The sounds behind the stars (part 2)

It was early November when I began to notice changes in McCririck’s behaviour and in his work. Up to that point he’d come across as a fairly straightforward young man without any particularly noteworthy eccentricities. But as the autumn term wore on, he started to exhibit a dreamy, distracted air, as if unable to give more than a small fraction of his attention to me or indeed anyone else when talking. Having initially been a good contributor to the postgraduate lecture series taken by all our first-year doctoral and MPhil students, he rather suddenly stopped asking questions or responding when the class was prompted – and Dr. S———– and Prof. G———– have confirmed that it was not only in my own lectures on differential topology that this unexpected disconnection occurred.


This rapid diminution of McCririck’s participation in his lectures was accompanied by a general decline in his marks in problem sheets, which had previously been very good, although it seemed to me that this was not due to his having difficulties with the material as much as simply losing interest in much of it. However, I was delighted to find that McCririck was pursuing avenues of research entirely on his own initiative into areas of mathematics that were obscure even to me and the other academics in the Department, and in these he showed great promise indeed. I was confident that if I could persuade him to pay enough attention to the required course materials to pass the end-of-semester exams that were rapidly approaching, he would be well placed to carry on his investigations into the more arcane aspects of Riemannian geometry and theoretical acoustics and psychoacoustics. Delight gave way to astonishment as I saw the incredible advances he’d been able to make in such a short time, barely half a year after finishing his undergraduate degree – and in fact I soon became suspicious about the originality of McCririck’s ideas, as fully formed and mature as they were.

It was with a heavy heart and some trepidation that I called McCririck into my office in the penultimate week of the autumn semester and asked him, in so many words, if this suddenly brilliant access of insight was the result purely of his own researches. I was simultaneously disappointed by McCririck’s answer and impressed by his honesty, as well as stunned by the news of his discovery of Vock’s long-lost theorems carved into the wooden panelling of a Georgian townhouse in the heart of Bloomsbury. McCririck’s distracted air, which had become so typical of his demeanour over the last six weeks or so, momentarily left him and I rather got the impression he was intensely relieved to be getting this great secret off his chest; from the way he talked about his discovery, I didn’t need to ask whether he’d yet confided in anyone but me.

Without wishing to put too much pressure on McCririck, I pointed out the ethical requirements of announcing his discovery, which was sure not only to make big waves in the mathematics and mathematical physics communities but also to cause a stir among historians of science. McCririck concurred, but only after a short but telling pause in which I thought an inscrutable and perhaps crafty expression passed across his face – although the moment was so brief I can no longer be entirely sure I didn’t imagine it, in retrospect. But I remember feeling at the time that McCririck was, at any rate, holding something back from me. Perhaps if I had pressed harder in my inquiries about how he planned to announce his discovery and how he intended to make use of Vock’s work while steering well clear of plagiarism, McCririck’s accident could have been prevented – but perhaps not. My psychiatrist has impressed upon me the unhealthiness of excessive guilt and self-blame in cases of this sort.

   *      *      *     *     *

So exactly what did happen to Stefan Vock? The standard story is that the unexpected death of his mother, guilt and shame over the war and hostility due to his nationality led to alcoholism and addiction to both morphine and cocaine, culminating in probable suicide – most likely by throwing himself in the Thames, given that his body was never found. A fringe theory contends that he left London in disguise and returned to Germany, perhaps to comfort his widowed father, where he changed his name and assumed a totally new identity. I even read a blog post on eccentric scientists claiming that this may have inspired Ettore Majorana’s disappearance 16 years later.

This never rang entirely true for me, ever since I began to investigate the life of this young genius whose greatest work it had been my good fortune to uncover. The published correspondence between Vock and Pearson made it quite clear that the former felt no particular attachment to his native Germany, in either a positive or a negative sense, and that he rather considered himself primarily a member of a supranational community of mathematicians and scientists than a citizen of either his birth country or of Britain. Absent, too, is any evidence of emotional turmoil due to the war or its aftermath, and he barely mentions his mother’s death in 1920 – although of course that could have more to do with the emotional restraint that was de-rigueur among the stiff-upper-lip bourgeoisie in those days than with any particular callousness on Vock’s part.

