Saturday, June 2, 2018

An Opening in the Air

The second of the Applied Topology books, An Opening in the Air, is live as an ebook today. I hope the paperback version will join it in a few days.

Here's how it starts:


More fun than I’d bargained for

The job applicant Dr. Verrick had brought over edged into my office, kicked the trash can, dropped a sheaf of papers and went down on his hands and knees to scoop them up. “I’ll take those,” Dr. Verrick said when he stood again. “Miss Kostis, Mr. Edwards.” He collected the forms Mr. Edwards was clutching and disappeared. He probably considered that a lavish and informative introduction.
“Call me Colton,” the young man said with a tentative smile. “Colton Edwards.” He pulled a chair out of the corner, banged it into his own shins, and sat without, thank goodness, further mayhem.
Asking if he was naturally clumsy or just nervous would probably scare him even more, so I repressed the question. Though I did wonder. Given his appearance, I was voting for natural clumsiness. He didn’t look like a college graduate; more like a farm boy from a West Texas high school, one who had shot up eight inches and two shoe sizes the previous year and hadn’t yet learned to manage his extra height. Shaggy blond hair fell over a wide forehead and framed an open, friendly face. The rest of him seemed to be trying to figure out what to do with his outsize hands and gigantic boots.
Before I could even introduce myself, the interview was interrupted by a crash of furniture and a string of curses in the office next door. “Would you excuse me for just a moment?” I abandoned the job applicant and zipped around the corner to the next office. What had happened to Ben? Unlike this Mr. Edwards, he was not given to falling over the furniture.
His office was built on much the same lines as mine: a tall narrow room partitioned off by flimsy temporary walls that looked shabby against the exquisite woodwork of the oak floor. That’s the kind of d├ęcor that happens when you turn the top story of a Victorian house into office space.
He had knocked over a stack of three chairs in the corner of his office, his hair looked even more like a light brown bird’s nest than usual, and there was a quilt trailing from his desk to the floor. Ohio Star pattern.
I’m used to adding up clues, though in the research division of the Center for Applied Topology the addition was likely to involve numbers like the square root of minus one rather than anything as simple as two plus two. “Ben. Were you walking around with a quilt over your head? And why?”
“I’m trying to use Riemann surfaces to make light. Operating on the molecular level.”
“I still don’t get the function of the quilt in this theorem.”
“I thought maybe I had made light, only it was too dim for me to see it in here.” He gestured at the sunlight pouring in through his office windows. “So I was trying to create a dark working space.”
For a topologist at the Center, this was as close to making sense as it got. “Well, next time just sit in the supply closet, okay?” I was dying to know how he thought a Riemann surface would enable him to make light out of nothing, but the theoretical discussion would have to wait until I didn’t have a nervous job applicant in my office.
When I got back, the young man facing me across the desk looked even more nervous. I couldn’t blame him. Before Ben’s little problem, Mr. Edwards had walked through a wall in a way that twisted space around on itself – and that was only the start of the tour. That, and signing the stack of non-disclosure forms and agreements that Dr. Verrick had carried off. Since the spook from the secretive three-letter agency had come to stay, there were a lot of new rules and procedures aimed at preserving the secrets of the Center for Applied Topology. If this guy had even glanced at the fine print on the forms he’d just signed, he would know that he had acceded to terms of service even worse than Microsoft’s. Whether or not he got hired, discussing what he was about to see here with anybody outside the Center would guarantee that he spent the next twenty years in jail, and not a nice American one, either.
That was the kind of arm-twisting Lensky’s agency did for us. Before they’d taken a hands-on interest in the Center, our secrecy-preserving measures had been more ad hoc: Dr. Verrick warned research fellows not to pursue their research in public, yelled at us when we did so, and hired an exceptionally gifted fabulist to persuade anybody asking inconvenient questions that they hadn’t actually seen what they thought they saw. Annelise was, in my opinion, a much better security system than a bunch of signed forms, but that’s not how Washington does things.
“So, Mr. Edwards, why do you want to work for the Center for Applied Technology?” The question wasn’t a mere formality. Only a certain type of crazy person would want to do academic research for a miserly stipend, out of an office in a creaky Victorian building, with no prospect ever of publishing any results.
