“Balkan Cosmology” by Bruce Sterling (2022)

  • It’s an eccentric work of scientific fabulation that’s my all-too-topical farewell to Belgrade. One of my homes for many years. I could likely sell this yarn and print it somewhere, but why, if no one in the Balkans would see it anyway? An ambivalent gift for Orthodox Christmas.

Balkan Cosmology

by Bruce Sterling

It was hard work to dig his own grave, but Nikola’s pride kept him at it.

Raging with fever, he’d thrown some groceries into the Fiat Panda, and fled town for the Balkan mountains, so that no one else could see how sick he was. Nikola had camped and coughed for a dismal week, lurking below towering pines and birches, under the spinning Milky Way.

Nikola’s bones ached. He spat bloody phlegm. He saw double. He was going to die.

Nikola Brzak, unknown genius inventor, a prodigious talent who should have transformed the universe, was friendless, starving, sleepless, and face to face with cosmic fatality.

While pouring sweat and slowly scraping a dank trench for himself in the black soil of the ancient forest, Nikola could comprehend his dismal place in the cosmos. He was dying, but his fate was the fault of Radmila.

How could a woman go so wrong in her head?

Radmila lamented that he had “broken her trust forever.” And, sure, maybe Nikola had, a few times. But four weeks of quarantine, jammed together in their too-snug Belgrade apartment, had been enough Radmila for his lifetime. His tragically short lifetime, of 28 years, which was ending in his shallow, nameless grave in the forest.

Once, he’d loved Radmila so much. She’d been his very life. However: “We crave for new sensations, but soon we become indifferent to them. The wonders of yesterday are today’s common occurrences.”

How true that was.

Nikola had memorized many similar quotes written by Nikola Tesla (because Nikola Brzak was the namesake of Nikola Tesla, the great Balkan inventor, physicist, and cosmic mystic).

“You can name no great invention made by a married man.” This was another cogent Tesla insight.

While perishing of his Covid fever, Nikola Brzak bitterly pondered his own, many, unbuilt, superbly Tesla-esque inventions. Nikola was extremely inventive by his nature, although he’d never registered a patent, or ever built and sold any products.

He could have disturbed the universe, if not for Radmila.

Marriage was the briar-patch for a inventor’s soul. Just to please Radmila — (he’d had no other reason, just her nagging and fussing) — he’d given up his inventing, and taken a technical day-job. The Norwegians paid Nikola to install Chinese 5G equipment onto Yugoslav radio towers.

Smartphones were popular gadgets, so that job paid well. Nikola doted on electronics, too, so that part was also all right. The bad part was Nikola himself had not invented those smartphone gadgets. Instead, Steve Jobs (a rascal widely famed as a world-changing genius) had invented them.

So Nikola Brzak had only repaired, installed and maintained the gadgets made by some dead billionaire in California. So, alas, instead of becoming world-famous as a brilliant master of physics, mathematics, electronics, and product engineering, Nikola was merely a flunky for capitalist globalization.

Nikola Brzak had entirely failed to leave any great accomplishment that could mark his comet-like career across the cosmos.

This was his whole story, and his story was bad. Those precious days of his brief lifetime, wasted working for foreign businessmen. His nights, squandered in bed with the comely Radmila.

Nikola Brzak would vanish from existence as if he had never been. His landlady would break into his apartment, and ruin all his tool sets, his phone-phreak toys and his many unfinished private technical projects.

Even his friends would make no big fuss about him, because they were mostly Radmila’s friends.

Nobody would even care — except for his good old Dad. At this sad thought of his father, a spiritual pang touched Nikola. The old man would notice the disappearance of his son. He would wonder whatever could have happened. He would grieve.

Nikola understood his dismal fate, as a young man landing in an unmarked grave (because Serbian history abounded with similar episodes). However, Nikola lacked any proper shovel to dig his own grave. Tragically, he had to gouge his own grave with his survivalist camp-knife.

This cool, macho device featured a stout gleaming blade with a sawtooth, and also a fire-steel, a built-in whistle and a wilderness compass. However, as a grave-digging tool, a “survival knife” was a contradiction in terms.

The knife-blade was still razor-sharp. In a moment of spite, Nikola touched the dirty blade to the vein in his wrist. A bloody scratch appeared.

Suddenly his death was very close. Not maudlin self-pity. Not spiteful scheming. His cold, authentic death.

Nikola looked up from the gathering drip of fateful blood, and a bear was confronting him. This native forest beast was large, hairy, impassive wild animal with a blocky head as big as a shipping box.

The Balkan brown bear — (a she-bear of death, she looked rounded and womanly, somehow) — didn’t much like the look, sound or smell of Nikola Brzak. The bear felt serene contempt for Nikola. The bear couldn’t even be bothered to kill him and eat him. She’d just take note of where Nikola rotted, and amble by later to eat the worms.

When the bear departed the scene, Nikola stood up and walked away.

#

A week later, back on his two feet in Belgrade, Nikola invited himself to his Dad’s riverside retreat. His father lived in a home-made houseboat that floated on the handsome Danube River. Despite every tumult of ex-Yugoslav history, the old man had built himself a nice place to retire.

Nikola had brought along a skinned lamb in the trunk of his FIAT Panda. Together, on the river shore, they skewered the carcass in his Dad’s country-style roasting pit.

“Son, it’s a shame there’s only you and me to eat this fine family lamb-roast,” said his Dad, deftly uncorking a bottle of Bull’s Blood grocery-store wine.

Nikola sipped at a Turkish coffee. “I’ll take the leftover mutton, Dad. I’ve got some big plans now.”

“Another woman? You’re dating?”

“No. Women interfere with my great inventions. I survived a brush with death, so now I know what I want from life. I’ll be working on my own great inventions at my own lab bench. We’re quarantined anyway, so in isolation, I can fully concentrate. I’ve decided to make my mark in the world.”

“A mark in the world, that’s why children are good,” mused his father.

“Did Nikola Tesla ever have any children? Tesla is immortal because of his inventions.”

“Well, you did build that Tesla Coil in high school,” his Dad allowed. “A lightning bolt ten meters long!”

“They named the Belgrade airport after Nikola Tesla. Why can’t I have an airport, too? I want an interplanetary spaceport. I want Mars, and Mars rockets. Just like Elon Musk of ‘Tesla Motors.’”

“Elon Musk, I’ve heard about him.” His father spooned more potato salad. “Son, Nikola Tesla was a great man — but he was never a happy man. Tesla spent his last days all alone, feeding pigeons in the park.”

“That’s because the Americans stole Tesla’s name and fame, so that’s not Tesla’s fault.” Nikola coughed on the barbecue smoke — his lungs still ached a little. “Do you know about ‘Satoshi Nakamoto?’”

“Some Japanese fellow?”

“Nakamoto is another great inventor. Because he invented Bitcoin. No one knows who Nakamoto is, but he’s even richer than Elon Musk. He invented Internet money, with no borders, no tax men, and no NATO sanctions. So, if Tesla could invent in the past, and Nakamoto could invent today, that means that, I, myself, can invent tomorrow. That will be my life-story from now on.”

“Are you telling me,” said his father thoughtfully, “that you got your hands on some of that Bitcoin money?”

“Yeah, Dad. I did.”

“A lot?”

“Well, I was stuck in quarantine with Radmila whining at me — so I had nothing else to do. Most people who own Bitcoin are foreigners and morons, while I’m a hacker who works for a phone company. So for me to gather up some loose Bitcoin, that was trivial.”

His father silently twisted the barbecue spit, and the roast lamb dripped hot fat over the coals.

“Dad, I have cryptocurrency. And I know a big empty warehouse, by the old tracks in Belgrade, where l can build myself a real lab. I want to become a world-class inventor — a cosmic-class genius, even — but with no property that any divorce lawyer could ever find in alimony.”

“Your new business plan sounds pretty sly.”

“‘Dark markets,’ they call all that.”

“Who calls them ‘dark markets’?”

“The Russians, mostly.”

“Well,” his father nodded, sagely quoting the Balkan proverb, “better Russian shit than American cake!”

“Dad, some day, I’ll be able to invent any possible gadget, and the only limit to my ambition will be my own imagination.” Nikola coughed into his fist. “But first — I have to be realistic. I know that I’ll have to start out with some classical, well-proven inventions. Which is to say: Nikola Tesla’s inventions.”

His Dad sawed at a lamb-joint with a notched carving knife. “I like the sound of that. Some worthy Serb needs to fulfill old Tesla’s legacy. Your own mother was a Wallachian, you know — just like Tesla’s mother.”

“Tesla has thousands of fans all over the Internet. Tesla fans have all kinds of cool concepts and blueprints about Tesla’s remote-control spaceships, and radiated power, and telepathic brain rays that communicate with Mars… Tesla had dozens of important patents that have never been built by anybody. But I can build them!”

His father smiled indulgently. “Well, my boy, if anyone would know all about such things, that fellow would be you.”

“Dad, I know that an inventor’s life is risky and difficult. Once I had a wife and a steady job, but the girl flaked out and ran off to Ljubljana, and my Norwegian phone people can’t get any chips from China. So, for me, if I ever transform the universe, it has to be now or never.”

His Dad packed hashish into his favorite pipe. “Well, son, it’s like this. Back when I was your age, in 1989, I pulled on my backpack, and I hitch-hiked to Prague. No money, and no passport, with Communist troops and cops all over the place. For sure, I got into some jams. But I wouldn’t have missed that for anything! That was the only Revolution that us hippies ever won.”

