The Third Attractor

3rd attractor illo

The Third Attractor

by Mjke  Wood

 “What do you see?”

“I . . . I’m sorry?” Vienna Marshall was startled. She felt heat at the back of her neck. She became aware of the watching eyes, Parisian intellectuals, jazz club regulars, sitting all around her, amused, waiting to see how she would reply.

“What do you see?” he repeated. There was nothing threatening or intimidating in his voice or his manner. There was even the hint of a smile. Yet Vienna felt threatened and intimidated.

She couldn’t answer the question. She didn’t understand the question.

“Perhaps you see a black man? A black saxophone player?” said the black saxophone player. “And so, when I ask, ‘What are you doing with that equipment?’ you do not try to explain because you believe the answer lies beyond the competence of black saxophone players.”

“No. No, not at all,” Vienna’s voice rose. Was he accusing her of racism? Sorry, but no way. She was not like that. Not ever. She hoped to God that their eavesdroppers, the jazz aficionados, were having trouble following this, that their English was as poor as her French.

“I am not a racist,” she said.

“But you do appear to have certain preconceived notions as to what a black man with a saxophone might or might not understand.”

“Okay.” She was angry now. She could feel her face colouring. “Okay, you want to know? I will tell you exactly what I’m doing.” She began to talk mathematics.

Vienna Marshall had her own fair share of problems with image and acceptance, always had. She looked every bit the stereotypical dumb blond: mid-twenties, long straight golden hair, dreamy blue eyes. So, as a mathematics post-graduate, she often felt compelled to prove that she was not dumb. Now she also felt compelled to prove that she was not pre-judging someone else on the basis of their outward appearance. So she turned it on.

You want details? She thought. I’ll give you details. Turbulence. Phase space. Deterministic and non-deterministic systems. Dynamical instabilities. Education was not her aim. She wielded each ever-deepening  complexity like a weapon.

The evening had started out well enough. She’d arrived in Paris for the conference a full day early. Her hotel was quite close to the Parc des Expositions RER station, so she had taken the opportunity of venturing into the city with a list of jazz clubs in hand and her laptop in her shoulder bag.

She’d tried two well-known clubs to begin with – Le Petit Journal Montparnasse and ­L’Arbuci in the sixth arrondissement. Each had a pleasant enough ambiance, good food, and jazz that was quite acceptable, even relaxing. But she had not been looking for acceptable or relaxing. She didn’t want lounge jazz, she wanted something hard-assed, something risky. Someone suggested she try, Lézard Bleu, on Rue de Verneuil.

She found the blue neon lizard sign above a dark, rain-slicked flight of stairs. The stairs led down to a cellar beneath a rare editions book shop. There was a door, a blue door with a hatch, through which unfriendly, bloodshot eyes scrutinised her for full on a minute before allowing her to enter.

Entré,” he grunted, peering left and right looking for . . . what? Gendarmes? Assassins? Yes, there could well be some dangerous jazz played here tonight. Jazz that was not to everyone’s taste.

Lézard Bleu was dark, the atmosphere thick. On a small stage a quartet was playing hard. A select audience, fifteen or twenty, were nodding along to a rhythm that did not exist in Vienna Marshall’s version of space-time, a tonality that was obscure and random, sounds that were barely music: avant-garde squeaks and grunts . . . angry and destructive sounds. Perfect.

Vienna ordered a drink, found a dark corner, took out her laptop and her Zoom digital recorder and set to work.

Ten minutes later the first set was over. The saxophone player stepped off the stage and picked his way through the tables to where she sat.

“Excuse me miss, I’m kind of curious.” His accent was American, West Coast.

He’d nodded toward the Zoom and the laptop.

“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry. I should have asked first. Only you were already playing. And I’m not exactly recording.”

The saxophone player raised an eyebrow, so she explained.

“Not recording as you’d understand it. I’m sampling. No, not for music. I won’t play it to anybody.”

