A Mountain, Writ Upon

by A. Gregory
OGNC. Western Plateau, Australia.
June 7, 2103

The Earth, today, would shake, and reveal the art hidden beneath the mountain. Over in the desert stood the mountain, shorter than the big mountains, rockier than the romantic ones, a craggy, red, dusty thing with ends jutting here and there. Very little in the way of vegetation grew on it, and since everything for miles around had been owned by the Thierry Guillon Trust for the last seventy nine years, a Trust that was known to be diligent in its proclaimed duty of keeping these miles in pristine condition, there was no immediately visible sign of humanity on the mountain.

About five miles from its base was a large group of people. They were waiting for something, it seemed. A man from the Trust had set up a little stage, and people swarmed all over it fixing up electronics. They handled everything very carefully; the equipment looked very old, very expensive, antique. Nearby, portable nourishment stands had been set up quickly, and everyone had a hot dog in their hands. Everyone had arrived by cart, or bicycle, or some such other method of transport; after going through the elaborately put-together brochure the Trust had sent out a month or so ago, nobody would have dared bring motorized transport near.

Nervous energy oozed out of the group. At least eight different media corporations were represented, and countless people from all walks of life had gathered. Some had been waiting for days; there were tents, and breakfasts cooking, and a smell in the air of comfortable silences and waits. Musicians in all forms, but especially those with retro-instruments: stringed guitars, harmonicas, hand drums and the like. Tired-looking photographers and holographers with looks of impatience in their faces sat in makeshift huts.

It was cold.

In one area, an old man with a full, white beard and shoulder-length hair dressed formally stood, speaking to a varied audience of about fifty. Students in their twenties with portable computers, scholarly-looking men and women with intent faces, computer scientists frowning at various screens and the holograms they were surrounded by, a woman sitting at a small table, about as low as a coffee table, with sculptor’s clay on it, all listened to him as he animatedly moved, his hands moved, his eyes burned. It seemed he had finished one section of the talk, and the time had come for a demonstration, for three students who had been sitting got up, went to a parked cart and dragged a table with wheels on its legs to the speaking professor. On the table was a machine; a three-inch thick base to which was attached a flat plate, a circular plate about three feet across.

I moved closer and sat down near the back of the audience.

“… we can simulate the effects of the earthquake perfectly in computer,” he was saying, “but I’m going to give you a practical demonstration of what Guillon envisioned would happen. Now remember, he was working nearly eighty years ago, when building such a machine as this would have been impossible, even with his resources. He was working blind, with slow computers, experimental software and incomplete data on the geography of this place. Which is why I’m reminding all of you again: if the sculpture doesn’t turn out perfect, don’t be disappointed. Okay, on to the experiment.”

From a drawer in the table he pulled out a conical stone, about a foot tall and two across. It was a perfectly geometrical cone with several scratches on its surface. There wasn’t an obvious pattern to the scratches, but something very strongly pushed me to believe that the scratches weren’t random. The professor placed it on the plate and clamped it into place. He spent several minutes turning the machine on, and setting it with his portable computer. Once he was satisfied, he looked up and grinned.

“This simple model is nowhere as complex as what Guillon was doing, but it’s the best I could come up with in two weeks, and all the basic principles are here. When I switch the shake on, several intersecting shockwaves will be set up in the cone. The scratches are strategically placed to disrupt these waves at specific times and at specific places. As more and more energy is pumped in — well — ”

He switched it on.

The plate hummed, vibrated so fast as to be almost still. Then the vibrations slowed, until the movement could be seen distinctly. The frequency of vibration kept changing, increasing, then decreasing; larger movements, then smaller.

“You can’t see it, but if you could slow down your vision, you would see ripples across the stone’s surface right now.”

And then it happened! The conical stone shook itself apart before my eyes, shedding dust, gravel and its flesh with every shake. The entire process took about thirty seconds; the sculpture was done. The latent shape hidden inside emerged; the precisely calculated form, determined by the combination of the scratches on the stone and the modes of vibration programmed into the shake, shook itself free of its cloaking stone, and burst forth.

Where there had been the pink granite cone spotted with black was a delicately veined, infinitely curled and curved, pink rose, petals open upwards, awaiting, it seemed, the kiss of the sky.

The professor took the rose — there was just the flower itself, no stalk — and looked at it critically; then, with a single, deliberate motion, he brought it to his nose and sniffed curiously. Grinning, he put it in his trousers pocket. “No smells yet. Next version! Not bad, as a whole, though. That sculpting took me two weeks to calculate and simulate, with some of the world’s best processing power at my disposal. The margin for error here is insanely tiny. Those scratches are specified in nanometers. Seventy-nine years ago, then — imagine!”

He smiled at everyone, standing perfectly still for a minute or so, then turned slowly, his head visible to me in profile, the early morning orange sunlight filtering through his bushy beard in halos of luminescence; he turned and looked, wistfully, at the mountain in the distance.

***

The time of the earthquake was known to the second, as had times for all earthquakes around here been known; for only with perfectly detailed information could Guillon have calculated the precise, exact hits to make on the rock of the mountain. Ninety minutes before the earthquake was due, the man from the Trust went to all the groups there one-by-one, asking them to move away, it could be dangerous, please move off this property, we will notify you when it is safe again, thank you, have a great day. I hitched a ride with one of the retro-musicians there; we sat on the cart as it was pulled away by the attached Holo-Haul.