“I don’t know that I do,” Colton Edwards answered, and I blinked.
“Well then, what brought you here?”
“Dr. Verrick. I took a topology class from him last year, and he… well… some odd things happened, and he suggested I come and talk to you people. Strongly suggested,” he amplified, and I understood a little better. Dr. Verrick’s strong suggestions could have turned the Titanic around. His force of will had been what created the Center in the first place: our office space here on the University of Texas campus, our funding, our shaky position as a part of the University’s research efforts. A strong suggestion from Dr. Verrick could, in fact, do almost anything except make the Center’s research fellows behave like normal human beings, and he hadn’t yet given up on that.
“But the suggestion wasn’t strong enough for you to act on it immediately?” Spring semester would have ended last May. It was mid-October now.
He twitched slightly. “Summers, I usually go home and straighten out the books on the family farm. They were counting on me to do the same thing this year. Actually, they were counting on me to stay, now that I’ve got my degree.” I took a moment to skim his transcripts, which were heavy on things like Calculus Concepts for Business Majors and Statistical Inference in Management, but remarkably light in terms of actual mathematics. “What inspired you to take first-year honors topology in your final year?” Most students’ final semesters were heavy with the boring required courses they’d put off in the hope that they might die before actually having to take them. Annelise, our receptionist, had spent her last semester as an undergraduate doing little but satisfying the Diversity and Anti-Bigotry requirements.
He offered me a crooked smile that showed where one tooth had been chipped and never repaired. “It looked interesting?”
“But your entire background was in business-oriented math?”
“Which is boring,” he said. “I wanted to have a little fun before going back to be the business manager for the family farm.” He took a deep breath. “Introductory Topology turned out to be… a little more fun than I’d bargained for.”
“What did you move?” We’d all started out with a little unintentional telekinesis on small, light objects; I was willing to bet Colton’s experience had been similar.
“Ah, the chalk?”
“A stick of chalk?”
“Um, no, the chalk on the board.” He wriggled his shoulders unhappily, “See, Mr. Nesmith was putting up a proof, but he’d got one line backwards, and I was thinking really hard about the way the third line should have gone instead of what he’d actually written and trying to get him to look at me so I could, you know, signal him or something, and instead… Well, you probably won’t believe this, but…”
“The writing on the board changed.”
His eyes blazed with hope. “Yes! You get it. You really do get it!”
“Oh yes, Mr. Edwards. All of us got here through similar experiences.” Some more traumatic than others. Colton had gotten off easy.
A colored bubble floated through my open office door. A glowing colored bubble. Bubblegum pink, if you’re interested. It was followed by friends in a rainbow of different colors. Each bubble in turn hovered over my desk, shrank down to a pinpoint and disappeared. I wondered if Ben had planned the color show, or if this was just a temporary stop on the way to full-spectrum lights.
“Ben, keep the closet door closed!” I called out, then gave Mr. Edwards an apologetic smile. “At least we don’t have to give you the what-we-do-here tour. Mr. Sutherland is taking care of that all on his own.”
Colton grinned back. Without the grin he’d just looked like a clumsy farm boy, all big boots and too-long legs and big hands. With it – well, he still looked likely to fall over furniture and small animals, but his face lit up in a very appealing way. I wondered – briefly – whether he was likely to give Ben competition in the unending courtship of our lovely, lying receptionist. Well, not my problem.
“So are you looking for a short post-grad stint before going back to become the family business manager? Or for something more permanent?”
“More permanent would be really good.”
“There’s more money in accounting,” I warned him.
“There’s more boredom in accounting. Also, I spent way too much of this summer trying to explain to my big brother why it would be a really bad idea to keep two sets of books. Now somebody who’s not related to him will have to tackle that issue. I mean – if you – if I can—"
A panicky yell from the supply closet interrupted his incoherent words. I raced around the corner and yanked the closet door open. Colton was right on my heels.
There was a faint smell of something burning, but it didn’t seem strong enough to justify panic. “What did you set on fire? The floorboards?”
Ben gestured towards the floor. “I think it’s under the floorboards. In the middle of a supporting beam. We can’t just let it smolder indefinitely. And if we open up the floor to dump water on it, the fire will blaze up. What are we going to do?”