“Billy Ray,” he said. “Billy Ray Johnson. My name. And I’m not accusing. I’m just, as I said, I’m curious.” He pointed to the screen of the laptop where strange line-patterns were building and swirling, like eddies and currents in a turbulent mountain stream.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she said.

And that was what had done it. If she hadn’t said those three words this whole embarrassing encounter might have turned out differently. Billy Ray regarded her for a long time, not looking at her but looking into her in a way that was intense and unsettling. He was perhaps late sixties. His black African hair, beneath a charcoal fedora, was salted with grey. He wore heavy, black-rimmed spectacles and behind them his eyes were appraising and wise. His face looked, to Vienna, kind of familiar. Maybe a little like Sonny Rollins or was it Joe Henderson?

“What do you see? You see just a black man with a saxophone?”

Oh God.

When Vienna was nervous her words came faster, on downhill-running legs, tumbling and splaying and making less and less sense. She was nervous, but also she was angry.

So that’s when she’d hit him with the math.

She hit him hard. She talked–babbled–-about Ruelle and phase space and pendulums. She told him about her strange attractors.

“Okay, basics. A pendulum swings back and forth. We measure its position at defined points in time, in phase space.” She swooped her hands to illustrate. Hands that were graceful, like birds. “Always the pendulum tends towards a single point, position zero, an attractor, the spiralling in towards zero – the pendulum at rest.”

“Phase space?”

Vienna was explaining, not so much to Billy Ray now, as to herself. This was elementary chaos theory, but she was always well-aware of how easy it was to lose touch with the fundamentals.

“We use phase space to map the complete state of knowledge about any dynamical system. At each instant in time the point recorded is the system. An instant later it has moved and the system has changed.” She ran her fingers through her hair, took a breath.

“In the Seventies, a Belgian, David Ruelle, studied turbulent flow. The whorls and vortices that one sees in a flowing river point to a dissipation of energy by unknown forces, a contraction of phase space. An attractor. On the chart you see the attractors as dense patches – spirals.”

She wasn’t even making eye contact now, just talking fast and loose.

“Music is also a dynamical system. How do we define music as a system at a point in time?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Through phase space. Phase space with multiple dimensions. I’ve been mapping musical recordings. I began with Mozart. Here.”

Vienna turned the laptop towards Billy Ray and called up a series of complex diagrams, patterns similar to those she’d created from her recordings tonight, patterns like a flowing river. Three distinct spirals could be seen.

“Whatever conventional music I choose, there are always the same three attractors. I’ve been able to explain two of them.”

“Go on.”

“Well, tonality and rhythm.”

“Ahh, that’s why you wanted my free jazz sample, music with neither tonality nor rhythm, a means of isolating your third attractor.”

Vienna stared at him. Was he really following this, or was that just a lucky guess? Either way it made her even more annoyed, and she didn’t have a clue why.

“No, not at all,” she said. Too dismissive. “I’ve already used dozens of recordings of free jazz – Ornette Coleman, Ken Vandermark – and atonal classical music, too. In every case, two of the attractors either disappeared or became significantly reduced.”

“So, what is the third attractor?”

It was the one question Vienna feared. She had an answer but it was absurd. Stupid. She didn’t speak.

“How about soul?” said Billy Ray.

Vienna gaped. Damn the man! A saxophone player. What the hell did he know?

“Yeah,” she laughed in a way that was nervous and unconvincing. “I’m talking about mathematics. I deal in specifics, not abstractions. I’m trying to isolate a tangible and measurable component. I’m not interested in pseudo-spiritual claptrap. Look.” She pulled up a page full of dazzling formulae. It had nothing to do with the diagram she’d just shown: she’d called up a page, almost at random, that she knew would look impressive and mind-numbingly dense. A diversion. Figure that one, she thought.

But then the bass player started a disjointed walking line, and Billy Ray tipped his hat and returned to the stage.