“Why did you ever come back here to Serbia?”

“Well, your mother was good to me. But that woman of yours, she never liked Led Zeppelin. You can’t trust a woman like that.”

His father’s kindly insights were a source of good cheer for Nikola. As his Dad peaceably enjoyed his pipe, he seemed remarkably sturdy and in touch with real life. Especially considering his widower’s meager existence, fishing the Danube, from a houseboat built of leftover metal scaffolding that floated on eight empty oil barrels.

“Dad, do you have any money?”

“Us hippies don’t much bother with money. Money is more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Would you mind if I gave you some money? Venture money? For my technical investments?”

His Dad contemplated this offer. “Son, your ‘dark markets’ must have some problems.”

“Well, Nikola Tesla had plenty of money, except that Tesla trusted crooked American businessmen like Edison and Westinghouse. I refuse to make his mistakes.”

“Any black-market business,” said his father wisely, “has to be well-hidden. To conceal your real, secret business, you need a big, loud, front business. That way, you can look real busy, and you can make plenty of money, too, but people can’t see what you’re really doing. That’s how you get away with it.”

Nikola’s Dad had lived through the wars in Yugoslavia. Everyone of his generation knew a whole lot about smuggling and international sanctions.

“A gambling casino makes the best money laundry,” said Dad, “with plenty of bright lights and noise for distraction. But with a casino, you have to pay off the Mob, and that’s bad. A beauty parlor can be pretty good, too — if it’s in the wife’s name. If you have a wife. If she’s beautiful.”

“No more beauty parlors for me.”

“All right. We take your crypto money, and we run a ‘kafana.’”

“You mean an old-fashioned Balkan coffee-house?”

“That’s right. Some cool, old traditional bar, with home-made plum brandy, and Herzegovina tobacco. And some folk music, of course. Can’t be a kafana without some folk music.”

“But Dad, we’re stuck in a medical quarantine. All of Belgrade’s music joints are nailed shut.”

“That’s why I could start a kafana pretty easily,” his father pointed out.“Nobody else wants the licenses.”

Nikola considered his father’s proposal. “Can I really hide my super-science lab by using an old coffee-bar as a cover? Does that sound practical to you?”

“I don’t see why not! Nobody ever audits the bars in Serbia. We can just revive some nice riverside place, where old Belgrade rock and rollers, like me, can eat some fish soup. I can play my good old vinyl records. The golden oldies from Belgrade’s best rock and roll band, ‘Fish Soup.’”

#

His father’s encouragement boosted Nikola’s morale. His ambitions advanced with swift and surprising ease, because everyone during the quarantine was too sick or too worried to do anything useful about anything at all. Thanks to the rampaging evils of Covid-19, the economy was almost frozen, sick people were dropping like flies, and nobody in authority had the time to look around with any proper suspicion.

So reality-checks were simply impossible.

In kinder times of more socialist realism, it would have been quite a challenge to build a covert mad-science laboratory right in the midst of Belgrade. However, business was so bad that renting the big barn was cheap.

Nikola’s cosmic gadget lab was an old tin-sided freight shed, near the rusty track-snarl of a Communist-era rail-yard. The place was big enough to repair steam locomotives, but long vines trailed through old bomb-holes in its broken roof.

In this zombie-like area of urban decline and disease, nobody complained about unearthly lights, or late-night machinery noise, or gusts of toxic pollutants. Everyone on the streets of Belgrade was heavily masked against contagion, as if every last one of them had become a mad scientist.

His dad helped Nikola to finagle a power supply and some running water. Then — bargaining deftly with Bitcoin in the online ‘dark markets’ — Nikola obtained drills, a lathe, an oscilloscope, magnetometers, workbenches and a jumbo-sized 3DPrinter. (Nikola didn’t much need a 3DPrinter, he just knew that any modern innovation lab had to have one).

Then Nikola set to work on some world-changing inventions. Every day, he packed himself a solid lunch of boiled potatoes and frozen, barbecued mutton. Then he left his Radmila-abandoned apartment, and he drove in his FIAT to confront the universe.

His first mad-science laboratory gadget — just to get himself warmed up — was a good old-fashioned “Tesla Coil.” This was the charismatic spark-spitting device seen in old black-and-white Frankenstein movies, placed on those movie sets by the famous Los Angeles special effects wizard, Kenneth Strickfaden (1896–1984).

Every Internet fan of Nikola Tesla knew plenty about both “Frankenstein” and “Kenneth Strickfaden,” mostly because of all the YouTube links.

Nikola’s newly-built Coil looked beautiful, and it worked pretty well. He sold the Tesla Coil to a Bulgarian ransomware hacker, and he received a handsome Bitcoin sum for it.

Nikola’s next super-science device was a rail-gun. YouTube featured many “potato guns,” for these were classic wonder-gadgets for the modern backyard inventor: cheap and simple, but loud and impressive.

These potato guns featured a fuel-air mist explosion, which propelled a hapless potato, at amazing speed, down a long plastic sewer pipe. Nikola’s gun was different, though. His potato gun had a spud salted with iron filings, and it was built from military rail-gun plans left over from Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars.”

A Pentagon rail gun was an electronic naval cannon meant to blast Gorbachev’s nuclear warheads out of the sky. Luckily Gorbachev was too kindly a guy to launch any nuclear exchanges. So the US Navy had built a few overpriced Star Wars experiments, mostly to keep Reagan, the movie star, happy about his war plans.

Decades later, though, some ex-Navy sailor technicians, who were old and drunk and forgotten and living in San Diego, they’d started a Facebook group. There they gathered, and they idolized Donald Trump, and they indiscreetly leaked their old weapons schematics.

Nikola’s black-market Balkan potato cannon transformed a magnetized potato into a supersonic meteor. His Star Wars invention shook the neighborhood like a train crash. The locals mistook it for a genuine train crash, though, and those were common enough in the Balkans, so nobody complained.

Nikola placed a video of his rail-gun onto a Russian “dark-market” site. He promptly sold the weapon. The buyers wrote him email in very bad Russian, so they were probably Syrians. They paid him a crazy amount of cryptomoney. They never told him if the gun or its buyers survived.

Nikola passed these proceeds to his father at the coffee-shop. Dad promptly bought himself a new car, a new suit, and new shoes.

For his next inventive scheme, Nikola invented “Covid-19 Orgone Air Disinfectors.” He’d noticed a huge market demand online for those quack devices.

“Orgones” were not a Nikola Tesla technology. “Orgones” didn’t even exist, because they were mere pseudo-science rubbish invented by a dead Austrian medical crank named “Wilhelm Reich.”

Having tasted commercial success, though, Nikola had learned how to thrive in the gadget business. He stripped dead microwave ovens and repackaged their radiation units as “Orgone-Generators.” These recycled gadgets sparked like crazy and smelled like lightning-storms.

All his customers were deeply impressed. He could sell as many Orgone-Generators to suckers worldwide as he could possibly make.

So Nikola made plenty of these crooked gadgets — too many, even. His father had to complain about so much illicit wealth. His dad was laundering Nikola’s money through his modest riverside bar. Dad had claimed that a kafana bar could hide a private science lab — and Dad was right about that, the scheme worked fine. His Dad even enjoyed that work. Sociable bartending perked him up.

So his Dad seemed happy, and Nikola didn’t want to spoil a pleasant arrangement.

Still, a small riverside bar could not long conceal Nikola’s earth-shaking ambitions. Nikola Brzak could not stay forever in a cheap, makeshift lab. He was well on his way toward a booming high-tech start-up company, with enough cash-flow to buy fleets of Lamborghinis.

One night, as he relaxed over a copy of Tesla’s personal memoirs, a mystic intuition reached out from nowhere and touched him with a bony finger in the midst of his success.

He sensed that he was in danger. He had attained too much, too soon. Too much capitalist cash, and no grand strategy for how to deploy it. That could be a deadly trap for an inventive genius, for that was the tragic history of Nikola Tesla himself.

#

Nikola was busy at his R&D lab when a venture angel arrived to offer him aid and counsel.

Nikola was startled by this signal honor, because his guest was so famous. He was a renowned Belgrade entrepreneur and television personality, “Ivan P. Barlovic.”

The seasoned Barlovic had been a personal-computer expert in the early technology-boom days of the 1990s. He’d started a Serbian-language desktop-computer company. Then he’d founded Serbian-language Internet websites, Serbian tech conferences, even a Serbian cable television network.

This Balkan captain of Internet industry was a friend of foreign investors and local officials alike, so if this computer whiz had grown old — and indeed he had — he was still the gray eminence of regional high technology.

“Sir! It’s such a privilege to finally meet you,” said Nikola to the wealthy mogul. “I hope you don’t mind shaking my hand during this epidemic.”

Barlovic removed his high-tech medical mask. “I was vaccinated at the Davos Economic Forum,” he smiled. “So I’m sure to be just fine! Some day, this Covid plague will be just one passing episode in the world’s Long Boom of global prosperity.”

“You have actual venture-angel wings,” Nikola realized. “I thought your angel wings were just a television special effect.”

“Oh, these,” shrugged Barlovic, with a rustle of his famous feathered accoutrements. “Pay no mind to the silly hype about me, because us tech celebrities can’t help that. My good friend, ‘Boris Soup’ — from the rock band, ‘Fish Soup’? Boris said to tell you that I’m one of the cool guys.”

‘Boris Soup’ was a hippie even older than Nikola’s own white-haired Dad, but Nikola nodded politely. “Please have a stool at my research bench, Dr Barlovic! There’s so much good work that I want you to see! Can I boil you a Turkish coffee on my Bunsen burner? How about a shot of rakija?”

