The Fractal Prince, p.1Hannu Rajaniemi
This is for Tomi, who lives in our stories.
Prologue The Dreaming Prince
1. The Thief and the Box
2. Tawaddud and Dunyazad
3. The Thief and the Arrest
4. Tawaddud and abu Nuwas
5. The Thief and the Hunter
6. Tawaddud and the Ghul
7. The Thief and the Router
8. Tawaddud and Sumanguru
9. The Thief and the Tiger
10. Tawaddud and Alile
11. The Thief and the Scars
12. Tawaddud and the Qarin
13. The story of the Warmind and the Kaminari Jewel
14. Tawaddud and the Secret Names
15. The Thief and the Sauna
16. Tawaddud and Cassar Gomelez
17. Mieli and Earth
18. The Thief and the Gourd
19. Tawaddud in the Palace of Stories
20. The story of Mieli and SydäN
21. Tawaddud and the Axolotl
22. The story of the Pellegrini and the Chen
23. Tawaddud and the Thief
24. Mieli and the Soul Train
25. Tawaddud and the Council
26. Mieli and the Lost Jannah
27. The Thief and Mieli
28. The Prince and the Mirror
29. Tawaddud and the Aun
30. The Thief and the Stories
Also by Hannu Rajaniemi from Gollancz:
‘His likeness? How can I trace it? I have seen Arsène Lupin a score of times, and each time a different being has stood before me . . . or rather the same being under twenty distorted images reflected by as many mirrors . . .’
Maurice Leblanc, The Arrest of Arsène Lupin
‘When we gaze upon a fractal, we must peer at a one-way mirror, unaware of the other mirror, standing somewhere far behind us.’
Christian Bök, Crystallography
THE DREAMING PRINCE
That night, Matjek sneaks out of his dream to visit the thief again.
In the dream, he is in a bookshop. It is a dark, filthy place, with a low ceiling and a drooping staircase that leads up to a small attic. The shelves bend their backs under the weight of dusty volumes. A heady smell of incense from the back room mingles with a whiff of dust and mould in the air.
Matjek squints at the handwritten shelf labels in the dim light. They have changed since the last time, and list esoteric topics. Fire-eaters. Human Cannonballs. Poison Resisters. Wall of Death Riders. Multiple Mental Marvels. Escapologists.
His pulse quickens, and he reaches for a small volume whose back says The Secret History of the Zacchini Cannon, in curly, golden letters. He loves the stories in his dreams, although he can never quite remember them when he wakes up. He opens the book and starts reading.
The cannonball man never loved her, even though he told her so many times. His only true love was flying, that sensation of being blasted out of the mouth of the great iron thing that his grandfather cast out of metal that was said to come from a rock that fell from the sky. He wanted a wife like a thing he should have, another tool to keep the great mechanism he and the cannon formed together in working order, but love was the wrong word for it—
Matjek blinks. It’s not the right story. It does not lead to the thief.
He jumps when someone coughs behind him, and he slams the book shut. If he turns around, he will see the lanky shopkeeper sitting behind the counter, looking at him disapprovingly, eyes wild, grey chest hairs peeking out from the buttonhole of a stained shirt, unshaven face full of malice. Then he will wake up.
Matjek shakes his head. Tonight, he is not just a dreamer. He is on a mission. Carefully, he replaces the book in the shelf and starts walking up the stairs.
The wood groans under his weight with each step. He feels heavy. The handrail suddenly feels soft in his grip. If he is not careful, he will sink into another, deeper dream. But then he sees it: a flash of blue amongst the grey volumes, up in the corner shelf ahead, just where the stairway ends.
Below, the shopkeeper coughs again, a mucous, jagged sound.
Matjek reaches for the book, standing up on his toes and pulling at the blue binding with his fingertips. The book falls, and a cascade of others comes toppling down with it. Dust stings his eyes and throat. He starts coughing.
‘What are you doing up there, boy?’ says a creaking voice, followed by sudden, shuffling steps, and the groaning of floorboards.
Matjek gets down on his knees, tosses aside books on flea circuses and singing mice, and uncovers the blue volume. There are tears and dents on the cover, with brown paper peeking out, but the silver cover design with its minarets, stars and moon is still bright.
Something comes up the stairs, something that smells of incense and dust, not the shopkeeper anymore but something far worse, something papery and whispering and old—
Matjek fixes his eyes on the book and flings it open. The words leap out at him, black insects moving on the yellowed page.
Among the histories of past peoples a story is told that in the old days in the islands of India and China there was a Sasanian king, a master of armies, guards, servants and retainers, who had two sons, an elder and a younger—
The words swirl. The paper and the letters bulge out, form the shape of a hand, fingers of black and white, reaching out from the book.
The dust thing coughs and whispers, and something brushes Matjek’s shoulder, tickling sharply. He grabs the hand as hard as he can, and the razor edges of the word-fingers cut his palm. But he holds on, and the hand pulls him in, into the suddenly vast sea of language in front of him. The words roll over him like—
—waves, a gentle, teasing pull and push of cold foam around his bare feet. A warm evening sun above, a beach of white sand like a smile.
