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Igms issue 43, p.5

IGMS Issue 43, page 5

 

IGMS Issue 43
 


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  Perhaps it was this very solitude that had drawn Carol to the red planet. Plenty of solitude on Mars. But no wind in your face. No rain.

  Carol had never had aspirations of becoming an astronaut. The irony of it was, it had been Owen's idea. He, on the other hand, had never desired the life of a hill farmer. That had been Carol's idea. Funny how things turn out.

  They had met at Lancaster University. Owen, the son of a farmer, looking for a way to escape the loneliness and the sheep and the rifle-bullet rain. Carol, the daughter of a city banker looking for a way to escape the corrupt construction of deceit that had become her family home, choosing Lancaster above Imperial College or Cambridge just so she could run away to the mountains at every weekend opportunity.

  When Owen's father had become ill, Owen had been forced to quit university. Carol had stayed, had achieved exceptional grades in her geology degree, which had in turn become a PhD in exogeology.

  Owen's opportunity to escape the hill farm came a few years later when his father finally relaxed his tenuous grip on life. But it was an opportunity that Owen didn't take. His hatred for the rain and the stupid sheep and the solitude had slowly changed. It had matured into respect, then had transformed into a deep and committed love for the mountains.

  "Look at this," said Owen one day. They'd been married a year. He showed her an advertisement in New Scientist. The European Space Agency was looking for exogeologists to seek out the best landing sites for a new program of robotic Mars probes.

  "I know," said Carol. "No good for me. The job's based in Noorwijk."

  "So?"

  "The Netherlands. It's not an easy commute."

  "We'll work around it. You have to try, Carol. This is your thing."

  So she tried. And got the job.

  Then China sent its Huoxing probe to Mars. It was unmanned but big enough to carry five taikonauts. NASA got the message. They wanted someone to teach a crash course in Martian geology to their spacemen. Carol was sent over on a short contract, but it turned out she was brighter, quicker and, as a competitive fell runner, considerably fitter than her pupils.

  Eighteen months later Carol Dawson found herself strapped into a silver-blue capsule on top of a hastily contrived Saturn X stack at the Kennedy Space Center.

  "Why you?" asked Owen. "It's a test flight around the moon. Why do they need a geologist?"

  They weren't just test-flying the Saturn X. They were test-flying Carol Dawson.

  They were also test-flying Owen. It was desirable that the astronaut wives and husbands also had some of the Right Stuff. Owen rebelled. He dressed the part. He turned up at Mission Control wearing a powder blue pillbox hat, circa 1969, and got even more column inches than his astronaut wife for his efforts. NASA was not amused, but Carol still went to Mars. Because she was the best.

  Owen hadn't noticed that the rain had started, he was so wrapped up in his memories. The rain strafed across his granite set features with all the apparent effect that it had on The Old Man of Coniston itself.

  And his phone was ringing.

  The phone.

  Owen stared at it. He picked it up. He wiped the spots of rain from the screen. Caller ID showed it was Gus Harris, the director of flight crew operations.

  Owen let it ring in his hand. He took a long breath. He arranged his face in a neutral mask, ready to swing either way depending on what the next few words would bring.

  He put the phone to his ear and thumbed the reply button.

  "Hello?"

  On the Winds of the Rub' Al-Khali

  by Stephen Gaskell

  Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

  * * *

  Continued from issue 42

  Part 2

  Outside, dark bloated clouds had amassed. We'd only played three points when the first thick spots of rain fell. They felt warm against my skin.

  "We better get in," Wai Tat said. "There's no such thing as a light shower here."

  I didn't want to go back in, didn't want to go back to the lonely path that I was furrowing. "One more point?" It wouldn't change the game -- Wai Tat was already leading three-nothing.

  "Okay, last point wins."