Barlovic chastely accepted an alcohol-free “Cockta” soda-pop. “I’m pleased to meet a young fellow with so much can-do tech optimism,” stated the angel, in his sonorous, dignified, TV-presenter style. “This start-up garage of yours — no fancy designer chairs around here! An entrepreneur with your hard-core attitude will surely get results.”

“I’m rather proud of my invention lab,” Nikola admitted. “Because there’s never been one woman in here, ever.”

Barlovic nodded. “The women are all in lockdown anyway, so what’s the use of them?”

“I have no need for any startup money, either,” Nikola parried, “but I do need some good advice.”

“That’s excellent! Asking us venture capitalists for advice is always the fastest way to get money from us.”

“I have strong concepts,” Nikola declared, “and I can profit, by selling my gadgets to collectors online. But, sir — I seem to have trouble moving my fantastic inventions from here in my lab, and out into the real world. You see, whenever they’re secret and mysterious inventions, sold in secret, mysterious markets, that works just fine. But as soon as my secret inventions are out in broad daylight, where the public can see them, and the police, and lawyers, and bankers, then there are all kinds of commercial and political troubles.”

“Your issues are called ‘scaling problems,’” said Barlovic, with the promptness of a veteran who had often trampled that battlefield. “Yes, you can successfully build one gadget, quietly, here in your lab. But to achieve a massive success, you need to design, build and sell ten million gadgets. Not just prototypes — real, mass-produced products. Products everywhere! Products world-wide!”

“Yes, sir. I think that’s the issue.”

“Nikola, the sad truth is, any lone inventor is just one man. Even if you are an inventive genius — (and I’m sure that you are, because I’ve met a lot of you, and you’ve got that look about you) — you have only one head and two hands. To change the world, you simply must have manpower. Thousands of heads! Thousands of hands!”

“I must?”

“Yes! You must become the executive of a mobilized, hard-hitting start-up company! Do-it-yourself is merely a youngster’s power fantasy. The real power lies in deputizing and prioritizing, while your employees change the world for you.”

“But if I’m busy running a business, how will I ever find the time to invent anything?”

“Well, you’re not following my argument. You don’t understand, because you’re not yet a rich global businessman. Let me frame this for you in a more patriotic way. When Dusan the Mighty became the greatest Serbian Emperor ever, did Dusan smite everyone with the edge of a sword, all by himself? No! Dusan was mighty, because Dusan knew how to govern!”

“You’ve given this speech before.”

“Did you watch my TED talk on YouTube?”

“No, sir,” Nikola admitted, “but I can do that.”

“I’ll draw it as an Internet meme for you,” said Barlovic. He slashed the air before him into four segments, with the flat of his manicured hand.

“Up here, in this quadrant — Urgent and Important Things. That’s what you must do yourself — because you are the genius, changing the world.

“Down here — Urgent, Less Important Things. You can deputize those. Hire people to do that work for you, marketing, sales, legal, maintenance, all of that scutwork.

“Up over here: Important things, that are in the future. You hire consultants for that, financiers, politicians, speculators, and designers.

“Then way down here in the last part, are the things that are not urgent, and not important for your business, either. Like the fumes that come out of your smokestacks. All the garbage and the toxic waste. The externalities. Well, get rid of all that. You must simply forget all about that part. You’ll go broke if you ever think about that.”

“So,” said Nikola. “That’s the lesson for worldly success in technology?”

“Yes, it is. That’s how our world became as it is today, and it’s our way forward, too.”

“Is that what you came here to tell me about?”

Barlovic glanced at his Rolex watch. “Yes.”

“Well, sir, that was some grand advice. I’m grateful to you. But now — since you’re here, in my lab — I have a brand-new user-case to show you. It’s confidential. It’s unique. It’s disruptive innovation. It’s mind-blowing, even.”

The venture angel, who had been growing bored, perked up. “Good! Show me your demo.”

Nikola moved down the scarred laboratory countertop and pulled a patterned Balkan rug from the top of a stout metal cage.

The cage contained a dead rat.

“Well, that’s a Belgrade street rat,” judged the venture angel, “and she’s an ugly one.”

“You agree with me that she’s completely dead, right?”

“Can’t have any rats chewing on our high-tech equipment,” nodded the angel. “She’s a goner, and that’s a good thing, too.”

Nikola wheeled over a lab cart, removed the dead rat by her long naked tail, and strapped her four limp rodent limbs into a wire-trailing apparatus made of rigid Meccano slots, Raspberry Pi chips, and Arduino actuators.

He flipped a copper knife-switch.

A coil spat sparks, and the dead rat jerked back into life.

“Well, I quite like the look of this demo of yours,” judged the angel. “I’m thinking: unique value proposal.”

Nikola unstrapped the stunned, yet living rat and tossed her back into her cage, where she stumbled gamely into her wobbling exercise wheel.

“So, you have achieved the almighty power over life and death,” the angel remarked. “For a start-up guy, that’s at the pro level.”

“You know that old movie ‘Frankenstein,’ right? Well, the author of Frankenstein, the book, she was a romantic teenage girl. So she cut out all the best parts of her book. Those were the detailed, hard-science descriptions of how to revive dead corpses.”

“Impressive! How did you yourself obtain that data?”

“I got it from Russian literature studies. You see, now that the Russians are patriotic scholars who are fully-funded by Vladimir Putin, they’re free of all the delusions of English ideas about truth and reality. So the Russian Internet researchers have uncovered the unspeakable truth about the British Romantic literary tradition.”

“But you really have raised the dead, right? Surely that involved some Non-Disclosure Agreements?”

“No sir! Exactly the opposite! Every single day, the Wagner Group’s ‘Internet Research Bureau’ publishes tons of astounding data to refute Westernized science! Hundreds of Russian scholars, pouring out a host of new discoveries: antivax, Jews, UFOs, laser space weapons, cannibals in pizza parlors. Everything is annotated in full detail, with footnotes, and with diagrams.”

Barlovic rubbed his chin. “Your rat was really dead though, right? It’s not just some clever stage trick?”

“Sir, she ate ‘warfarin.’ That’s the deadliest rat-poison in the world. She gobbled that bait inside a tasty chunk of ‘burek’ pastry. That rat was as dead as a stone.”

The angel peered through the shiny bars of the cage. “That’s one tough Belgrade street rat. She seems just the same as she was before.”

“Well, this isn’t the first time around for her. I’ve already killed her five times.”

The venture angel made his decision, and hefted the cage. “I’ll take this rat along with me. In return, I’ll ship you some proper, international lab-rats — Sprague-Dawley albinos. My Western investors are always sticklers for proper form in scientific papers.”

“Do you think I should make my Frankenstein invention public?”

“No — because that’s for me to do. Because I am the tech investor: I create the companies. You’re merely the genius inventor. However, I’ve decided to take you under my wings.” The angel rose, flapping, while also waving his hands, swinging the cage with the surprised and seasick rat inside. “A bright young technician like you deserves the best available R&D resources! From now on — as an associate of my family of high-tech companies — instead of killing more rats, you’ll be strengthening our regional economy.”

“Can you do all that for me?”

“Yes, I certainly can. I can fund you, just like I also generously fund our country’s ruling party. If any cops ever try to bother you here, don’t worry, they won’t bite you. Send me the word, and those cops will curl up and purr.”

The angel flew off with his captive rodent, but Nikola already knew where to catch plenty more rats.

#

Nikola’s father had revived his kafana bar in pleasant, leafy Zemun, which was the picturesque riverside suburb north of Belgrade.

This old coffeehouse lair had once been owned by a Danube fisherman who was also a famous regional folksinger. He’d had three or four hit records, and he’d been on Yugoslav TV a lot, too. However — despite the phony smiles of the Tito-era authorities — he really had been an authentic folk singer. He wrote his heartfelt songs about the real lives of the rough-and-tumble ferry-men who boated up and down the Danube River.

Nobody could be more blue-collar underground than the Blue Danube’s boatmen. These grizzled, squinting, chain-smoking, smelly and fatalistic tough guys lived in their own moral universe, a life of sailor’s knots, diesel fuel, midnight boat-runs and much plastic-wrapped contraband.

The dead folk-singer’s musical retreat was reachable only by small, smuggler riverboats, or else by one narrow, ankle-breaking foot-path down Zemun’s steep dirt cliffs. These tall cliffs of Zemun lined the left bank of the Danube, and nobody had every been able to do much with the steep, crumbly hillsides, except to toss plastic junk and city garbage down their picturesque slopes.

Below the biggest, steepest cliff of all was an eerie Danube river-beach, which consisted of ground-up, war-scorched Belgrade debris: macerated red roof-tiles, dark clods of asphalt and cement, dumped truck-loads of shattered breeze-block, and cobblestones cracked by cruise missiles. That wartime mess had been tumbled over a deeper, sinister foundation of Nazi-era urban mulch, from the legendary epoch when Belgrade had been lavishly blasted by both Axis and Allies, at pretty much the same time.

Dad’s kafana perched on its tarry dock just a stone’s throw away from this thick-piled debris, and his leaf-shrouded pirate cove — despite its obvious drawbacks as a working cabaret — had its own loyal clientele.

These bar-flies were mostly elderly Yugoslav celebrities, people once of some fame and distinction, who showed up after dark to break the quarantine together. To cluster during a plague was of course very unwise, and also illegal and maybe quickly fatal, but they were old people from a forgotten nation, so they just didn’t care.