A dignified retreat, thought Vienna. She had shown him. Oh yes. Too right her mathematics was complex. Too right it was beyond the competence of black saxophone players. The mathematics of Ruelle and Lorenz were beyond the competence of most people be they black, white, green; saxophone players, kazoo players….

But then later, later she felt . . . what? Triumphant? No, not the right word. Not the right word at all. Vienna Marshall felt ashamed.

3rd attr button

The last time the International Congress of Mathematicians had been held in Paris was in 1900, when Hilbert had presented his famous list of twenty-three unsolved mathematical problems. Now, in 2018, the ICM was back and the buzz around the community was that problem number eight, the Riemann hypothesis, was solved and speculation as to the identity of the soon-to-be-superstar mathematician guaranteed that each and every one of the plenary addresses would attract a capacity audience.

Vienna arrived early. She had already mapped her way around the sprawling, steel and glass Villepinte Exhibition Centre; she didn’t want to miss anything by getting lost. This first plenary address, by the Jesuit, Father William Johnson, was one of the main reasons she had chosen to come to Paris this week. Father Johnson was at the top of his field. His interests, like those of Vienna Marshall, lay in chaotic dynamical systems and strange attractors. When Vienna had scraped together the cash for the trip, she had done so in the naïve hope that she might find an opportunity for meeting with the celebrated mathematician, if only for a minute. Vienna had a strange attractor of her own that she could not explain, and Father William Johnson might just be the person to help. Johnson was probably the foremost thinker in Chaos Theory in the world. That such a man was also a Roman Catholic Priest was an unusual inconsistency.

Pavilion Five was already more than half-filled with hyperactive mathematicians and Vienna was disappointed to find that she had to sit near the back of the auditorium. She tried to pick out Father Johnson from the half-dozen people sitting on stage. She might have seen a photograph of him once but couldn’t remember, though she knew all about his history.

The Reverend Father William Johnson of the Society of Jesus, born in San Diego, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at UCLA. He also spent many months in Rome as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and was known by many as the Scourge of the Brotherhood of AI; his position on Artificial Intelligence was well-documented. Science and church were, to Father Johnson, separate issues, but when it came to AI the priest was unequivocal in his opinions.

There was an opening ceremony. The European anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, was played. Then, after a brief introduction and to warm applause, Father Johnson stepped up to the lectern. He wore purple priest’s robes, a clerical collar and, hanging from a gold chain, a heavy crucifix. And–this surprised Vienna–he was black. In fact he looked very much like . .  .

No!

His image was projected up onto the screen behind the stage and the camera zoomed in for a head and shoulders profile.

Oh! No way!

Despite Vienna’s position at the back of the auditorium, when Father William Johnson uttered his first words he picked her out and looked straight, unerringly, into her eyes.

“What do you see?”

Oh crap!

“What do you hear?”

Vienna slid low in her seat.

“Do we allow the physical senses to be the sole arbiters of the world in which we live? To see is to believe?

“Take the man who is blind since birth. How do we describe to him the colour yellow? We could say it is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of approximately 570 nanometres. Does that help us to define a daffodil?” On the screen behind him appeared the image of a daffodil, set against a cloudless, azure sky.

“Or the girl born profoundly deaf. How do we explain Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? Does the blind man doubt the existence of daffodils? Does the deaf girl deny Beethoven?”

This sounds like a sermon, thought Vienna. It’s meant to be mathematics.

“We are born into a three-dimensional world. How can we visualise other dimensions? So do we thus deny the existence of the fourth, fifth, sixth dimensions?” Johnson moved away from the podium. He continued talking with no reference to notes.

“My current work explores the strange space that surrounds the five-dimensional Mandelbulb. We are already familiar with Madelbrot sets and three-dimensional Mandelbulbs, depicted on a two-dimensional plane with clever shading and perspective. Today, with the aid of holography, I will show an illusion of a five-dimensional construct.”

A thing appeared above the platform. It was stationary and yet to Vienna it contorted and twisted every time her mind tried to come at it from a different angle. The audience gasped and groaned.