  I played harder than I'd ever played for that point. Wai Tat would normally humor me a little, let me win the odd rally, but since the game hinged on this one point he didn't want to lose. The tennis ball tore around, a ragged yellow blur. Apart from the steady thrum of the rain, the only sounds were the squeak of the ring in the middle of the pole, and the low thud of our bats against ball. The ring edged higher, lower, then higher again. I was almost there.

  Wai Tat scuffed his shot, and I had my chance. I pulled back my arm, tensed my muscles, and hit out.

  The ball flew true, whacking against the communal lounge window with the string trailing behind. Several of the mathematicians looked up, and a couple wandered over to the window. They shook their heads disdainfully.

  "I'll give you that," Wai Tat said. He was soaked, his shirt sodden and his hair slicked down against his cheeks. Streaks of mud laced the bottom of his trousers. "How about a game of go?"

  "Go?"

  "Come on. I'll teach you."

  I headed in, happy not to be going back to the mathematics yet.

  Go. Simple to learn. Hard to master. Not for me though. This wasn't like swing-ball. Somehow, I managed to beat Wai Tat straight off.

  We sat in a corner of the lounge, both wearing dressing gowns, facing each other over a small square table. The go board was between us. Only white stones populated its surface, the black stones routed from the battlefield.

  "How?" Wai Tat blinked. "How did you do that?"

  The rules were very straightforward. Each player took turns placing one of their stones on the board. If an unbroken line of a player's stones surrounded one or more of the other's, then the encircled stones were removed from the board. What I somehow understood immediately, was that certain patterns -- certain clusters of stones held more power than others. Also, I had an intuitive understanding of the relationship between the local skirmishes and the broader struggle. "I don't know. I just put my pieces where they felt right."

  His gaze shifted from me, darted around the room. "No one helped you?"

  "No."

  "You're lying."

  "As Allah is my witness," I said, pleading. "I didn't cheat." I didn't want to lose the one friend I'd made in this place.

  "No one beats me at go." Wai Tat shook his head. "No one."

  "Maybe I was lucky."

  He let out a long breath, defeated. "People get lucky at games of chance. Not go."

  I wanted to make him feel better, so I said, "I think maybe the object helped me."

  "The object?"

  I lowered my voice to a whisper, not wanting any of the others to overhear. Professor al-Wahab might disapprove. "Yes, the object." I explained as best I could what it had shown me.

  Wai Tat stared into space for a while, then looked at me, eyes wide. "You're talking about the Minimal Boundary Problem!"

  I shrugged. If I was I didn't know it.

  Wai Tat swept all the white stones into their velvet-lined chest, folded up the board. "Let's have another game in my room."

  I checked the time on my tablet. I still had another hour to prayers. "Okay."

  "Great." He stood up, eager. "Perhaps you can help me improve my game."

  The monsoon lasted for months.

  Instead of playing swing-ball for a break, Wai Tat and I entertained ourselves with go or cards or puzzles. It reminded me of my days back in the desert when the men and women would gather round the campfire in the evenings, and I would make up riddles for them to solve. My favourite game was cracking the secret messages that Wai Tat would make up.

  We always played in his room as this allowed us to talk about my experiences with the object. He agreed with Professor al-Wahab that I shouldn't be swayed by human mathematics, so he never ventured any of his own thoughts on the subjects, only asking me to elaborate further w
hen he was unclear about some issue or other. I'm not sure he really understood, but he made extensive notes nonetheless.

  I didn't talk to anyone else about my experiences, nor the fact that I discussed them with Wai Tat. The occasions when Dr. Cheng or Judith or Hilary Stamp asked about my progress grew more infrequent as my answers to their queries became more convoluted, less intelligible. I think they, as well as Professor al-Wahab, all thought that the little experiment that I represented had failed miserably.

  I wondered why I hadn't been sent back to the desert.

  I didn't mind though. I was happy with my life. I had food and shelter and a real friend.

  And not only that.