Somehow, word had gotten around among them, and these creaky elders had drifted over to the “Stairway-of-Calvary Kafana,” where Nikola’s Dad served them top-shelf liquor for cheap. Since Dad’s bar was a money laundry, Dad could afford to run the place at a loss. So he kindly subsidized all these washed-up characters.

Nikola arrived at the kafana on foot — thorn-scratched and dirty — to find his Dad harkening to the whining of a once-famous Yugoslav actress. She’d been a hot cinematic beauty during the early 1980s, a circumstance unfortunate for her, since all her publicity shots involved teased, punk-colored hair, and asymmetrical polyester outfits in violent colors.

The actress had looked rather scary, punk and monstrous even when she’d been young and pretty, and since then, she’d had much actress-style plastic surgery, placing her weirdness-quotient even more off-the-scale.

Nikola had to wait patiently while this scarred and antic barfly chattered on, for his Dad had assumed the air of all-forgiving priesthood that Serbian bartenders possessed.

Presently, three starving musicians showed up with their instruments. These musicians were literally starving, because they were Romany, and had been dirt-poor even before the pandemic ruined their wedding-music trade. Nikola’s Dad fed these players some hot cabbage-rolls out of a battered tin tureen, while the drunken actress pestered them to let her sing with them. Screechy punks from the 1980s were the least-traditional chanteuses ever.

“It feels good to run a bar when the people really need one,” Dad confided to Nikola, “but here at my ‘Stairway-of-Calvary,’ it seems that every night finishes sad.”

“Pop, they’re already sad people. They were sad before they got in here.”

“Well, I reckon that’s the truth about the matter,” his Dad allowed, “so that’s a good thing to keep in mind.”

“Dad, I’ve brought a gift for you. Because I built a brand-new invention.”

“Again? So many?”

“This one is personal, because I made it just for you! To replace your worn-out hippie wind-chimes here at the kafana.”

“Those wind-chimes were your mother’s.”

“They were cheap when she bought them, and now they’re all rusty. Now listen: my new musical gadget is unique. It’s wind-powered — just like wind-chimes are — but it makes techno music! It has a chip full of samples from the best electronic dance-floor hits. So instead of just banging-and-bonging — like your worn-out old wind-chimes do — my chimes can play ambient chill-out tracks.”

His father gazed skeptically into the wire-tangled shoebox. “Thanks for taking the trouble for me, son. I’ll give your new music toy a try. Real soon now.”

“Dad, I’ve included the famous John Bonham drum sample from Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks.’ Because that’s the best drum sample ever.”

“We’ve got a nice big levee ready to break any day, right across the Danube here,” Dad agreed. “Son, it’s good news that you came here to visit tonight. Because, I have a serious bartender problem, and you might help me out. You see that strange, bearded longhair over in the corner, drinking that beer? Well, he’s a world-famous Balkan intellectual. He’s not from Belgrade, but somehow, he found out about my cool scene here. If he ever name-drops my cafe, all the other Balkan academics will show up at my bar. They’ll spoil everything! I’ll never see a proper river fisherman again.”

“Hey, I think I recognize that guy,” said Nikola. “He sure hasn’t aged well, though.”

“It’s all those ex-wives of his.”

“Dad, don’t worry, I know I can handle this for you,” said Nikola. “Being a scientific intellectual, I never have to worry about humanistic, cultural intellectuals. If he wants any kind of argument from me, I’m a trained rationalist and I can wipe the floor with him.”

The famous Balkan culture-critic and philosopher was slowly decanting his beer-bottle into a tapered champagne flute.

“So, professor, is that ‘Lav’ beer? That’s the worst beer in Serbia.”

“I’m from Slovenia.”

“I’ll get you a ‘Deer Beer.’ It has a handsome stag right on the label.”

The philosopher promptly tossed his untouched beer into the nearby Danube. He then decanted a fresh Deer Beer bottle without tasting a drop of it.

Nikola sat on the battered wooden bench. “So, professor, how’s it going with your philosophy?”

“I am dying of liver cirrhosis,” the philosopher announced. “I would not claim that I ever drank heavily; I had similar moral failings, but this is a logical matter. ‘All philosophers are mortal; Socrates drank something that killed him; I have to die soon, too, but why should I accelerate it by drinking bad beer?’”

“Wow, that was really well said!”

“Yes. I know that.”

Nikola had to maneuver to change the subject in his own favor. “Beer bubbles have inspired a lot of study in the physics world.”

“The metaphysics of beer bubbles are better than the physics. Lucretius wrote that our universe is a torrent of bubbles. The bubbles arise from nowhere, and they proceed toward nowhere. These lonely bubbles resemble atomic monads, alone, in their parallel tracks.” The philosopher waved one thick, veiny hand over his beer foam. “Sometimes, somehow, a disturbance arises — no one knows the source — and those monad bubbles cross paths. Then the bubbles can interact. Briefly. But then… all the bubbles must burst, back into the universal foam.”

Nikola felt briefly stunned by this recitation, but he rallied. “I know that Lucretius was a classical Roman philosopher… but whenever it comes to bubbles, I guarantee, I can do lots better than any ancient Roman guy.”

“Oh, you can, can you?”

“You bet I can. Because he’s dead, and I’m alive, young, and fully modern.”

“Young man, once I was ‘postmodern.’ And yet — I’m old and dying anyway. Postmodernity has fallen out of style. Postmodernity is half-forgotten — just like me. They’ve even forgotten our genuinely interesting philosophical inventions, such as ‘postmodern subjectivity fragmentation.’ Of course the people still suffer from ‘subjectivity fragmentation’ — and none more so than your generation — and yet, you know nothing about our theory.”

“Sir, do you have ‘subjectivity fragmentation’?”

“After five divorces? Do I ever!”

“Try the beer,” Nikola countered.

“Five different wives,” grumbled the Balkan philosopher, mopping his gray mustache after one modest sip. “That Croatian girl. That Bosnian girl. The Montenegrin girl, the laziest girl I ever married…. The Macedonian girl, who couldn’t even make up her mind about what name to call herself….”

“That’s only four wives, though.”

“I’m divorcing the Slovenian girl now. Could a Serbian girl be of any use to me? Everyone knows that the Serbs are the worst of the whole lot of us. Although… to tell the stark truth… not one woman in my life — and they were many — ever understood my need to critically call-into-question every possible aspect of politics and society.”

“Professor, is ‘misogyny’ even a philosophical concept? I’m thinking that the proper term should just be ‘-ogyny,’ with women being as they are.”

“So, what are you drinking?” said the professor. “I just got a German royalty payment. You could have a Chivas Regal.”

“I never drink whiskey. I have some LSD, if you want. Now listen, professor: about my theory of bubbles. Over in my lab, I’m building a new invention. It’s a bubble-maker, so it looks like a child’s toy, but in reality, it’s terrifying. This gadget produces a phenomenon in physics called ‘sonoluminescence.’ My device uses powerful sound waves, creating bubbles so intense, so violent, and so extreme, that when those bubbles burst, they give off bomb-like bursts of pure heat and light.”

The professor idly twisted his tapered glass.

“A proper sonoluminescence device can produce dying bubbles hotter than the surface of a star. That’s hard science. That’s experimentally verified. You could look that up on Wikipedia.”

The professor lifted his glass to taste it, but set it back down. New guests had just arrived at the cafana, within a canoe.

Of course they were celebrities — a Belgrade brother-sister team, a famous classical violinist and his equally famous classical pianist sister.

Because of the quarantine, it had been months since these two suave and ultra-civilized musicians had been able to assert their calming influence over Belgrade. To make an appearance at the Stairway-of-Calvary Kafana, they had dressed themselves — rather forlornly — in a starchy concert tuxedo and a lady pianist’s billowy evening gown. However, their patent-leather dress shoes were all wet from the bilge in their canoe.

Also, they were illegally breaking the quarantine, so they looked a little ashamed about that.

However, the other illegal guests in the kafana — (they were keeping proper “social distance,” for there weren’t all that many of them) — they all felt validated by the visit of the violinist and the pianist. The two classical artistes were not ‘slumming’ at the grimy and piratical cafe — not at all. On the contrary, their august presence lifted the atmosphere. They made the seedy cafe seem decent, even innately noble, like some damp, drippy lifeboat where the first-class set from a doomed ocean-liner could still maintain high cultural standards.

“I plan to radically improve my bubble gadget,” Nikola insisted to the distracted philosopher. “Normally, sonoluminescence creates a fizz of many small white-hot bubbles — like the crowd of bubbles in your beer-glass there. But I know how to isolate just one bubble — one single, ultra-powerful bubble. I can calculate the oscillations with the Keller-Miksis formula. If I balance the bubble’s surface tension, the viscosity, and the pulsed acoustic radiation — then I can achieve amazing cosmic power….”

“That Serbian pianist is such a pretty woman,” mused the philosopher. “I saw her perform John Cage once, in Vienna. Those four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, those were so moving.”

“Well, I’ve been to Vienna, too.”

“I’m sure that you have. Now listen — your rubbish with the bubbles that explode like black holes, I don’t care. Nobody cares. You will never blow up anything as well as Enrico Fermi did. What matters to us students of society — if we must speak of physics — is the ‘Fermi Paradox.’”

“What’s that?”