Vienna opened her notebook and began to sketch, then she stopped, bemused and uncertain. She struggled to focus on Father Johnson’s commentary but her mind was shrieking at the shifting, Escher-like inconsistencies that seemed to spill from the image. She couldn’t help but be impressed, yet at the same time she was confused, upset and distracted by the other inconsistencies.

Twelve hours earlier this brilliant mathematician, this revered and respected Roman Catholic priest, had been at work in a dark cellar in Saint Germain playing the most ugly, godless, avant-garde jazz she had ever heard. And she, Vienna Marshall, had spent much of the evening patiently explaining elementary Chaos Theory to him, and showing him (oh God) random pages of irrelevant equations which, she realised, he had probably formulated himself. She cringed and shuddered at the memory.

Father William Johnson spoke for ninety minutes. His audience was appreciative, although some appeared a little disappointed that Riemann had not been outed. Evidently these were the Big Math junkies, more concerned with spectacle than substance, and certainly unfamiliar with the body of the priest’s theoretical work.

The applause was enthusiastic, though, and as it faded Vienna put away her notebook and began to shuffle along with the others towards the exit. A quiet announcement came over the PA.

“Miss Vienna Marshall? Please, would you come to the side of the platform?”

What?

To the left of the stage she saw Father Johnson, surrounded by math groupies. She pushed against the tide in that direction. When the priest saw her he broke away from his acolytes and gave her a wry smile.

“Will you forgive me?” he said. “For a man of God, I’m afraid I have occasional wicked impulses. Last night, as soon as you began to talk about your attractor, I knew that you would be here today, and I couldn’t resist leading you on. I am sorry.”

“I don’t know what to say,” said Vienna. “I’m embarrassed. I behaved like an idiot.”

Father Johnson laughed. “Well, now we have heard one another’s confession we can forgive each other, yes?”

Vienna nodded, and smiled.

“I have some meetings arranged this afternoon,” he continued, “but I hope that you will agree to join me tomorrow, for breakfast, say? I want to hear more about your strange attractor. That is, if you don’t already have plans?”

Vienna couldn’t believe it. Breakfast with Father William Johnson. And he wanted to talk about her work.

3rd attr button

It was difficult. The robes and the collar were a barrier – as was the reputation. He had been easier to talk to as Billy Ray Johnson, irritating saxophone player. Father Johnson seemed to sense this and steered the conversation on to music.

“You don’t like free jazz?”

“It was that obvious?” she said.

“Oh yes. I sensed it was an ‘ends justifies the means’ kind of an evening for you.” He smiled, waving a dismissive hand at Vienna’s look of embarrassment.

They were seated in the cafeteria: plastic furniture, modular, primary colours. Large windows looked out onto a concourse of ornamental trees and geometric brick paving.

“Father, I’m confused,” she said. “The music you play is so . . .”

“Rebellious? Anarchic?”

“Well, yes.”

“What do you see? What do you hear? Free Jazz – it’s yellow to a blind man, Beethoven to a deaf girl. It’s fifth dimensional topography. But, it is just jazz. It’s a musical form that some might reach only after a journey. First you must travel the road. I am not a rebel, Vienna. I celebrate God through my music. Maybe it’s not music to everyone’s taste, but when I play I am closer to Him.”

“I think your jazz is too long a road for me.”

“So it is for many. Do you play?”

“I play the flute a little. I can’t improvise. I tried once. It sounded like…”

“Like my stuff? Free jazz?” he smiled. “Maybe one day we’ll play together. I’ll show you some things, how to jam.”

Vienna relaxed. She knew it wasn’t a serious offer but it defused some of the tension between them. They stood and went over to the breakfast buffet on a large central island. Vienna selected a croissant and a coffee, strong and with very little milk. Father Johnson, she noticed, took a glass of orange juice and nothing to eat. They returned to their table.