While I did what I could to investigate Vock’s real fate using Pearson’s published letters and diaries, this information soon came to me from a very different source – if I am prepared, that is, to accept these nocturnal colloquies as a real phenomenon and not write them off as a highly structured artefact of mental illness. 

   *      *      *     *     *

The third time Peter entered the Interior as he slept, he felt fully prepared to interrogate the Presence as much as it would let him. This cosmic intelligence – or principle, or whatever it was – must be, Peter felt, the ultimate source of every deep mathematical and logical discovery ever made. As the swirling, velvety darkness, so latent with meaning, purpose and intellect, coalesced around him, he felt once again the scrutiny of a great Mind that transcended every mind.

I want to know what happened to Vock, was the meaning of the emanations Peter sent forth into the void all around him. I want to know how he got the knowledge he did and what it cost him.


Peter thought for a moment. But can you tell me what happened to him, at least? What happened to his body and to his mind.


So I was right!, thought Peter: there was no suicide, and his body somehow disappeared from material existence. What state does his mind exist in now?, Peter inquired; Is it possible for me to communicate with him?


Is it possible to explore the regions Vock explored, and reach that level of understanding, without making the same sacrifice he did?, asked Peter. Without giving up the integrity of my body?


   *      *      *     *     *


The last peculiar change that came over McCririck occurred in the last week of his life. His distracted air vanished entirely and he seemed driven by some great burning ambition; he hinted that he was on the threshold of a marvellous discovery that would earn him a place in mathematical history, not merely for the rediscovery of Stefan Vock’s groundbreaking work of a century ago but for his own contributions to what he called ‘acousto-cosmology’. He assured me that he would explain fully the details and implications of his work once he had completed the last few ‘odds and ends’, as he put it – a Lagrangian that he’d yet to renormalize, a gauge transformation that he didn’t fully understand yet – but he was sure these would come to him very soon. For this reason, he explained, he wouldn’t be attending any more lectures that term, and begged to be allowed to defer the end-of-semester exams to January. Under any other circumstances I’d have put my foot down and reminded McCririck that he was still very much in the taught phase of the doctoral programme, and that he must pass the same requirements as all the other students before being allowed to transfer to the PhD course proper, but I had been so deeply impressed both by the importance of McCririck’s discovery and the depth and originality of his own subsequent work thatI presented his case as best I could to the Department’s Director of Postgraduate Study, who reluctantly agreed.

The darkness surrounding Peter on all sides swirled and swam, and he was aware of a sensation that could very loosely be likened to standing in the middle of the dust-devil, or a small whirlwind whipping up leaves or straw from a field. This vortex was not of any material substance, of course, but of vibrations and subtle patterns of relation and symmetry – patterns which, he felt, were coldly appraising him in some way. Peter felt this must represent what was left of Vock’s consciousness subsequent to its emancipation from the crude, limited world of lumpen matter. Eventually the swirling abated, and a new kind of emanation, decidedly different in feel from that of the great Presence yet recognizable to Peter as ultimately of an identical essence, rang out into the darkness. It was laconic in the extreme, and did not bother with a greeting or with any message that could be transferred in words; rather, it was a brief list of frequencies and an abstracted diagram showing the relative positions of the sources of these frequencies. Then it radiated an indefinable sensation that put Peter in mind of a sardonic smile – or perhaps a wink? – and immediately dissipated into latent formlessness. Suddenly Peter was falling across dimensions unknown to any geometer and awoke with a start. The eerie sound of an early morning breeze whistling through his half-open bedroom window and setting up a sympathetic oscillation in the room, with its contents arranged in a precisely calculated configuration, held for Peter a thrilling, cryptical promise. He now had the last pieces of data required to complete his work. Quite what he still had left to find out, he couldn’t guess, but he was confident he would achieve the same ultimate revelations as Vock. The difference this time was that he would not sacrifice the substance of his body, but would return to the ‘surface’ and communicate his cosmic discoveries.

   *      *      *     *     *


Peter McCririck was absent from all lectures and problem classes in the week following that last meeting I had with him, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, he didn’t set foot in College premises again. He made a number of shopping trips; this was evidenced by the assortment of items found in his rooms at 46 Gordon Square, all of which had been purchased within the days immediately preceding his death, according to his credit card records. None of the casual friends he’d made since moving to London – who had, in any case, seen very little of him since his discovery of Vock’s inscriptions – says they saw him at all during that week, and he’d apparently ceased all communication with his parents. He was pursuing this project with what amounted to monomania.

