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Igms issue 43, p.6

IGMS Issue 43, page 6

 

IGMS Issue 43
 


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"Truthfully, I don't know. After the Saudis and the other Arab states militarized most of the region, there was massive upheaval amongst the Bedouin. Some tribes scattered, others merged. There was fighting too." Professor al-Wahab looked down at his hands. "We lost contact with the al-Ghafran."

  I stared at the armrest, examined the cracked upholstery, uncomprehending. I had never imagined -- not for even a single moment -- that I wouldn't one day return to the fringes of the Rub' al-Khali and live again with my tribe, my family.

  "I must find them," I said. I got up out of the chair as if I might leave there and then.

  Professor al-Wahab gently shook his head. "I have been searching for them for over a year, Ismail. Satellite photography, Bedouin trackers, undercover operatives -- none of them has been able to find your family."

  I stood in the middle of the room, a cold anger building inside me. "You should have told me sooner."

  "What good would it have done?" he asked with a raised voice. "What good's it doing now?"

  I'd never heard the professor shout before. Everything I thought I knew about him seemed to be built on sand.

  "It's the truth," I replied, trembling. "I thought that came before everything for you."

  I stumbled out, ignoring his cries to wait.

  The tears -- of betrayal, of rage, of despair -- came long before I reached my room.

  They wouldn't let me leave, of course.

  Professor al-Wahab explained that to let me, a thirteen year old boy, out alone into the world would be the height of negligence on his part. I listened to his lecture in stony silence, not giving him anything to get his teeth into.

  Knowing that things in my homeland had changed, I suddenly yearned to be back in the desert, back with my tribe. I imagined myself tending the goats under a hot, cloudless sky, or sitting by a crackling fire, inhaling the rich aroma of smoke and cooked meats while the flames danced before my eyes.

  I think part of me died, mourning the loss of that life.

  The mood in our little mathematical enclave fluctuated between long stretches of quiet contemplation and short bursts of heated argument. I don't think any of the adults were doing much work, most of the talk confined to the situation beyond the chain-link fences outside. I didn't actively listen, but I couldn't help but pick up the broad strokes.

  Food shortages and rioting in Western Europe. A brief, localized civil war in China. A heightened state of tension between the Arab Bloc and India.

  Hilary Stamp muttered that war was coming. A nasty, messy, protracted war. No one disagreed with her.

  Wai Tat swore that he hadn't known about my tribe's disappearance. "I'm seventeen, but they treat me like a kid," he said. He told me his day would come -- and they'd regret how they'd underestimated him. He was the only person I talked to. He encouraged me to keep working on prime numbers.

  I was happy to oblige. Apart from him, the only thing in the world I still had was the object.

  I wasn't sure how much longer I'd have even that.

  The object quivered. Thick ripples swirled over its surface, distorting its shape. Every so often, bubbles puckered and popped on its skin like a thick stew simmering on the fire. An intense low drone filled the air, and I could feel the hairs on my arm standing tall.

  My confidence had grown over the years, and I felt barely a trace of anxiety as I opened my mind to the presence. Whereas once I'd stood passive and petrified, I was now able to channel the otherworldly wind towards the elements of my edifice that most aroused my curiosity.

  Today, that was primes.

  Primes were the building blocks of mathematics, the very clay from which my magnificent fortress was wrought. Deepening my understanding of them could only strengthen my entire edifice.

  The presence scattered, coalesced again, reacting to my wishes. These days I could almost smell the differing strands of its being, as if I was developing a sixth sense. Today, as I conceived them: sesame and camel's hair, the acrid smell of an electricity generator, the blood of a slaughtered goat. They were familiar sensations, like I was tapping into elements of the presence that I'd communed with before.

  I began by summoning the natural numbers, visualizing them as stepping stones on a spiral path, zero at the centre, infinity somewhere over the never-ending horizon. In my mind's eye, I took a single pace outwards from the middle, stepping from the slab that represented zero to the one that represented one. One isn't prime because it has only a single divisor. I stepped onwards to the number two slab. Two is prime since it has exactly two distinct divisors: one and two. So is three. As I marched over them, they made a grinding noise and raised themselves several dozen hand widths above the plane. I carried on in this way, walking anti-clockwise in ever-increasing circles, raising those numbered slabs that were primes, and leaving alone those that weren't.

  After a few minutes I'd taken one hundred or so paces, and the first twenty-five primes -- two, three, five, seven, and so on -- stood like a dark, stone forest to my left. To my right, the unexamined slabs formed an endless flat landscape as far as the eye could see. I often began my consideration of the primes in this manner. Of course, I knew the first twenty-five -- even, the first fifty -- off by heart, could recite them as easily as the sras of the Qur'an. That wasn't why I wrought this dead terrain. I began this way because it was a powerful reminder of the enigma of the primes, of my own ignorance.