“Now. You have something to show me,” he said. “Your strange attractor. I was toying with you the other evening, but I am interested. When you isolated the third attractor, what sample rate did you use?”

“Various. I used different sample rates for each of the musical styles. It made no significant difference to the result.”

Father Johnson nodded. “You didn’t tell me why you needed the free jazz sample. Why it had to be live.”

“I wanted the most outrageous and dysfunctional music I could find. I needed to see if the third attractor might disappear.”

“And did it?”

“No, it was stronger.”

“I suspect there is something else. Something you’re not telling me,” said the priest.

Vienna looked at him for a while before taking out her laptop and calling up another diagram.

“This is a piece written by DT Sophie Simphonia.”

The priest raised an eyebrow. Vienna explained.

“She’s a sim. An AI composer. The DT version sits on the desktop of a PC and composes music according to a series of algorithms.”

The chart was similar to the others but there were only two attractors.

“I asked her to compose a piano sonata in the style of Mozart. The two attractors are the ones I’ve found before that represent rhythm and tonality. You can see, they are quite clear.”

“Can I hear the piece?” said Father Johnson.

Vienna nodded and reached down to her bag beneath the table. She produced a pair of headphones. Father Johnson raised an eyebrow.

“Hmm. Bose. You have expensive tastes.”

“I saved up for months to buy these. They’re noise cancelling.”

Vienna put them over her ears and adjusted the volume before passing them over to Father Johnson. She pressed play. She watched his face for a few moments but could read nothing in his expression.

“It’s very nice,” said Father Johnson at last. He removed the headphones. “Very . . . competent.”

“But?”

“You tell me,” said the priest.

“I’d rather hear what you think first. If you don’t mind.”

“Very well. It obeys the rules. It is tuneful. It lacks something, though, don’t you think? Soul? Humanity?”

“That seems to be a common criticism of Sophie Simphonia. It’s leveled at many of the AI composers on the market. Father Johnson, I know how you feel about AI.”

“I am the scourge of the AI fraternity.” He winked at her.

“The AI piece only reveals two attractors,” said Vienna, “and I’ve sampled it many times.”

“So you think the missing, the third attractor . . .”

“I don’t know.” She looked away, her eyes wandering around the cafeteria. There were a few individuals seated alone and absorbed in reading newspapers or tablet computers. They wore business suits and were obviously not a part of the mathematical contingent.

“Vienna? Say it, Vienna.”

“Form?” she said, her voice tentative.

“Not in a sample. Form would never show up. You hear structure from listening to the whole piece, not dipping into phase space.”

“Timbre, then?”

The priest smiled.

“You’re ducking the issue, Vienna. You don’t hold strong religious convictions, do you?”

“No, Father, I don’t.”

“Then why are you afraid to use the word? It can’t harm you.”

“I’m not afraid to . . .”

“What is the third attractor, Vienna?”

Vienna felt as if she were paddling on the lip of a deep and dark pool. Mathematics was her field, not theology. Father William Johnson was one of–if not the most–prominent chaos theorists on the planet. But he was also a Roman Catholic Priest. Was there a conflict of interest? She didn’t know. She did know that there was a wall between them. Vienna was not religious. She couldn’t even call herself an atheist, she simply didn’t think about, or hold, any kind of position on the subject.

So why was she so afraid to utter the word that Billy Ray had used – the word that had been haunting her for weeks?

“Soul,” she snapped. “Damn it, Father, I think the third attractor might be an image of the artist’s soul.”

The concept of a soul was alien to her. She found that her breath was coming in gulps. Her heart rate was up.

Father Johnson reached across the Formica dining table and placed a hand on Vienna’s.

“Take a moment,” he said.

Vienna picked up a croissant, allowing flakes of pastry to fall onto the table, then put it back onto her plate. Why did she pick such a messy thing to eat in front of this man? And why was she finding this conversation so difficult? It would be easier, she thought, if she were trying to convince a hard-nosed atheist student – someone just like she had been only a few months ago. Perhaps, also, it was apprehension about what was yet to come.