The philosopher raised his voice. “Why are we,” he lectured the sparse crowd, “we — the Planet Earth — one bubble alone in the beer of the Cosmos? Why are we the ‘Pale Blue Dot?’ We will surely die soon, in the suicidal way that we’re proceeding — because our sordid and uncultured civilization has wandered from the path of Solidarity and Communism! So, I must ask, why — why are we so unhappy? Why did no one else love us and pity us? Why did no kinder, wiser galactic civilization ever offer some guiding hand to us? Someone kind and good and truly beautiful, who would help us from our mire? To help us put beauty and harmony first in our lives…”

Everyone was staring at the philosopher, because he had a good, compelling, podium-lecture voice, so Nikola hastily rushed to make another point. “I know how to create a new universe, and I know how to blow up the universe we have, too.”

“I wouldn’t state that ambition aloud,” the philosopher advised him. “Because that stance is pure solipsism, and for a metaphysician, that always gets you the tinfoil hat.”

“But it’s true! I’ve seen the equations. I could burst a tiny bubble with a bubble-maker toy, and a literal new universe would be created. A Beer Bubble with a Big Bang! A Somethingness from a Nothingness. That might sound logically absurd, but that’s how our own universe really and truly got started, professor.”

The pianist had conferred with her brother. Now, with a lacy swish of her satiny ballroom-skirt, she approached Nikola’s table. “Professor — maestro — forgive me, but I know that it’s you. You’re the world-famous author of ‘Lacan, Hegel and the Silent Void of Negativity.’”

“Well, yes, miss,” sighed the professor, “I once made the mistake of publishing that.”

“Sir, I don’t know how you ever got here, but my brother says we can’t possibly leave you here like this. Our mansion is just down the Danube. We can get you a motor-launch.”

The philosopher rose to join the two musicians, while Nikola’s father made a smiling fuss about this development. At his gesture, the Romany musicians started busking.

The classical violinist could not have been more pleased. He truly relished the street-level catgut torture of a gypsy fiddle. When the philosopher left in a boat with his sister, the violinist even got up and danced.

“Try to be cool,” his father told Nikola, “because it’s just warming up around here. Kafana life is always like this. You did well with that philosopher — I think he even smiled at you once — but I’ve got another, even more difficult customer coming here. He never arrives before midnight. You should definitely meet him. Because he’s a famous physicist — and he’s also ‘nosferatu.’”

“Really? A physicist who is a Balkan vampire? What’s he doing in this riverside cafe, then? Everyone knows that vampires can never travel by water.”

“Look here,” his father objected, “even though you’re a genius technician, you’re still a young man and you haven’t been around much. The laws of physics never apply to the truly great physicists. Albert Einstein, for instance — just think of him. Einstein married that Serbian girl — ‘Mileva Marić-Ajnštajn.’ Our Mileva had two of Einstein’s kids, or maybe even three kids, nobody knows. That was Einstein himself, mind you.”

“Einstein married a Serbian girl? Albert Einstein was a Balkan cosmologist?”

“He divorced her.”

“That figures. But really, he married her?”

“He married her. So, look here — maybe you’re a wild punk inventor, because I raised you that way. But — listen to your father’s good advice. Always be respectful of physics. I don’t mind if you play with electronics for your cheap laughs. But physicists are humanity’s greatest thinkers. They march uphill toward our enlightenment! They’re our redeemers, they suffer for the sake of the rest of us. Especially those Russian physicists. Like Mendeleyev. Like Sakharov.”

Nikola took this fatherly chiding in good stead. It was even a comfort to him. He felt steadied by it, for it was paternal advice with some moral soundness to it.

Also, in his youthful naivete, he had never realized that Albert Einstein was so Balkan. The concept that “energy is mass times the speed of light squared” — that suddenly made more sense to Nikola. Nikola knew that Einstein was always carrying on about “the speed of light.” The speed of light was somehow crucial to Einstein’s cosmology, but he, Nikola, had never thought much about light-speed. The speed of light always seemed to just get in the way.

Nikola’s father patted his cheek. “Son, are you zoning out on me?”

“Sorry, Dad. Just doing a ‘thought experiment.’”

“Eat something,” said helpful Dad. “For you, it’s on the house.”

To help launder some money, Nikola ordered the most expensive meal that the “Stairway of Calvary Kafana” had to offer.

While he awaited his dinner, Nikola enjoyed the raucous music of the Romany musicians. Although they were genuinely starving artists, literally bony-looking, and dressed in third-hand rags, their music was irrepressible. It was the joyous noise of a Balkan people who been slaughtered by Nazis and liquidated by Communists, driven hither and yon for centuries in their clans and tribes, but, unlike every other ethnic group in the Balkans, they didn’t insist that everyone else should feel sorry for them.

As he enjoyed this boisterous, un-sorry music, a concoction arrived called a “Steak of Zemun.” Nikola’s hefty, fragrant meal was made of hammer-pounded pork, interspersed with dried ham and layers of sheep-cheese, with a deep-fried flour-crust exterior, and a molten core of a yogurt-like substance called “kaymak.” The “Steak of Zemun” came with a generous heap of deep-fried potatoes.

Nikola’s “Zemun Steak” tasted pretty good, and he ate it with gusto, and he finished the meal with a little hand-gripped vase of plum brandy and a half-tab of Californian LSD.

Presently midnight arrived, along with the vampire physicist. The nosferatu scientist floated up in eerie silence, in an archaic Danube sailboat, in a wooden coffin full of Balkan dirt.

From the long boat, a woman climbed out on the cafana’s dock, dressed as a plague-time emergency worker, masked, hatted and in zippered yellow plastic overalls. She hauled her master out of his bin, a frail, beaky old fellow with a shock of white hair, hollow temples and eyes too close together. A visibly archaic character, in a peaked celluloid collar and knotted bow-tie.

When the plastic-clad nurse and her frail, tottering charge were safely settled at a cafe table, Nikola marched over. “I know who you are. You’re Nikola Tesla.”

“Well, that is simply impossible, for it’s a violation of natural law,” croaked the physicist in fluent Serbian. “Ask my nurse here — I simply cannot be Nikola Tesla.”

“Oh yes, you simply are. I know that you are, but I’m not here to badger you about your legacy. On the contrary — I’m glad to meet you, Dr. Tesla, because I have some serious questions about Balkan Cosmology.”

“No one in the Balkans ever understands my cosmology,” lamented Tesla. “My cosmology is too universal for them.”

“Try me.”

“You will never understand the ‘Heat-Death of the Universe,’” Tesla warned. “Not until you too are dead, like me — and yet also still famous. How short a time the Universe can live and breathe, with glorious suns, comets, stars…. How much of time the Universe spends in its cold half-dead afterlife, nothing but scattered, icy, atomic particles ….”

“So,” said Nikola, sitting down, “is it true that the Second Law of Thermodynamics implies some brief vitality, and then a near-endless asymptotic approach to a dismal state, when cold entropy prevails?”

“Yes, that is the law,” said the undead Tesla, “but that law is not my fault.”

“None of this can ever be his fault,” interrupted the nurse in English. “Because Nikola Tesla died, and he was cremated in 1943, and his ashes are inside a copper globe, in the Nikola Tesla Museum, in downtown Belgrade. If you don’t believe what I tell you, then go there and look for yourself.”

“Your foreign nurse here doesn’t speak Serbian?” Nikola said to Tesla, in Serbian.

“Our native language is quite difficult to learn,” said Tesla evasively. “Our grammar has seven cases and twenty different prefixes.”

“Well, good, then we can talk about her,” said Nikola in Serbian. “Because your sexy girlfriend here — or your vampire wife, your Dracula concubine, whatever she is — she’s still pretty, but she’s a lot older than you. You’re Nikola Tesla, I can understand that. You’re an inventor, like me. You’re somehow not dead yet, and I respect that. But her — she’s otherworldly. She’s a fantasy creature. She doesn’t fit into a scientific worldview at all.”

“Young man, I don’t much care to speak to you about milady’s antecedents.”

“Look, Dr Tesla, don’t go playing the gallant gentleman. I know very well that you never married any woman while you were still alive. ‘No married man has ever made a great invention’ — you’re the very man who said that famous quotation, right?”

“Not exactly,” Tesla hedged.

“But now, when you’re undead — you’re a cold, spectral figure moving past midnight, still walking among the living — what’s your excuse about her? Why the hell do you have some pretty mistress on your arm? We’re speaking Serbian, she doesn’t understand us. You can tell me the truth.”

“Well,” Tesla lied, “Teresa is ‘nosferatu.’ She’s Transylvanian.”

“No, she isn’t! Even in the Balkans, you can’t combine the Second Law of Thermodynamics with vampire women! The laws of physics would never permit that. It’s a complete farrago.”

“Well, then, it’s because she’s Hungarian. Hungarian girls are the hottest girls in the Balkans. I know I shouldn’t have succumbed to her wiles, but all us Balkan men say that about Hungarian girls.”

Obviously, Tesla had no need for any hot Hungarian mistress. His long, fleshless bones were like toothpicks. “Dr Tesla, I’m not as very, very old as you are. But I wasn’t born yesterday, either. Your escort here — I know that she’s Italian.”

“Teresa’s not Italian.”

“Yes she is! Every Balkan guy knows what Italian girls look like — they’re all over the Adriatic, in their high heels and bikinis. She looks like Monica Bellucci, if Monica Bellucci was even more ageless than Monica already is.”

“Let this woman be,” Tesla urged. “You and I should discuss the Cosmos, not a woman — because I know so much about the nature of the Universe that you don’t as yet know.”

“Are you two men making a scandal about me?” said the Italian escort in English, wrinkling her very pretty, although weirdly ageless face. “Do not compare me to Monica Bellucci. I’m not Italian. I was never Italian. I was always Venetian.”