The newly purchased items amounted to a high-spec Dolby 5.1 surround-sound speaker set, an amplifier, a multi-channel analogue signal generator and a stand-alone low-frequency oscillator. The speakers were arranged according to a complex geometric diagram depicted on the floor of the flat’s central living space using masking tape; pages of hand-written algebra and tables of figures according to which the lengths and angles of the pattern had been calculated were found on the bed. I have been told that police investigators, upon speaking to McCririck’s parents, sister and old school friends in Glasgow and his undergraduate acquaintances in Edinburgh, had been a fan of folk, blues and indie rock, with virtually no interest in electronic music and none at all in making it himself, as far as they’d been aware. I of course told the police about McCririck’s new-found obsession with psychoacoustics but was at a loss to explain how this might have related to the circumstances under which his body was found: lying in the middle of the odd arrangement of speakers, which were still producing an unnerving combination of atonal drones when College security staff opened the door to the flat following complaints about the noise and several hours of knocking and phone calls without response.

   *      *      *     *     *

Yes! YES, this is it! The last piece in the puzzle. Vock accessed the Interior and stayed there because he didn’t know how to get back; the acoustic properties of the room, the creaks of the wood and the moans and whistles of the wind – they set you up for the outward voyage. I got to the threshold but not to the ultimate Void, the real interior of the Interior, and that’s why I was allowed back from those dreams. But to get where Vock went and return, I’ll need a robust, two-way connection, and the frequencies and values supplied by the Vock-essence will enable just that. I can’t generate them from pure acoustics, but it should be easy enough with speakers and electronics.

   *      *      *     *     *

Peter abandoned all thoughts of college work and spent the next six days buying audio equipment, working on the configuration he’d need to implement the information he’d scribbled down upon waking from his last nocturnal visit to the Interior, and trying to prepare himself mentally for what was to come. This latter task didn’t require much effort, as Peter was now so thoroughly attuned to the subtly weird acoustics of his apartment that the creaking set up merely by walking from the bathroom to the small kitchen space caused an eldritch thrill to run through him from head to toe, and the edges of his vision began to crowd with surreal fractal landscapes. His earlier cautions to himself were by this time long forgotten; he was now fully confident of being able to access the very furthest regions of process and experience by mental means only while keeping his body on the Surface and reintegrating with it on his return. During these last few nights Peter slept with the windows closed, furniture arranged so as to muffle any sounds from the floorboards, plumbing and so on and took strong sedatives to cause a deep and dreamless sleep, in order to prevent any premature visits to the Interior and preserve the mental energies he would need for his final trip.


Eventually all was ready. Peter checked and re-checked his calculations and, satisfied that not a single error had crept in, checked and re-checked the frequencies, positions and relative volume and phase of the sound sources he’d so meticulously arranged around the room. The furniture was moved so as to allow the old building to shift and sigh under the accumulated stresses of two hundred years and the windows were opened by just the right amount, given the brisk early winter breeze that rushed through Gordon Square outside. And Peter lay down on the mattress he’d brought into the small living room, turned out the light and, despite the unearthly droning emanating from the speakers and the chilly wind whistling around the room, presently fell asleep.

This time the shift in consciousness as he passed from the Surface to the Interior was more sudden than ever before, and Peter found the blackness around him simultaneously denser and more alive with nameless stirrings and mutterings than it had been on his previous visits. The Presence was there but did not radiate any sense-messages this time. Peter’s mind searched around him like an eye straining to see in a darkened room, and soon latched onto what he thought he recognized as the Vock-essence. But this pattern was not alone; all around it were other patterns, standing waves and persistent vortices of thought, dense textures of intellect and will – Peter could not begin to guess who or what they represented – whether they were living or dead, human, animal or beings not of the Earth or any material location. And he perceived that they were not distinct from the Presence but were aspects of it; each of them embodied the fundamental nature of the great Will that drives all processes of organic existence, like fragments of a holographic image. They seemed countless, perhaps infinite, in number.

And these essences, these disincarnate patterns, beckoned to Peter to join them. He had not anticipated this, and he had not anticipated the extraordinary pull their beckonings exerted on him. If he gave in to the temptation to join this great panoply of abstracted minds, would his intended escape route back to the Surface remain inviolate?