Vienna took a long, steadying breath and called up the chart of Father Johnson’s, Billy Ray Johnson’s, performance from the other evening, the one with the single attractor. No tonality. No rhythm . A single, dominant, third attractor. She turned the laptop so that the priest could see it clearly. Father Johnson looked hard. He rubbed his chin.

“This was me?”

“Yes.”

“So what are you suggesting? This is an image of my soul?”

Vienna didn’t want to push this. She remained quiet for a moment. She began to absently brush together some of the errant flakes of pastry, sweeping them into her cupped hand beneath the edge of the table. She dropped the flakes onto her plate. Father Johnson watched her the whole time.

“I don’t think I believe there is such a thing as a soul, Father,” she said at last. “But I am really struggling to think what else that attractor might be.”

“Then, you don’t believe in God?”

“No.”

“Since?”

“Since… I don’t know. I went to Sunday school each week as a child. Then I – grew up. Belief in a deity is inconsistent with everything I have since learned.”

“But if you could accept this as physical evidence?”

“The part of me that is musical might be open to the view that there is some . . .  spark, some essence that exists in certain artistic performances that defy objective scrutiny.”

“That’s a lot of words, my child. Why not simply call it ‘soul.’ They do in Motown, you know.” He smiled.

“I’m a mathematician. A scientist.”

“So am I.” He picked up his glass of orange juice and gave Vienna a mock toast before taking a sip.

“So you accept that this third attractor might be evidence of the thing you call soul?” said Vienna.

Again the priest was silent. He steepled his fingers. Was he deep in thought? Or prayer?

I don’t need evidence. Perhaps an image of the soul, scientific evidence, could only have been found by a non-believer,” said the priest, “by one who truly needed the evidence of his or her eyes? It is peculiar. I began my address yesterday with Isaiah.”

“I don’t follow.”

‘And He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, Nor decide by the hearing of His ears.’ Isaiah eleven, verse three. It’s pertinent, don’t you think?”

Vienna didn’t answer. All this biblical quoting made her feel uncomfortable. She began playing with her uneaten croissant again. Father Johnson continued.

“I try, where possible, to keep my scientific life segregated from my spiritual life. But what I wished to get across yesterday – both worlds need a little faith, a little belief now and again.”

“Perhaps. I, er . . . I haven’t really answered your question yet,” said Vienna.

“My question?”

“You asked me why I needed the additional live session.”

He nodded. “Go on.”

“I needed a clean, stand-alone third attractor against which to compare . . . something.”

Vienna wiped the grease from her fingers on her jeans then reached over to the laptop to call up another file. Another chaotic diagram with a single attractor appeared on the screen.

“Another sample from the gig last night?” said Father Johnson.

“No.”

Vienna paused. She wasn’t sure how to say this. She had hoped that Father Johnson’s acceptance of her theory would make this easier. It didn’t.

“It’s not your music. This was written and performed by Sophie Simphonia, Web Sophie Simphonia. A newer release. She sits on the internet rather than on individual hard drives. She has been getting rave reviews.”

Father Johnson leaned closer to the screen.

“There is only one attractor in this chart. Tonality or rhythm?” he asked.

“I specified a modern piece. No tonality. No rhythm.”

“Jazz?”

“No, an aleatoric piece in the style of Pierre Boulez, but you’d be pushed to tell the difference. Who needs labels?”

“So you think this artificial piece has soul?”

“It has a third attractor.”

“Then the third attractor cannot indicate the existence of the soul. You have disproved your own theory. I’m sorry.”

“Have I, Father? It is I who had all the doubts about the existence of soul. You are lucky to have no such prejudice. But then, Father, are you entirely free from prejudice? What do you see? What do you hear?”

“You turn Isaiah on me?”

“Why not? What do you see, Father?”

“I see emulation. A cheap copy.”