I was tempted to say, “What do you mean we?” but the fact was that he had created a problem for all of us. Our tenure of the third floor of a Victorian mansion on campus was based on the requirement in Chester Allandale’s will that the university preserve and use his home in return for the rest of his extremely generous bequest. Setting a supporting beam on fire was exactly the sort of thing the trustees would not understand as part of “preserve and use.”
“Can you invert the process and, I don’t know, create water inside the beam?”
Ben shook his head. “I’m afraid to try. I don’t even know how the fire started. I was only trying for light.”
When in emergency… I nipped back to my office and grabbed the three-foot silver snake coiled up like a paperweight on my desk. “Mr. M.! Help!”
The turtle head at the business end of the snake opened one eye part way. “I’m hibernating.”
“It’s only October, and it’s still hot in Austin! And we need your help.”
The coil of silvery scales shook, expanded, became a long metallic snake body behind an organic turtle head. Mr. M. slithered out of my arms to the floor, undulated around the corner towards the closet, lifted his head and sniffed. “Apply the Lights to the problem.”
“Are you sure? Seems to me we need less light, not more.”
“You disturbed my sleep to demand advice. I have given it. Do as you wish.” The turtle beak closed with a snap. So did both the turtle eyes.
He was already opening the glass jar from his desk. A cloud filled with sparkling points of light streamed from the jar into his hand. Behind me, Colton sucked in his breath. This was possibly not the ideal way to introduce him to the infinite set called the Lights of the Medes. Or to Mr. M. himself, for that matter.
Ben knelt and placed his open hand, palm down, on the closet floor, and closed his eyes. I could feel the miniature stars moving from his hand down into the wood. There was also a feeling of… not-enough? There were infinitely many stars. Not enough topologists, then? I stuck a hand in my pocket, then knelt and laid my palm beside Ben’s. Now I could feel the movement of my own stars. They swirled joyously around the grain of the wood and returned to my hand, slightly warmer. The sense of smoldering heat slowly dissipated and Ben looked at me. “I think it’s all right.”
“I think so too.” I would save my blistering recommendation that he repeat the Elementary Physics semester on heat, sound and light until later. It would be nice if Colton could maintain the illusion that we were all one big happy family until he’d been formally read into the program.
I scooped up Mr. M. and returned to my own nice, dry, not-on-fire office, followed by Colton. “Where were we?”
With a visible effort, Colton averted his eyes from the sight of Mr. M. coiling himself back into a tight spiral on top of my papers. “I thought that was a paperweight.”
“No, he’s more of a… colleague.” It would probably be best to save the detailed story, which involved Nebuchadnezzar, a magic-damping ring, a beheading, and the involvement of a robotics engineer, until Colton had had time to assimilate what he’d already seen. Even the White Queen had limited herself to six impossible things before breakfast.
“You’d have your own office, though,” I promised Colton. “The only reason Mr. M. has to share with me is that he’s not very good with doorknobs.”
“Then – am I hired?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. By the time Dr. Verrick brought an applicant over to the closed side, he was as good as hired; this interview was just a chance for the topologists to object. Nothing objectionable about young Edwards, as far as I could see. “You’re definitely crazy enough to fit in here. I don’t have any more questions. What about you?” When he started on about pay and benefits, I’d shunt him back out to Annelise.
“Just one,” he said, surprising me. “What’s a Riemann surface?”
I started to answer him, but the building fire alarms drowned me out. They drowned out just about everything except Meadow Melendez, from the public side, shouting, “Ben, what the [fornicating] [expletive] did you do now?”
The automatic sprinklers went on. Mr. M. uncoiled, slithered to the floor and headed for the stairs in the public section. I scooped up most of the papers on my desk and followed, towing Colton by the hand. Leaving the private section was easier than getting into it, but the kid could be excused for being too rattled to realize that.
By the time we’d crossed to the other side of the wall, Mr. M. was a silver flash on the heels of Meadow and Annelise, and Ben and Ingrid had joined us on the public side. Jimmy DiGrazio grabbed Ingrid’s arm and barked, “Downstairs!” as if he thought she was too dumb to move without orders. That wasn’t going to improve their relationship.
I really, really hoped the stairs weren’t on fire too, because they were the only way out for some people. The trustees had felt that fire escapes would be a blot on the visual integrity of the building.

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