And then Peter considered what was to be gained from joining this tumult of intellects in the ultimate Interior: a complete and final understanding of every proposition, every theorem, that had ever been posed or ever could be posed. What more could any mathematician desire? The human pleasures of the material world seemed to pale in comparison. And there would be an infinity of intellects to interact with, merge with – new theorems to devise, test, prove – new patterns to investigate – without limit of memory or time, for time did not exist here, or was only another parameter to be objectively considered, not endured or obeyed as the tyrant it seems to living beings on the Surface.

The pull became exponentially stronger the longer Peter considered it, and even whatever affection remained for his family melted away under the cold, brilliant gleam of this infinity of abstracted intellects. And so the thoughts he radiated, to the Presence and all the many presences that made up the Presence, were: Yes, I understand and I want this. Take me with you. I’m ready.


I understand. I’m ready and I want to do it.

Peter was suddenly aware of a physical sensation reaching him from across the gulf separating this realm of abstract relation from the crude world of atoms where his body still resided. It was a sensation of tearing, wrenching – parturition – and in an instant he understood the ‘price’ he was paying for this transition. Waves of indescribable horror crashed through his consciousness as the enormity of the deal he had struck was revealed to him. But almost in the same instant, he understood what the Presence had said of the meaningless of human values in the Interior, and all human attachment to his former corporeality melted away. Peter felt a freedom such as he had never thought possible, and the essence of his mind expanded gladly into the great Void that extended without limit throughout space, time and other dimensions no human mind had yet conceived or described.

   *      *      *     *     *

The forensic investigators told Mr. and Mrs. McCririck that their son had died of a rare brain aneurysm, perhaps related to stress, overwork and lack of sleep in the weeks preceding his death. Fortunately his body did not display any outward signs that contradicted this; indeed, I am told his face bore a remarkably placid expression. I can imagine this must have presented a rather odd juxtaposition with the arcane diagrams sketched on the floor in tape and the stacks of specialized computer and audio equipment emitting that terrible cacophony of eerie shrieks and almost subsonic drones gradually passing in and out of phase. (I’ve since listened to some of the work-in-progress sound files on McCririck’s laptop: to say they wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Throbbing Gristle’s Second Annual Report is an understatement.)

The real cause of Peter McCririck’s death was not revealed to any members of his family, and it was only because I had been the person most closely in contact with him during the last weeks of his life that the classified portion of the autopsy report was made available to me. I’m sure the police and hospital authorities were hoping I could shed some light on my student’s fate, but I believe it was also out of a sense of owing it to me to tell me the truth. The parlous state of my mental health is in large part due to this awesome final revelation, and yet in the end I feel it is important that I should not have been cosseted in the way Peter’s parents necessarily were: if I could not possibly have guessed where his research – his mania – would end, then I at least owe it to him to know the truth.

It was once the two ambulance crew members had lifted McCririck to place him on the stretcher, subsequent to his failure to respond to CPR and defibrillation and the grim realization that he was unlikely ever to regain consciousness, that they received the first hint that something truly monstrous had happened to this young man. His head, which they had been careful to cradle as they would with any patient or indeed any corpse, felt unaccountably light – as if it were almost completely insubstantial, in fact. This had prompted the pathologist to begin her investigation in the cranial cavity, despite the total absence of any visible head trauma. An MRI scan had produced a result that was labelled insane, ridiculous, impossible, clearly an artefact by everyone the pathologist showed it to; an endoscope, inserted carefully through the subject’s nostril, had confirmed what the scan had hinted at. Peter McCririck’s skull was completely empty.

   *      *      *     *     *

Postscript: this document has been written by Dr K—– —— as a form of therapy on the advice of her psychiatric practitioners. It remains to be seen whether it has any therapeutic effect. It goes without saying that it is STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL and must under no circumstances whatsoever come to the attention of Peter McCririck’s parents or anyone else with any personal attachment to him. As for myself, I can only assert that everything written here is, to the best of my knowledge, absolutely true, and that I was of sound mind at the time of the events described. The psychiatric professionals assigned to my case may make what use of it they see fit in my continuing programme of treatment and rehabilitation.

F.K., Nov 2015


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