‘For a while there, I thought you weren’t going to make it,’ the thief says. He holds Matjek’s hand in a warm, tight grip, a slight man in shorts and a white shirt, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, blue like the book of nights.
The thief has laid a towel on the sand, close to a cluster of abandoned parasols and lounge chairs. They sit together and watch the slow descent of the sun into the sea.
‘I used to come here,’ Matjek says. ‘You know, before.’
‘I know. I took it from your memories,’ the thief says.
And suddenly, the empty beach is full of Saturday afternoons. Matjek and his father would go to the tech bazaars first, spread the loot on the sand, test little swimming drones in the waves, or just sit and watch the ferries and jetskis. But even with the soft sand between his toes, the smell of sun and sweat and salt on his skin, and the red curve of the rocks at the other end of the beach, it does not feel quite right, not entirely his.
‘You mean you stole it,’ Matjek says.
‘You didn’t seem to need it. Besides, I hoped you’d like it.’
‘It’s okay, I suppose,’ Matjek says. ‘Some details are wrong.’
‘Blame your memory, not me,’ the thief says.
That bothers Matjek. ‘You look different, too,’ he says, just to say something else.
‘It helps with not getting caught,’ the thief says. He takes off his sunglasses and puts them in his breast pocket. He does look a little different, somehow, although Matjek could swear the heavy eyelids and the eyebrows and the little twist in the corner of his mouth are the same as before.
‘You never told me how they caught you,’ Matjek says. ‘Just about the prison, and how Mieli got you out. And how she took you
‘And then?’ The thief smiles, like he sometimes does, as if at some joke only he knows.
‘You found the memories. But there was another you who tried to take them. So you trapped him in a prison, and only got out with a box with a god in it. And a memory that said that you needed to go to Earth.’
‘You do have a good memory.’
A sudden current of anger rushes through Matjek’s temples.
‘Don’t make fun of me. I don’t like it when people make fun of me. And you are not even people, just something I made up.’
‘I thought you went to school. Don’t they teach you about the importance of made-up things?’
Matjek snorts. ‘Only to chitraguptas. The Great Common Task is about reality. Death is real. The enemy is real.’
‘I see you are a quick learner, too. So what are you doing here?’
Matjek gets up and walks a few angry steps towards the sea. ‘I could tell them about you, you know. The other chens. They would cut you out.’
‘If they caught me,’ the thief says.
Matjek turns around. The thief is looking up at him, squinting his eyes at the sun, head cocked to one side, grinning.
‘Tell me about the last time,’ Matjek says.
‘Ask me nicely.’
Matjek is about to tell the thief what he thinks, that he is a figment of Matjek’s imagination and Matjek does not have to ask him anything. But the thief is so full of mirth, like a little Buddha that Matjek’s mother used to have in her garden, that the words die on his lips and he takes a deep breath instead. Slowly, he walks back to the towel and sits down, hugging his knees.
‘All right,’ he says. ‘Tell me about how they caught you the last time. Please.’
‘That’s better,’ the thief says. The sun is barely more than a golden wink in the horizon now, but he still puts his sunglasses on. The sunset spreads out in the sea, like flowing watercolours. ‘Well. It’s a story told against death, like I am, like you are, like we all are. Did anyone ever teach you that?’
Matjek gives him an impatient look. The thief leans back and grins at him.
‘Here’s how it goes,’ he says. ‘On the day the Hunter came for me, I was killing ghost cats from the Schrödinger Box.’
All around them, the dream vir begins to paint the thief’s words with the sunset, sand and sea.
THE THIEF AND THE BOX
On the day the Hunter comes for me, I am killing ghost cats from the Schrödinger Box.
Q-dot tendrils like sparks from a Tesla coil trail from my fingers into the little box of lacquered wood floating in the middle of my cabin. Behind it, displayed on one gently curving wall, is the Highway – a constantly flowing river of spaceships and thoughtwisps, a starry brushstroke in the dark. A branch of the gravitational artery through the Solar System our ship, Perhonen, is following from Mars to Earth. But today, I’m blind to its glory. My world is the size of a black box, just big enough to hold a wedding ring, the mind of a god – or the key to my freedom.
I lick sweat from my lips. My field of vision is a spiderweb of quantum protocol diagrams. Perhonen’s mathematics gogols whisper and mutter in my head. To help my all-too-human senses and brain, they translate the problem into yosegi: opening a Japanese trick box. The quantum protocols are sensations, imperfections and valleys in the marquetry, pressure points inside the wood like tense muscles, faint grins of sliding sections. I need to find the right sequence that opens it.
Except that here, the trick is not opening it too early, the wood patterns are hidden in the countless qubits inside – each zero and one at the same time – and the moves are quantum logic operations, executed by the arrays of lasers and interferometers the gogols have built in the ship’s wings. It all amounts to what the ancients called quantum process tomography: trying to figure out what the Box does to the probe states we ease into it, gently, like lockpicks. It feels like trying to juggle eight-side Rubik’s cubes while trying to solve them at the same time.