  With the never-ending plain on one side, and the chaotic, but somehow ordered, monoliths on the other, I felt perfectly the central paradox of primes: that on the one hand they grew like weeds amongst the natural numbers, that there was no means of predicting where the next one might sprout, and yet on the other hand they exhibited stunning regularity, that there were laws governing their behavior obeyed to an almost military precision.

  I walked faster, then broke into a run, slabs grinding under my feet as I passed. At 347 I made a mistake, anticipating that the slab would rise when it didn't. I misplaced my step and fell. As I caught my breath, the calculations continued faster and faster, the sound building from individual rumbles to the discordant roar of a mighty sandstorm. Soon enough I found myself entombed in the stone woods. 347. Not bad. Maybe I would make 400 one day.

  Instead of erasing the whole scene like I usually did, I got up, wandered around. I walked away from the middle, the numbers engraved on the sides of the standing stones getting larger and larger 2663, 5393, 16127. I ran, hoping to come to the edge of the claustrophobic woods -- I knew that each spiral outwards would consume more and more reckoning on the part of the object, and that it must have its limits too. I zigzagged between the pillars, but there was no suggestion of an end. Eventually, I slowed down, came to rest. I breathed hard, leaning against one of the stones. 27644437.

  I was defeated.

  I launched myself into the air for a bird's eye view, expecting to see a moving boundary somewhere.

  There wasn't.

  I soared higher, seeing more and more of the landscape -- a landscape covered with an endless forest. I realized with a shock that the object knew the secret of primes, that it always had. I felt the otherworldly wind whip around me, teasing.

  Suddenly, the landscape pitched and rocked as if there were tectonic plates in motion underneath. Mountains rose and valleys formed with a thunderous noise, a fractal order in their organization. The first hint at a pattern . . .

  The wind smothered me briefly, pleased, then triggered another transformation in the terrain.

  I watched on, thrilled.

  I ran straight back from the enclosure to share the news with Wai Tat. It was late, but he wasn't in his room. Instead I found him sitting alone in the dining room with his tablet.

  "It showed me!" I gasped, my clothes damp against my skin with sweat.

  Wai Tat looked up, startled. "What?"

  I took a breath, walked around the table. "I know the secret of primes." I could hardly believe my own words. What the object had shared with me had been wondrous . . . awe-insp
iring.

  Wai Tat stared at me, eyes wide. He bit his lip, glanced at the door. "You know how to find them?" he whispered.

  I nodded. "It's not easy, but --"

  "Not here." He turned his attention to his tablet, closed down a mail window filled with Chinese script. "Let's go to my room."

  At that moment, Dr. Stamp came in. She wore a red silk dressing gown, and carried her favourite cup that was adorned with Klimt's The Kiss. Her hair was all straggly. "You two can't sleep either?" she asked, bleary eyed.

  I couldn't hide my excitement, and was about to tell her about my discovery, when Wai Tat spoke over me. "I have some herbal tea that might help." He got up, gave me a slight shake of the head as if he were telling me not to share my news. "Here," he said, passing her a small, calligraphed tin. "You'll sleep like a hard-working peasant after a day in the fields. That's what my grandmother used to say, anyway."

  Dr. Stamp tapped the lid. "Thank you, you're very kind." She stepped past, picked up the kettle. "Did you say something about primes, Ismail?"

  Wai Tat shook his head more forcefully, while Dr. Stamp filled the kettle, her back to the pair of us.

  "No," I said. "Nothing about primes."

  "Oh." Dr. Stamp turned around, smiled. "I must be going senile in my old age. Well, good night, boys."

  "Good night," we chorused, and left.

  "Why did you make me lie?" I asked when we were out of earshot.

  Wai Tat turned. While I was still waiting for the onset of adulthood, he'd kept getting taller this last couple of years, and he now towered over me. "I'm trying to protect you, Ismail."

  "Protect me? From what?" My life had been more dangerous in the desert than this place.

  "Listen, the others think you're a waste of time already. Let me check the mathematics --"

  "The math works," I interrupted, raising my voice. The ideas were beautiful -- and true. I didn't appreciate Wai Tat's doubt.

  "Okay, okay," he said, raising his hands. "Quiet down. At least let me help you so they can understand."

  I paused, tried to examine his face, but it was hidden in the shadows.

  "Ismail?"

  Deep down I knew I still wanted the others' approval. I nodded. Wai Tat turned and led me down the unlit hallway.

  I never got the chance to share my discovery with Dr. Stamp or Dr. Cheng or Professor al-Wahab.

  In the days that followed that night with Wai Tat -- a night in which I stayed up way past dawn leading him through the labyrinth tunnels of pure reason to the treasure of the primes -- he would never be quite ready to take my revelations to the others. "When?" I would ask him, but all he would say on the matter was "Soon."

  Soon never came.

  One morning, not more than a week later, three U.N. soldiers marched into the communal lounge. Their faces were flushed, serious. "Your attention, please," said the first one loudly, the other two flanking him. His voice was urgent but controlled.