  Wai Tat's belief in me helped me as I built my magnificent fortress. Professor al-Wahab had been right. Mathematics was like creating an edifice, but you could only appreciate that once you had some perspective. Groundwork first, then supporting columns, then walls and so on. If one part of the structure wasn't right, then that could have disastrous repercussions later. Once the basic layout of a courtyard or a chamber had been established, then one could either move on to another part of the labyrinth construction or concentrate on the finer details of that area. Broad strokes or intricate designs?

  I imagined my Byzantine creation was as far removed from Professor al-Wahab's standard Edifice as milk is different from honey. All I knew was that I was making something wonderful, a place where I could entertain myself for days and weeks and months on end as I traversed its Escher-like passages, marveled at its fractal architecture, and furnished its barren interior.

  In short, I became devoted to the object.

  Two years passed in this fashion. In my obsession with the object I barely noticed the air of resignation that pervaded the place. An Emeritus Professor from Oxford University went home, while Lukas took an offer of asylum in the United States. Nobody replaced them.

  The U.N. presence at the site dwindled to less than a thousand soldiers, electorates in the civilized world unhappy that their servicemen and women were dying in meaningless skirmishes in the jungles of the D.R.C., when there were more important places for them to be: scouring the Caucasus mountains for mujhidn, protecting oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman from pirates, keeping the peace in a volatile Iran.

  I learnt these facts from the heated arguments between Hilary Stamp and Dr. Cheng, or from the small black-and-white television that Professor Wheater had installed in our communal kitchen. For me, these events were just white noise for my stretched mind, like how I used to listen to the desert winds when I couldn't fathom a puzzle for the tribe.

  Sometimes the rocket-happy Congolese guerillas would storm the outer sections of the compound, only to be forced back by the technologically-superior defensive forces. The danger was minimal, but one night a grenade landed near our block. It blew the swing-ball post into a mangled mess.

  One day I came back from the object to find all the mathematicians crowded into the kitchen, a couple of them nestled in the doorway. I squeezed through, ducking beneath a couple of patched elbows, only wanting to get a glass of water. I'd been working on prime numbers -- Wai Tat had been urging me toward this area for months, and I'd finally relented -- and I wanted to clear my head.

  Nobody was talking, all eyes on the television. I didn't even look at what they were watching. I grabbed a glass, reached over the sink, and twisted the cold tap. Lukewarm water sloshed noisily against a dirty plate.

  "Shh!" somebody hissed.

  I killed the flow of water to a trickle, filled my glass, and turned around. From where I stood I had an oblique angle onto the screen. I was taking my first sip, when I realized I was watching something horrific on the grainy feed. I tilted the glass back, stared at the jerky pictures of plumes of smoke rising over a glass skyline. The view was probably from a window in one of the skyscrapers. It reminded me of Riyadh. Below, small crab-like entities scuttled down the wide boulevards, firing missiles as they went.

  "Where is that?" I asked.

  "China," Hilary Stamp said, not taking her eyes from the screen.

  China? Who would attack China? Smart phages, bio-tanks, meme-machines -- China was forever parading its sophisticated weaponry to the world. A nation would have to be led by a megalomaniac lunatic to take on the communist behemoth.

  Next to her I noticed Dr. Cheng was fiddling with his hands. He looked appalled -- but not angry.

  "Who --"

  "The bloody Chinese, of course. Dealing with civil unrest the only way they know how." Hilary pointedly stared in my direction. "Now, shut-up or go elsewhere, Ismail. I want to hear this."

  "There's no need to speak to him like that, Hilary," Professor al-Wahab said calmly from the back of the room.

  That only served to enrage her further. "How should I talk to him, Muhammad? Nestle him in cotton wool --"

  "Hilary!"

  "He's thirteen. He's old enough to know."

  "Hilary, really. I must ask you to stop."

  She didn't say anything more. On the TV the feed cut to a news studio. The presenter began asking questions to a smartly-dressed man who was introduced as a security analyst.

  "What am I old enough to know, Professor?" I asked.

  Professor al-Wahab shuffled past a couple of his colleagues. "Let's go somewhere more private, Ismail," he said, and left the kitchen.