“I know that you’re not Monica Bellucci,” said Nikola to the mistress in English, “but who are you really?” He paused. “If I may ask you?”

“Maybe I am a registered nurse?” Teresa offered liltingly. “My client here, he suffers from leukemia? I keep him from his death by bringing him here to Serbia? For his medical-tourism treatments… He gets many blood-plasma transfusions…?”

Nikola rolled his eyes. “That’s not who you are and what you’re doing. Although, that’s a pretty good Balkan cover story, Teresa.”

“Why are you so heartless, you cruel scientists?” the fake nurse protested. “My poor old man here, he made better inventions than you, but is he young like you, dashing, handsome, reckless, brave and horny? No, he is only the famous undead! Why must you wicked scientists ask so many prying questions? Unholy inquiries, which only murder to dissect?”

Nikola confronted Tesla in Serbian. “What in hell is she going on about?”

“Why must you attack the poetry of life?” Teresa demanded, her rich voice rising in operatic soprano. “Always spoiling my romances! With this profoundly gifted man, who needs so much tender care! And me, a beautiful woman, who is willing to console him? I can take good care of any genius — selflessly, devotedly, putting my own needs to one side! But am I myself ever world-famous? Do I ever get any credit for the magnificent generosity of my loving heart? No, I get nothing but scandal and scoldings.”

“You sure speak good English, old lady. For an Italian girl.”

“I learned to speak my beautiful English from the best poet in all the world!”

“He must have been pretty famous. I bet he was plenty rich, too.”

The escort crossed her slender arms across her shapely bust. “To a philistine brute like you, I will never reveal my poet’s name. Yes, you may learn about Nikola Tesla, but my one true love, you will never know anything about him.”

“Oh, come on, Teresa!”

“Did you ever read my confession book? Admit it — you inventors have never even heard of the book that I wrote.”

Nikola exchanged a quick glance with the undead Tesla. Despite his chilly half-life, Tesla had clearly heard rather a lot about Teresa’s book.

“In my book, I confessed my love affair with that silver-tongued devil,” said Teresa. “Everything that a Venetian lady of manners and breeding could write, which was fit to be read by the other ladies. But you — you cold, unmanly machine-maker — if you never read my beautiful romantic book, that is your own ignorance!”

Nikola had to flinch at this scornful burn. He sneaked behind his Dad’s bar, and he quickly filched a half-bottle of Italian grappa. It was not a great Italian grappa, because it was packaged for Balkan export, but it was pretty good grappa, anyway.

Teresa, still silently fizzing with rage, helped herself to a consoling grappa-shot, and not for the first time, obviously.

“Some mystery must be preserved in life,” said Tesla in Serbian.

“Look, even if she’s mysterious, she’s just a woman — so I’m past caring. Who needs her whining and complaining? Tell me more about your incredible inventions.”

“My boy, there are moments when our ‘inventions’ do seem incredible… but then comes their long, long after-life. Inventions become mere machinery, outdated by progress. Machines in their undead decay. Old, cold gadgets. Mere clutter and junk, choking the planet, the ashes of the stars.”

Tesla raised his spiky brows and steepled his long, bony fingers. “However, to speak about cosmology — that is pure science. By embracing pure science, instead of the seduction of machines, I did not pass from the world scene like some rusty electrical generator. Instead, my intellectual legacy has continued to inspire unmarriageable men everywhere, not just in the Balkans, but even as far away as Mars, and… Am I boring you?”

Nikola came too with a start. “Some. A little. Yeah.”

“Being from Serbia, you already know these biographical facts about me.”

“Yeah, I’ve, uh, been through your airport. It’s nice.”

“Study astronomy, my boy. Study mathematics. The intimate relationship between the numbers three, and six, and nine, that is more deep and profound than any machine ever invented.”

“I’ve always remembered that quote of yours,” said Nikola. “The problem is — I can’t believe that. This Platonist notion, that math is eternal and real things are just cave-shadows — that’s ridiculous. Any engineer is a hundred times as worthwhile as any mathematician. Imagine being marooned on a desert island with mathematicians — they’d go mad and eat you. With engineers, with inventors, you’d have an Adriatic paradise island with discos and yachts.”

“The Cosmos is firmly subjected to natural laws, which are described in mathematics.”

“No the Universe isn’t! Because this is the Balkans! Do you think we give a damn about any ‘laws’ around here? Our life is all about the plum trees, the pork-chops, the brass coffee-grinders, the mountains and the rivers! Things you can grip with your fingers and kick with your boots.”

“You crass materialist,” chided Tesla. “You soulless nihilist. How do you expect to survive your own death? Next you’ll be saying that the Universe itself is merely a big machine, made of rotors.”

“It is? Really?” Nikola sat up in his chair, with a small body-thrill of LSD running straight up his spine. “What kind of rotors make the universe? Like, Nikola Tesla alternating-current rotors?”

“Those rotors came to me in a holy dream,” said Tesla.

“Wait, are the galaxies really Tesla rotors? Is that the cosmic truth about the galaxies? I mean, the galaxies do have magnetic fields, and the galaxies do rotate, right?”

“Yes, it’s true, but those are merely the galaxies, they’re not the vast cosmos,” Tesla scoffed. “You lack a first-class mind. I refuse to tell you anything more.”

Teresa the nurse toppled her bottle of grappa. “Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly; Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of Eternity.”

“What does that mean?” said Nikola, impressed. “Tell me that in plain English.”

Teresa sullenly righted her empty bottle. “You have spoiled a beautiful evening for the two of us. We are departing, and no matter how hard you try, you will never find us again. You had best heed my warning, sir: you are trifling with cosmic insights that mankind was not meant to know.”

“Yeah, I am,” sneered Nikola, in sudden rebellion. “I know that, lady. I am disturbing the universe, and maybe I shouldn’t, but ‘mankind’ never did much for me.”

Teresa hauled the old physicist back into his antique sailboat, and off they floated, in unearthly fashion, over the Danube’s dark and ever-flowing waters.

#

Back alone at his gadget lab, Nikola sat life out for a couple of days, so as to contemplate his innate need to hack the Cosmos, and how best to go about that effort.

People commonly said the Universe was very, very large indeed, so a man was too small to get much done in that regard. But wasn’t this a mere “scaling issue?” Cosmology was all about scale, and yes, the Universe was very big. But it was big in a scaled way.

Beyond Nikola’s own personal, man-sized scale was the Balkans, and the Earth, and the Earth-Moon system. Then the gigantic Sun and its Solar System, that big Isaac Newton clockwork gadget.

Next scale up were all the nearest stars — a little neighborhood of fifty stars, within fifteen light-years of the Sun. They were not famous stars, nobody made much fuss about them — they were stars like the neighbors in some Belgrade apartment building.

Scale piled upon scale: the local galactic arm was a vast swampy river of stars. Then the Milky Way Galaxy, the scale up from that. Then the “Local Group” of fifty-four galaxies — again, not famous, remarkable galaxies, just the fifty-four neighbors.

The “Virgo Supercluster” was the cluster of groups of galaxies. Then came the “Laniakea Supercluster,” of which the “Virgo Supercluster” was a mere component, and then ten million other superclusters of galaxies, crossing the Universe in their ultra-colossal “sheets” and “walls” and “filaments.”

Such was the true nature of the Cosmos, and Nikola had a strong hunch about this truth. Whenever he considered the Universe as an engineer, as an inventor — also, sky-high on two fresh hits of LSD — the Cosmos had the smell of a ramshackle, one-off prototype to him.

After all, even if it was the Cosmos, there was only One. Whenever you had only one prototype, it was just bound to be buggy. Because it could never be thoroughly tested. Because there was only One.

The atoms might be dependable — because there were countless zillions of atoms — and grains of sand, planets, stars, they were plentiful and well-tested, too. But the galaxies? One look at galaxies showed obvious manufacturing defects. Galaxies were often “barred” or “dwarfed,” or even banging headlong into each other, in industrial accidents.

As for the “superclusters,” they were poorly fitted into their “sheets” and “walls” and “filaments.” Superclusters left big ragged holes in the Cosmos. And why was that?

Because they were all scrap from the Big Bang, that was why.

The Cosmos was made out of leftover bomb debris. The Cosmos had never been safely designed. It had literally blown up in a bang.

The Cosmos wasn’t a finished artwork, solemn, holy, like an Orthodox cathedral. The Cosmos was a very large, one-off, spinning gadget with badly-made, rusty components.

Also — (Tesla hadn’t admitted this, but Tesla had dropped the hint) — the Cosmos was in rotation. The entire Universe was one vast spinning Tesla rotor, not because that rotor was of any use to anybody, but because nobody had figured out a way to build a Cosmos that didn’t wobble.

Not one sign of any way to maintain or repair the rotating Cosmos. No safety devices for the Cosmos — not a fuse anywhere, no fire extinguisher, no spare components.

In short, it was a Cosmos that a God might invent in just a week, and then down His tools, because nobody else was watching over Him.

The Cosmic truth got even worse. The top-order stuff, the supposed highest levels, those were the messiest, crappiest parts of the Cosmos. The biggest, grandest stuff was all sketchy, poorly-built, barely-there.

Reality might feel pretty real to a mortal human being, but way up at its cosmic levels, everything was foam-core and duct-tape, loose garage parts that a lonely male God had stuck together, to see if he could get a Universe to run at all.

The Cosmos was an incompetent mess. Not fit for purpose. It chugged and backfired like the engine of a rusty Yugo.