Little is known of Guillon’s life. One of the original six researchers whose seminal paper on Artificial Intelligence and Imperfectly Specified Systems led to one of the largest revolutions in computer science, he retired from active involvement in computer science soon after their company went public. With his several billion in stock options, Guillon retired to Western Australia and bought a large tract of land here, living alone for the remaining twenty six years of his life. His work only came to light after his death, when his will commanded the setting up of a Trust to oversee the land, and see that absolutely nothing artificial touched it in any way, until today. An unpublished paper was attached, which described a method of “delayed land sculpture by means of initial conditions”. Subsequent experiments showed that it was a possible, if impractical, way of sculpting land.

Guillon died knowing he would never see his sculpture finished.

It is interesting to note that the date of the unveiling became a kind of festival in the computer science and emergent art communities of the world; this is one of the rare cases of an event being celebrated before it actually happened.

The Trust kept up its work, and is reasonably confident that none of the initial conditions set up by Guillon have been disturbed. A month ago, brochures were sent to all major media houses, and subsequent reporting on the matter led to a global pilgrimage of sorts. It is estimated that around twenty five thousand people from all around the world are gathered here today to see, in small pockets all around the mountain, the revelation.

“So what brings you here, mate?” asked the guitarist with me on the cart. He was dressed as a hippie revivalist from the 21st century, ragged hair, old-fashioned layered clothing of natural fiber, glass and steel-frame spectacles. His face looked like he shaved it.

“I’m a journalist. I asked for the assignment, though. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” I replied. “My name’s Gregory,” I said, extending my hand. He shook it, but gave no introduction. “And how come you’re here?”

“Well,” he said, “how could we not come? The thought of it, it just blew our minds away.”

“Who are you with?”

“Oh, all the others,” he said, waving his arm around at the scattered groups of revivalists. “Hive mind”, he said with a wide grin.

“Musicians all?”, I asked.

“Oh, not by a long shot. And not just us hippies, man. Anyone at all with the slightest interest in the novel and original expression of the human spirit, he’s here. I mean,” he said, leaning forward now, warming to his subject, “the real heavy thing about it isn’t the technicalities of it, right? Know what I mean? It’s the simple mystery of it. And the thought process behind it, which says to him, Man, the mystery is so important that to keep it intact I’m going to forego the chance to see my own art. That’s what fascinates me.”

I nodded slowly.

“And the least we can do,” he went on, “the very least we all must do, is pay that mystery respect. The respect of acknowledgement, of anticipation and excitement, and, ultimately, of release when the answer is revealed. That’s what I’m here for; what are you here for?”

“Me?”, I said. “I’m here to witness the birth of a new form of art.”

***

The other prominent group there was computer scientists, and one of them took the time to talk to me about what struck him as interesting about the place.

“The division of information. You know, the situation is analogous to a record player and record. The earthquake and the earth’s movements are the record player, and the mountain with its scratches is the record. Now if you were to take the mountain bodily, pick it up and put it on some other planet, say Mars, what do you think would happen when a Mars-quake strikes?”

“Nothing happens? Or maybe it breaks down, but in a random way?” I guessed.

“Precisely. The scratches are carefully tailored to this place, these movements. It’s like a record being manufactured, which plays garbage on most record players, but on one particular player, sweet, beautiful music is produced. And then what would you say about it? Where does the beautiful music reside? In the record, or in the record player?”

I said nothing.

“Then further suppose,” he continued, “that the same record, when played on one player, plays the Fortieth by Mozart, and on another, it plays Beethoven’s Ninth. Where does the information reside, then? And I’m not just gassing here, things like these have analogues in cryptography.”

“They do?”

“Yeah. The same ciphertext can decode to any message at all, depending on the key you decode with. This multiplicity of meaning, or, equivalently, the separation of meaning equally between message and key, is what makes one-time pads mathematically unbreakable.”

“And you’re saying that here, the mountain is the ciphertext, and earth movements the key, and that it might be possible for the same mountain to contain more than one sculpture within it?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Maybe there are thousands of sculptures in there, and depending on how trillions of interacting tectonic segments all over the world move and vibrate, only one of them will come out today.”

“And we’ll lose all the others.”

“Yes. That’s why we’re here. We think that’s exactly what Guillon had in mind; he said as much in his paper. We’re going to try to record every single hit and scratch he made, and simulate various earthquakes on the model to find out what else he might have hidden in there.”

***

The Earth shook; the land shivered. A fever passed through the very rocks. Far off, in the distance, a plume of dust.

***

We arrived there simultaneously with the rain. Large wobbling drops of sweet water fell through the dust-streaked air. Splashing on the ground, a million jumping roundnesses. It was as if the Earth had been, until then, holding itself, readying itself, and this was its release. The tension in the air dissipated, and we turned our eyes to the remains of the mountain, eyes we had turned away, to keep up the mystery just a little longer — and so see, when seen, in all glory.

The creature was standing where the mountain used to be. Twenty feet tall, shimmering from the recentness of his birth, the rain forming a sheen on his body, stood the creature. His hands were raised in defiance to the sky, and his snout turned heavenward, as if the raw energy of his birth still electrified him. His curly coat of hair was exquisitely carved. Every detail shone through the raining air.

His feet weren’t visible; only the top of his body showed. He was frozen in a moment of emergence, with the lower half of his body beneath the ground, a small mound of rock-carved dirt around him. He was coming out, it seemed, from a hole in the ground, pushing up the dirt beneath so that it lay there.

For a few moments, the composition puzzled me, and I began to think that this would be one of those works of art forever shrouded in mystery, that tease critics and admirers, that defy explanation — and then it struck me.

Today, Guillon had become the first man in the history of the world to make a molehill out of a mountain.

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