  Even all these years later -- even in this strange place -- there's very little that escapes my memory of my subsequent conversation with Professor al-Wahab. Other recollections -- of my time in the desert, or around the compound -- although true to the spirit of what happened, contain embellishments -- dramatic license if you will.

  I hope you can forgive me that.

  I think if Professor al-Wahab hadn't magicked me away me from the desert, I would've become, not a mathematician, but a storyteller.

  However, with regard to our exchange, I need not embellish anything for it is still as clear as spring water in my mind.

  "Come in, come in," he said, a little too jovially, after he'd led me down the hallway to his room in silence. He tinkered with his dusty blinds, and the last gauzy rays of the afternoon spilled in between the slats. I stepped in, the smell of fragrant tobacco rich in the air. Professor al-Wahab shifted a stack of papers off a deep-seated armchair beside the window, and gestured for me to sit down.

  "Well," he said, turning round the beautifully carved chair that sat under his walnut desk. "Where to begin?"

  Everything in Professor al-Wahab's room was steeped in history or craft, from the polished beech abacus to the finely filigreed hookah. There were no standard-issue furnishings or empty spaces -- no sign that this was anything but a permanent arrangement for him.

  "You don't know this, Ismail, but when I came here six years ago I was happily married man." He leant back, opened a drawer, shuffled around for something. "Ah, here it is." He studied the picture, before passing it to me.

  It was a photo of Professor al-Wahab with a woman and a boy. They stood in front of one of the pyramids, all sunglasses and smiles, the boy nestled between the adults.

  "My wife and son. Amir would be twelve now."

  The man in the picture looked like a different man to the one sat before me. Professor al-Wahab now reminded me of the elderly men and women of my tribe with their haggard faces. And he didn't have the harsh winds that blew off the Rub' al-Khali to blame.

  "Do they live in Egypt?" I asked.

  He looked at me hard, tears welling in his eyes. "I don't know."

  How could he not know the whereabouts of his family? Had they befallen some terrible calamity?

  Professor al-Wahab fished a starched white handkerchief from his breast pocket, and dabbed his eyes. "I'm sorry, Ismail. I didn't mean for you to see me like this."

  I didn't want to dwell on Professor al-Wahab's naked emotions, so I asked, "Did they have to leave?"

  "Ismail, you don't understand. I left them." He got up, walked over to the window. "When I first came here I told my
wife that it would be for three months, six at the most. But I didn't anticipate the buzz -- the sense of possibility -- that this place fostered. There was none of the usual academic turf wars. Everyone shared everything they had. We thought we were on the verge of a new era. Six months became a year. A year became two. My wife set an ultimatum. Come home within two weeks -- or don't come at all. I thought that was easy choice. I'd packed and was ready to leave, but I decided to pay one last visit to the object. I thought I was being respectful, but deep down all that I was really doing was derailing any intention I had of going home." He turned to me, the zeal back in his eyes. "I couldn't walk away from the object."

  I knew the feeling. The object had bewitched me too.

  "Of course," the professor went on, "I told her as much as I was permitted to. But she was sick of my reasons. And how could I blame her? She hadn't lived in a community like this, she hadn't been touched by the majestic, otherworldly presence. All she had was a son whose heart was breaking a little more each day. She stopped taking my calls. My letters were returned unopened. One day a letter from a courier service arrived. They were holding a crate of my possessions in a warehouse in Kinshasa."

  He reached for the photo, and I passed it back to him. He placed it on the table, sat back down. "When I set up the program to bring talented young minds to this site, I made a promise to myself that I would never abandon them."

  Hilary's words rang in my ears: He's old enough to know. "Has something happened to my family, Professor?" I asked, my stomach pitting.

  "The world is a very fragile place right now, Ismail. And Saudi Arabia, because of its oil wealth, finds itself in a very delicate situation."

  I wasn't listening properly, only one question on my mind. "Are they dead?"

 
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