#

Once he realized that he could destroy the poorly-made Universe, Nikola got right to work building the hardware for the job. This was the advanced, weaponized variant of his “sonoluminescent bubble” machine.

Each one of his fizzing cosmic bubbles would be like a grain of sand inside a balky Yugo engine. Once he’d spewed out enough of the destructive bubbles, the ramshackle Universe would no longer be able to rotate. All those frail, farfetched “sheets” and “walls” and “filaments” would seize up from the friction, with horrific screeches in the vacuum of deep space. Cosmic, chart-busting bursts of heat. Filthy black smoke gushing from every quasar…

Nothing elegant about that, because it was a crude act of destruction, like some spiteful teenager’s computer sabotage. But that was why it would work.

Eager to destroy the Universe, Nikola left his grimy lab in Belgrade. The place had served its purposes for him, while all the local rats were getting on his nerves.

He found a superior locale fit for a lone cosmic genius.

Up in an ancient mountain village, nestled in the endless nooks and crooks of an obscure Balkan mountain-range, was a lofty stone barn. This lair had once belonged to some legendary Serbian aristocrat, a cut-throat mountain heyduk with a cummerbund full of flintlock pistols, and former Turkish concubines he’d converted into Christian handmaidens.

This eagle-eyed duke had been the lord of one tiny mountain valley, but he was the monarch of all he surveyed, and that was what really mattered for a man combating the world.

The frail Universe went briefly unmolested as Nikola found subcontractors to clean the barn out, and shore up the cracked foundations, and install some generators and plumbing. Once he was done with that, he was so happy with his glorious mountain retreat that he was tempted to call his Dad and throw a big party.

Also, during his healthy rural stay, up in the fresh air and mountain sunshine, Nikola had conceived some cool ideas for clever Green-technology inventions. Devices Balkan peasants might use, such as solar-powered Frankenstein tractor-harrows that could bring their dead crops back to life.

However, Nikola was a man of stern purpose, so he stuck to his cause, laboring at his new lab bench, in his sinister mountain retreat. Week by week, his researches advanced remorselessly.

His cosmos-busting arsenal was well underway, but then — one dark and stormy night — when the mountain peaks were wreathed with dramatic lightning, a hollow pounding came at Nikola’s bolt-studded door.

Nikola answered it. There stood the Angel of Death.

The Black Angel brandished Death’s iron scythe, with long dark musty robes, and a hollow and faceless hood, and dry ice fumes around his skeletal feet, which were clad in the traditional Biblical sandals.

Nikola looked the specter and down. “What gives with you?”

“I am Death!”

“Pal, I was digging my own grave months ago. I was more than ready to go. Where were you?”

“The world is stricken with plague. I’ve been busy.”

“So damn busy that you can’t kill Nikola Tesla — and Countess Teresa Guiccioli? Go kill that fake nurse that Tesla has on his arm! That damned woman is two hundred and twenty years old! I’m not even thirty yet, go get rid of her first!”

The spectre shook inside his robes a little — because Death rarely met with such angry sarcasm. He leaned his hand-crafted Balkan scythe against the door-jamb.

“It’s raining,” the Dark Angel whined. “May I come inside to speak to you? To speak civilly?”

“No. You’re Death, and this is the Balkans. Go ahead, just kill me here on my doorstep. Scythe me down.”

“It’s considered polite and traditional that we should discuss various matters of life-and-death first.”

“No it isn’t.” Nikola defiantly snapped his fingers. “You might slay me, but I don’t fear your petty mortal threats. Because I’m a cosmologist.”

The Angel of Death sidled glumly into the barn’s crisp, battery-powered LED lighting. “Nice science lab you have here. Lots of fresh equipment.”

“That’s right — and speaking of the laws of physics, so-called Angel of Death — how are you even possible?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“‘Death’ can never be a living entity. ‘Death’ is merely the absence of life. So how can ‘Death’ speak to me, and drip rain on my floor?”

“I’m sorry,” said the angel, shaking the mud from his sandals. “Most humans aren’t as rational as you are. Whenever you humans meet your Death, you rarely do much hard-science fact-checking.”

“So, you’re not a human, eh? Is that what you’re claiming?”

Reluctantly, the visitor pulled back his black, spectral hood. He had a big, hairless, earless, swollen-brained head, and a tiny tapered jaw, and slits for nostrils. His eyes were tilted and almond-shaped, the size and shape of tail-lights on a luxury car.

“You’re an alien from outer space?” said Nikola, surprised. “Here in the Balkans?”

“Da.”

“You’re a real flying saucer guy? How can such things be?”

“Well, I’m standing here, aren’t I?” the Space Alien complained. The Alien had a rather low, grumbling, static-stricken voice, like some too-distant radio transmission. “Yes, I am an alien from another planet. But here in the Balkans, all of us foreigners have to become fixers of some kind. Because this is such a troubled region.”

“Wow. You’re really an alien visitor, from a UFO? I always wanted to see a flying saucer. I think I could build one myself.”

“I need a drink,” the Alien grumbled. “Do you have any sterilized and distilled pure water?”

Nikola topped up a handy Florence flask from a chemistry pipette. “So, should I give you a tour of my lab?”

“I came here to confer with you about your weapon of mass galactic destruction,” said the Space Alien. He sipped his purified water with a diplomat’s unearthly patience. “Normally, I would let you build whatever you please here. Because I’m cosmic, I’m cosmopolitan — us aliens, we don’t much need to interfere. However, you, trying to blow up the Universe, that would trouble the major powers.”

“What ‘major powers’?”

“That is to say, me and mine.”

Nikola had to present his bubble-maker arsenal for the Alien’s weapon inspection.

The Space Alien closely examined the sonoluminescent apparatus, with its tank of sonic goo, its many glass tubes, its transducers, amplifiers, and piezoelectric speakers. He tapped the device with a bulbous-ended fingertip that lacked any fingernail. “Nice cheerful color choice with your plastic rack here.”

“Thanks. It’s 3DPrinted.”

“Your dreadful device would probably work,” the Alien assessed. “You have the right basic concept. Put enough voltage through here, and your mean-tempered little pipe-bomb will go off like a six-pack of quasars.”

“How do I pulse all that voltage, exactly? I haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

The Space Alien hitched his black robe, pulled over an acid-stained lab stool, and sat. “Let’s discuss that matter, shall we? You’re an intelligent member of an intelligent species. Otherwise, you couldn’t have built this dreadful cosmic explosive. But even if you lousy humans want to kill yourselves — and I’m not denying that to you — why would the rest of us put up with your bullshit?”

“What’s it to you?”

The Space Alien shrugged in his robes. “This is the Balkans. So call me an international peacekeeper — or I’m your Guardian Angel, maybe. I work for the Milky Way Galaxy. There’s a whole lot of us aliens out there, and it’s quite a politically and economically advanced and complex area. You might ask Nikola Tesla about the galaxy. Tesla’s a well-travelled man.”

“Tesla sent you here to stop me?” To be finked on by Nikola Tesla was rather flattering.

“You’re not the first clown to try this stunt. A hundred years ago, Tesla discovered five different methods to blow up the Universe,” said the Space Alien. “So I had to meet Tesla, sitting alone on his park bench in New York City. He was cheated, sore, hungry, broke, cold, homesick, feeding the pigeons…. A whole lot like Rene Descartes, when Descartes was also all alone, thinking too much, in that famous room with the stove.”

“Rene Descartes, too, eh? That French mathematics guy.”

“The Descartes method was metaphysically simple — unlike you and Tesla, Descartes didn’t even need hardware. I tried to talk sense into Descartes, but Descartes didn’t understand Space Aliens. He knew nothing about galaxies, either. So, Descartes had to drop dead of pneumonia. Nothing left of Descartes but that toy robot he made, that machine that walked and talked just like his dead little girl.”

“Wait a minute — Rene Descartes built what, now? Is it okay if I take some notes while you’re lecturing?”

The Space Alien watched indifferently as Nikola booted up his Linux laptop.

“I’ll make you a proposal you shouldn’t refuse,” the Space Alien offered politely. “I know that you’re a crank genius inventor. Because I’ve met so many — fanatic Catholic philosophers, bankrupt electrical businessmen, gay British codebreakers with Artificial Intelligence. If you’re left alone to screw around with your own mad schemes, you won’t end well.”

“That’s all somebody else’s fault, it’s not mine,” Nikola grumbled.

“Sure it is, but listen, Nikola. Suppose that you don’t kill yourself — and everyone and everything around you. You’re a Balkan kid, so you’re morbid and Slavic — but you might persist well beyond your natural lifespan. Immortal fame, and a long-lasting influence…. Sounds nice, eh? Collaborate with me, and that can be arranged.”

Nikola silently thought this over. “Maybe.”

“Just preserve the Universe,” the alien coaxed suavely. “Not for eternity! I would never ask you for eternity! We’re cosmopolitan cosmologists in the Cosmos — you, and me. We both know the truth, we know the Cosmos is doomed anyway. We know that the Cosmos is sure to die a cold, entropic heat-death. Look at the math — the end result can only be the Void. The Abyss. But — given that the End of Everything is just as sure as death and taxes — why hurry that up?”

“Your foreign deal is not fair to me,” said Nikola. “Because I don’t know what you know. I don’t have what you have.”

“Well, you human beings are mere natives of the Balkans of our Galaxy,” the Space Alien remarked. “Because you live here in the ‘Orion-Cygnus Spur,’ which is a backward, rural area of the Milky Way Galaxy. Your undeveloped Solar System is mostly just bare rocks and poisonous gas.”