And every time I drop one, God kills a billion kittens.
The gogols light up a section of the diagram, red threads in the tangle. Immediately, I can see another section that is linked. If we rotate this arrow and that state and apply a Hadamard gate and measure—
The imaginary wood beneath my fingers groans and clicks.
‘Sesame,’ I whisper.
Drathdor the zoku elder liked to talk, and it wasn’t that hard to get him to explain what a Box was (without letting on that I had stolen one from their zoku twenty years ago, of course).
Imagine a box, he said. Now put a cat in it. Along with a death machine: a bottle of poison, cyanide, say, connected to a mechanism with a hammer and a single atom of a radioactive element. In the next hour, the atom either decays or not, either triggering or not triggering the hammer. So, in the next hour, the cat is either alive or dead.
Quantum mechanics claims that there is no definite cat in the box, only a ghost, a superposition of a live cat and a dead cat. That is, until we open it and look. A measurement will collapse the system into one state or the other. So goes Schrödinger’s thought experiment.
It is completely wrong, of course. A cat is a macroscopic system, and there is no mysterious intervention by a magical observer needed to make it live or die: just its interaction with the rest of the Universe, a phenomenon called decoherence, provides the collapse into one macrostate. But in the microscopic world – for qubits, quantum-mechanical equivalents of ones and zeroes – the Schrödinger’s cat is real.
The Box contains trillions of ghost cats. The live cat states encode information. A mind, even, a living, thinking mind. The Box qubits have been rotated into a limbo state between nothingness and existence. The mind inside would not notice anything – a set of quantum gates can let it continue thinking, feeling, dreaming. If it stays inside, all is well. But if it tries to get out, any interaction with the environment will bring the Universe down on it like a ton of bricks and collapse it into nothingness. Bad kitty, dead kitty.
‘So what do you put in a Box like that?’ I asked Drathdor.
‘Something very, very dangerous,’ he said.
A section of the Box in the qubit map we have created over the last week lights up like a city at night. I can feel it: the unknotting that always comes with a job when you discover the flaw in a lock or a security system or a con mark’s mind. Eagerly, I close my eyes and follow the flow of moves. The wood panels slide beneath my fingers. The gogols sing with the joy of the orgasmic jolts of pleasure they receive from computing spectral sequences of Hilbert space operators. More light in the map. The lid moves, ever so slightly—
And snaps shut. The next register dies, for good. The protocol network ties itself into a knot. The last measurement shows only death. I have destroyed another fragment of the contents of the Box.
I swear and throw the accursed thing across the cabin. The q-dot tendrils tear and dissolve. The Box bounces from the starry field of the wall and spins in the air.
The words that have been ringing in my head for days come back to me.
I am not Jean le Flambeur.
A small white butterfly lands deftly on the Box and brings its spin to a halt, fluttering its wings.
‘Before you break anything,’ the ship says in its soothing, feminine voice, ‘I would like to point out that this was all your idea.’
The ship is right: it was my idea. Or, rather, my earlier self’s idea. The original Jean le Flambeur, a thief and mind burglar of legend, an all around nice guy. Who left me with nothing apart from a few fragmented memories, old enemies, a prison sentence – and the thing inside the Box.
‘Touché,’ I say.
‘That’s three days straight now, Jean. Maybe you should leave it alone for a while.’
‘There is no time. You told me it’s decohering.’
But I can’t give up. When the ship first examined the Box, it found that the quantum information inside is short-lived. In a few days, the kittens will die of old age.
‘Almost as if the designer deliberately wanted to introduce a time limit. Like a game,’ Perhonen says.
‘As you say, it’s a zoku device. What do you expect?’ There is a great variety of zokus out there, but they are universally game-obsessed. Not that the Sobornost are immune to the lure. A memory of their Dilemma Prison and its deadly games makes me shiver – not to mention its resident monster, the All-Defector: the shapeshifting nightmare who wore my own face to beat me. Whatever job Mieli’s boss got me out for has to be better than that.
‘I don’t know what to expect. Neither Mieli nor you have told me what’s inside it. Or what it has to do with our destination. Which I’m less than keen to visit, by the way.’
‘Earth isn’t that bad,’ I say.
‘Have you been there since the Collapse?’
‘I don’t know. But I know we have to go there.’ I spread my hands. ‘Look, I just steal things to earn my keep. If you have a problem with the big picture, take it up with Mieli.’
‘Not with the mood she’s in,’ the ship says. The butterfly avatar makes a circuit around my head. ‘But maybe you should talk to her. About the big picture.’
Mieli has been acting strangely. She is not the life of the party at the best of times, but she has been even quieter than usual during the slow weeks of our journey from Mars, spending most of her time in the pilot’s crèche or in the main cabin, meditating.
‘That,’ I say, ‘seems like an exceptionally bad idea. Usually, I’m the last person in the world she wants to talk to.’ What is the ship talking about?
The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes