, I tried to start an official case. It’s been tied up waiting for approval from several committees. It may never get out of committees. The funding for your group via the Moore Foundation has already been allocated, I don’t have to get special approval, and it’s about time you did something to justify that funding.”
“Riiight. We always jump up and kiss the ring of a nameless man from a secret agency.”
He looked faintly amused. “At the same time?”
“Simultaneously jumping up and bowing down to kiss a ring would seem to be contra-indicated. Unless your meaning is that you’re constantly falling over yourselves.”
He stood and extracted a card from his wallet. “I do have a name, actually. Talk to your boss if you need to check my bona fides, then look at the folder and decide on a plan of action. I’ll be in touch.”
He dropped the card on top of the folder and walked away. I hoped Dr. Verrick would escort him out; otherwise he’d probably return to my office, complaining that he couldn’t find the door.
The card was less than informative. There were only two words on it, probably his name. No issuing agency, no email, no phone number.
Bradislav Lensky.
What an all-American name.
Just like Thalia Kostis.


"You'd have to hear this jerk to believe him, Ingrid." I lay back on the living room floor and poured some more water on my chest. As long as my T-shirt was soaking wet I could pretend that the air sighing out of our ancient window unit was actually cooling the place down.
Ingrid Thorn, my colleague and roomie, never did anything so uncouth as pouring water over her body. Mind you, it was just as well she didn't make a habit of it. With what she had under her blouse, she'd probably be responsible for a breakdown of civil order if she ever cooled herself off that way in public. I, on the other hand, could have stood under a sprinkler for half an hour and then walked through the math department without eliciting any reaction other than, "Hey, Kostis, did you know your hair is wet?"
Ingrid shrugged. "Maybe I'll get the chance tomorrow. You did say, a staff meeting?"
"Ten o'clock.” Dr. Verrick, being one himself, understands that topologists are not morning people. “In the break room, like always." We didn't exactly need an auditorium for Dr. Verrick to speak with all three of us. On the other hand… "It may be a little crowded if this Bradislav Lensky shows up."
"One guy? We've got eight chairs in there. Not a problem."
"I... don't know. He has this way of taking up space. You should have seen him, Ingrid, he dragged a chair right up to my desk and straddled it and leaned. I felt like he was trying to dominate me.”
"He should be so lucky! I've been trying to dominate you into not taking long showers in the small hours ever since we moved into this place."
Ingrid wasn't all that interested in my personal hygiene; it was just that the pipes in this apartment building clanked and groaned and generally carried on like the ghost of Hamlet’s father whenever one of the tenants asked them to do something like, oh, providing water. "There are eight apartments in this building. Somebody's always going to be using the plumbing. You need to learn to sleep through it, Princess."
Ingrid stopped unplaiting the braids she wore wrapped around her head all day and threw a Kleenex box at me. "Remind me again why I share living space with an unsocialized infant like you."
"Because you can't afford a place this close to campus on your own, and you don't dare share with anybody else."
It was, after all, the same reason why I put up with her and her yards of blonde hair and her D-cups and her exalted status as an actual graduate student who might get a Ph.D. some day. Neither of us could risk having a normal roommate who might freak out over us making buttons dance in mid-air or scooting a couple of feet forward without visible means of propulsion.
"If this Lensky comes to the meeting tomorrow, you'll see..."
"What I don't see," said Ingrid, "is why you can't stop going on about this man you talked to for all of fifteen minutes. Is he incredibly handsome or something?"
"Or something. Not exactly pretty." I knew, because I could still see his arrogant face clearly when I thought about him. "Good body, though."
"Ha! I knew it! He's hot, isn't he? And you're crushing on him."
"Don't be silly. He's annoying, is what he is." I reflected for a moment. I had been very briefly interested in making him happy... before he started laying down the law. "To be fair... I guess he would be kind of hot - if he weren't so obnoxious. You'll see tomorrow."


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