She leaned forward. “I might agree. The desktop version is the copy. No third attractor there. But the web version? And you pass judgement without having heard the piece?”

“It just isn’t possible, my child. How could there be a sentient entity, with a soul, existing within the internet?”

“There are inputs. Billions of sensory interfaces of sight, sound, vision, touch – even others that we, as humans, do not possess at all. Perhaps the internet has been able to reach out, to see, to learn. Wouldn’t it be ironic, if, after all the research into writing AI software, that very intelligence had self-created?”

“Intelligence could not self-create.”

“So who creates it, Father?”

The priest, who had been resting on his elbows, leaning forward, now sat bolt upright. He looked annoyed.

“No. Do not even suggest this thing. Look. Look at the image. It is erroneous. It is not as strong as the other diagram. Nothing like it.”

“Granted, it’s less defined. But you are comparing this attractor with that of a priest. Perhaps one should expect this newly formed, embryonic soul to be weaker. Perhaps this is a soul that needs help. A little spiritual guidance?” Vienna didn’t really believe this but she needed a frayed corner, something she might pry loose so as to gain more purchase.

A girl came by the table with a jug of coffee offering refills. She seemed reluctant to interrupt. Vienna smiled up at her but waved her away.

“There are implications,” muttered Father Johnson. “The Imago Dei.”

“I’m sorry, Father, you’ll need to . . .”

“God’s image. Man is created in God’s own image. It’s fundamental. Genesis: ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’. If this . . . aberration, occupies no fixed place, simply roams free within the internet, and is a distributed intelligence, then how could it possibly be in the image of God?”

“Isn’t that, perhaps, a truer likeness, Father – a distributed intelligence, invisible and mysterious. We cannot see the internet, but we perceive the output, the word.”

“No!”

“Yes. There are many like me, people without religious belief, without faith in the existence of a god, but does anyone lack faith in the existence of the internet? And surely faith is all we have, because the internet is plainly as intangible as any deity.”

“Play the music.” He held out his hand for the headphones. His hand trembled and he fumbled placing them over his ears. “Play it.”

It was not the kind of piece one would call melodic. Not something one might sing in the shower. Vienna thought it quite ugly. But there was life in this music. And Father Johnson listened. Vienna noticed how he reached for the heavy crucifix around his neck and began to caress it between finger and thumb.

When the piece ended he left the headphones on for a long time, saying nothing. Then he took them from his head and placed them carefully on the table between them.

“The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church has a definition for the soul,” he said, speaking slowly. His voice was quiet – barely above a whisper. “It is ‘the innermost aspect of humans, that which is of greatest value in them, that by which they are most especially in God’s image: ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in humans.’ In humans. In God’s image, Vienna.”

“When was that written? A long time ago? Pre-internet? Perhaps, Father. Perhaps it is now time for an update?”

The priest was silent again. His features, normally passive and serene, were disturbed and agitated. All the while he held the crucifix, no longer gently and caressing but in a tight fist that trembled ever so slightly. But his agitation passed. He appeared to reach a calmer place in his mind.

He looked up and stared straight into Vienna’s eyes. He was about to speak but then the doors of the cafeteria burst open and bodies spilled through, bringing noise and ribaldry. A football crowd seemed have burst into the room.

“It was Drucker!” came a cry. “Drucker’s done it. Reimann. Did you see it? Wasn’t it beautiful?”

“We have been engrossed,” said Father Johnson, to Vienna.

Vienna looked up at the clock. Eleven forty-five. Her coffee sat cold on the table top beside her mangled breakfast croissant.

“It seems we’ve just missed the biggest moment in mathematics,” she said.

“No,” said Father Johnson. “Tomorrow you shall address the Congress. I will arrange it. Tomorrow they will witness the biggest moment in mathematics.”

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Mjke Wood is from the UK. When not writing he plays jazz saxophone and works as an accountant. He was a winner of Writers of the Future in 2009 and also won first place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest in 2007.

 

 

 

 

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