“Will we humans ever get better?”

The Space Alien looked doubtful and sly. “Maybe. Could be. In terms of the laws of physics, let’s just say your improvement is possible.”

“There’s some hope for humankind, then.”

“There’s development. There’s transition. Sometimes new civilizations do join the Galaxy. Commonly that process takes a million years, but it takes the Galaxy two hundred and thirty million years just to rotate.”

“Those seem like quick results,” said Nikola. “Good. I’m a gadget guy. Push of a button.”

#

No crane or bulldozer could reach the secluded site of the Stairs-of-Calvary Cafe. So, Nikola’s Dad had hired a trio of brawny Turkish refugees and given them shovels and jackhammers. The workmen were chopping a large hole into the soft cliff of Zemun, ideal for some Danube boat-smuggling.

Life was changing in Zemun. The quarantine was lifting. People would still die from the fevered embrace of the Rona, but not so many all at once, and also, the people, the government, the media, even the overworked doctors, they just wouldn’t care as much about the body-count.

A plague was a historical affliction, but just one among many such.

The Yugoslav actress came to inspect Nikola’s dirt-walled man-cave. This was no easy walk for her — because she wore stiletto heels. Also, she was sporting a black leather skirt and a sleeveless sequinned bustiere.

The actress handed Nikola a warm latte in a stained paper cup. The kafana had obtained a new cappuccino machine — Nikola’s gadget gift to the bar. Everybody liked his posh foreign coffee gadget, because it was chromed, expensive and classy, and never a device you would expect to find in a run-down smuggler’s den.

“So, Nikola,” she chirped, “what are you building, to hide in your new cave here?”

“Well, ma’am, that’s a big secret to everybody.”

“Could I have a few words with you about that?” she said, in her actressy fashion of carefully-reciting a dramatic line.

“All right. What’s on your mind, Anica?”

“I’m in love with your father,” she revealed.

“Your bartender?”

“Well, yes, him. He can mix me a nice Cosmopolitan. But it’s not that. He makes me so happy. I am old, I was so alone, I was so afraid of dying… I was famous once, now I’m so ugly… Don’t deny it, I know what the mirror says to a woman…. He’s kind to me.”

Nikola’s father had an incredible tolerance for Anica’s complaints. Probably because, as an old rock-and-roller, he’d been losing acuity in the higher pitches. He couldn’t even hear her.

Face-lifted Anica, that grandmotherly Bride of Frankenstein… she must have driven sane men out of their minds, back in her heyday. Yet Nikola’s father was immune to her. She was like a dangerous welding torch turned into a barbecue starter.

His father and the actress, they were never a red-hot item, but they liked to sit and eat together. Sometimes they went on slow, companionable walks.

“I’m so happy,” said Anica. “For the first time in my life, I’m a contented woman. I can’t believe that a man can do that to me. Of all the things I’ve had in my life — just a man.”

“My father’s pretty old now,” Nikola offered, “and this is the Balkans, so, whatever he’s doing, good or bad, it can’t last much longer.”

“Your father’s from Herzegovina. There are men there who live to be a hundred and ten.”

“Better not marry him, then.”

“He’s a simple old hippie fellow, so give him love and peace and a place to drop out, then he’s fine. But this cave you are building, this strange fallout-shelter, whatever it is…. Nikola, it’s you that I worry about.”

“This is the Balkans. Nobody ever looks or cares.”

“I can look and care,” she insisted. “I want to look and care.”

“Well, I just can’t explain it to you. Because it’s so technical. You’re an actress, you’re just an artist, so you’ll never understand my problems.”

“Try me.”

“Okay, fine. Listen to me. Suppose I had a bomb that could blow up the Universe. I don’t mean a little Albert Einstein bomb, just an atomic bomb. I mean, like, a bad-genius Frankenstein knife-switch where I end all existence. I can hack and crash the whole Universe, because the Universe, by definition, has the largest possible ‘attack surface.’ The Universe is untested, insecure, and it’s full of fatal vulnerabilities.”

Anica listened patiently. “Are you through explaining yet? Your hacker lecture was nice! So cyber!”

“No, really listen to me explaining! Right here — in a cave dug from the soil of the Balkans — I can build a gadget that rips a hole right through the fabric of the Universe. I can personally end the Cosmos, and get this, Anica — my method is so starkly ingenious that it’s not even a machine. I did have a different method of universal destruction, that was my Big Bang bubble machine. But that project got found out — so I had to switch my tactics.”

“Space aliens found out?”

“Dad told you about the Space Alien?”

“No, but Teresa Guiccioli got drunk. Teresa likes to talk to me. She loved Lord Byron. She knew Mary Shelley personally…”

“Forget her dumb folklore. Those Romantic intriguers, there’s not one of ’em worth a damn except for Ada Lovelace. Listen: I have discovered a method of cosmic destruction that nobody could ever expect — because it’s a cosmic cyberweapon. It is weightless, formless and ethereal. ‘In the Beginning was the Word.’ Then the Cosmos exists — but then, along comes me! And me, one man, personally, I invented the obscene and blasphemous ‘Curse Word!’ It’s an outburst of pure spite, but it’s malware so potent that the very substance of the cosmos will be torn to shreds.”

“So what is your magic word, then?” Anica encouraged, with an actress-like ability to follow a prompt. “Is the magic word ‘Abracadabra’?

“Well, in theory, yeah, the Bad Word is almost that simple. In practice, though, it’s a cosmic software-command. So it’s about eighty characters long, with brackets and embedded parentheses. That’s why I need this soundproofed cave here — to make sure I don’t commit any typos.”

“But Nikola — what happens if you never say the Bad Word?”

An incredible question. It brought him up short. “But I could say it, though. I mean, I discovered it, and I could accomplish that. I input the prompt, and then the Universe blows up. That’s the whole point.”

The chattery actress fell silent for a while. This gave Nikola a while to contemplate their discussion.

He was confident that he could pull off his scheme. Otherwise, the Milky Way Galaxy would never have sent a cop around to bother him.

He’d pretended to cut a deal with the outside powers, because Balkan people were commonly forced into that situation. However, being a genius, he’d soon conjectured other, slyer methods.

He had five distinct and different schemes of vengeance in his mind, for setting loose powers of utter cosmic destruction.

He’d figured out everything. Everything, except for, well, the scaling problem.

Einstein’s speed of light, that choking limitation on so many fine dreams. That squalid, crippling, demeaning speed of light. He couldn’t seem to invent his way past that. No matter how hard he thought.

The fragile, gimcrack Cosmos was rotating — but it was also expanding. The Universe whirled and whirled, and it grew and grew. The Cosmos was historical process.

Nikola might destroy the whole Earth in just a few seconds. He could wreck the Sun a few minutes later… but that scale was so tiny.

After fifteen long years, Nikola could only annihilate fifty stars.

In a thousand years, his malice could rip off a galactic arm. But even if his scheme wrecked the Milky Way Galaxy — (by no means a done deal, because the Space Aliens would surely get fussy about it) — the nearest other Galaxy was two million light-years away.

The Andromeda Galaxy would likely never see that he had sent doom their way. Was that gratifying, though? Also, that Andromeda Galaxy was just one small chip in the Local Cluster. Which was itself a tiny part of the Laniakea Supercluster…

No act of Destruction, however potent, vicious and fast, could ever catch up with the primal speed of Creation. As the Universe expanded, the farther away his victims were, the faster they fled from his wrath. The expanding Cosmos raced away, but the speed of light stayed always the same.

So his act of destruction could never catch up with them. Some, yes, but not all. Never. And the same was true everywhere in the Cosmos, for every cosmic genius. Even if your malicious brain was as hot and bright as a bursting supernova, some of the others were simply, forever beyond your reach. They lived “beyond the light-cone.” Your best efforts could never touch them. They would never even know.

Also, their worst efforts to impress you could never touch you, either. Maybe distant alien geniuses had already set loose destruction to detonate everything — but the universe was built to such ramshackle, broken-to-pieces standards that it made no practical difference. That was Balkan Cosmology.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the Creator Himself cannot see His Creation,” Nikola muttered. “He let the Light be, but the Light can never reach His eyes — for He is a blind idiot god, alone in the cosmic cold.”

“Well, I can take care of all that,” the actress assured him. “You once said to me — no great inventor ever needs a wife. But every inventor must have a mother. He just has to have a mother to bring him into the Universe, Nikola. That’s the truth.”

“Is this a joke?”

“I’ve had a lot of men in my life. I never had a son.”

“I’m trying to destroy the Universe, and you’re offering me ‘the Motherhood statement?’”

The actress’s eyes welled up, smearing her mascara. “Why not? How can I be happy, if my own family is not happy? Nikola, I can feed you — I used to be on a TV cooking show. I can shelter you — because I was a rich actress once. I even own real-estate. Why not a happy ending? I’m an actress! Happy endings are nice. People like them.”

So it had finally come to this, thought Nikola. He could have opened his veins in his fever dream in that forest. He would have obtained the solemn dignity of the unknown dead. He’d lost that chance, for the she-bear had passed him by. He might have kissed Doom right on her bestial lips, but now he’d have to kiss her cheek; he’d have to kiss her hand.

Well, some acts were irrevocable, and they weren’t always the worst ones. He waited for a few living heartbeats, rehearsing what to say about his situation. Birds chirped in the construction noise. The Danube was flowing. An ancient river, oily, trashy, and messy, with mankind’s big flat barges on it, hauling the bad and the good.

“All right, Mom,” he told her. “After all, it’s just a Universe, so let it be.”

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