  "What is it?" Professor Wheater asked, waving his cane in annoyance. He scratched his brow as if he'd lost his train of thought.

  The solider ignored the question. "Is everybody here?"

  We looked between one another. The oiled smell of their guns was heavy in the air. "I count eleven. We're one short," Dr. Stamp said.

  Somehow, I knew right then that Wai Tat would be the one missing. A brief scan of the room confirmed my suspicions. "Wai Tat," I said, a sickening feeling in my stomach.

  The solider flicked his head and the other two left. Dr. Cheng and Professor al-Wahab looked at one another uneasily.

  "If there's --"

  The soldier cut Professor al-Wahab off mid-sentence. "I have orders to evacuate you all from the base. Immediately."

  Half a dozen voices spoke all at once:

  "What's the meaning of this?"

  "Now listen here, Lieutenant!"

  "I want to speak to Director Adams."

  All I could think about was being denied that susurrant presence that made my spirit soar.

  The soldier raised his voice over the hullabaloo, fishing a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket as he did so. "This isn't an invitation. This is an order." He flicked open the piece of paper with a couple of jerks of the wrist, then stepped a couple of paces forward and handed the order to Dr. Stamp. "Resistance will be met with force," he said. To emphasize the point he slid the gun from his side, gripped it across his chest.

  Dr. Stamp scanned the document, hands shaking. Afterwards, she looked up, met the eyes of her colleagues. "We have to leave."

  "Let me see that," Professor Wheater said.

  It was then that I made my move, running for the door. The soldier made a clumsy grab for me, but, like one of the difficult goats, I jinked to the side, escaping his grasp.

  I sprinted down the hallway to the sounds of shouting -- and then gunfire. Chips of plaster tumbled from the ceiling ahead, a fine rain of dust following. I glanced back to see Professor al-Wahab wrestling with the soldier, before being thrown to the floor. I ducked down a side passage, heart hammering, praying that I wouldn't hear any more shots.

  There weren't.

  At least not until I got outside. I stopped dead. Far to the west, near the edge of the base, the tree line was ablaze, thick black smoke curling into the air. I could hear the distant rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire exchanges, and the low rumble of heavy armor. A couple of jet fighters streaked across the sky, followed by the supersonic screech that made me press my hands over my ears. I smelt something unnatural, chemical.

  This wasn't an attack by any militia group.

  I pressed on, running as hard as I could. Far off, artillery shells fizzed through the air, exploding with dull thumps that I could feel through the ground. The walls of the enclosure loomed larger. The soldier's booth by the entrance appeared to be empty.

  As I approached, I heard the gradual building of a low whump-whump-whump noise, and when I glanced in the direction away from the hostilities I noticed a camouflaged transport helicopter getting closer. It kept low, its landing rails scarcely above the buildings. It came down on the other side of our small compound, the noise suddenly lessening as it slipped out of view.

  I knew exactly what it was: it was our means of escape.

  I leaned forward to the retinal identifiers, uncertain.

  Was the kinship I felt with the multitudinous presence a childish sham? What would come from this petty gesture anyway?

  As I hesitated, I caught sight of a pair of soldier's boots in the entrance to the security booth. They were still being worn, the solider slumped unconscious -- or worse. I stepped closer. The man was face down, crumpled into an ugly heap.

  "Do you need help?" I shouted over the din. I couldn't leave an injured man to die.

  He didn't respond.

  I leant down, shook his shoulder. I could smell blood. "Wake up."

  With growing dread I grabbed his legs, pulled him out of the booth, then rolled him over. A neat red hole marked the centre of his forehead.

  "Ismail!"

  I looked up. Professor al-Wahab was half-striding, half-running in my direction. He didn't look hurt in any way.

  "We have to go, Ismail," he shouted. "Please."

  Go? Go where? My tribe was scattered, my family lost. I gave the Professor a small shake of the head. I'm not coming.

  I turned away, stepped to the identifier, pressed my face against the familiar shape. I couldn't hear the chimes for all the racket, but when I pushed my weight against the turnstile it yielded. Inside, the sounds became muffled. The air was different today -- the tingling sensation intense, the murk thicker. My shirt crackled. I felt tiny pricks on my arms not unlike the first signs of a sandstorm. The presence invaded my mind, rushing in more forcefully than it had ever done before. It was agitated, imploring. With reverent steps as if I was in a holy place, I made my way to the object.

  No mathematical arcana filled my head this time, only a tremendous sense of being summoned. I imagined it was not un
like the feeling of being swept into the Al-Masjid al-Harm during the hajj. My father had shown me pictures of the Grand Mosque and promised to take me there one day. I used to close my eyes, become giddy as I envisioned the babbling, rapturous throng around me.

  Through the dark veiled air, I suddenly came to the object. It was seething with energy, shuddering and cracking as I'd never witnessed before. I stood enthralled as it began rearranging itself. A thick protrusion extended from near its levitating base. The mass congealed, forming itself into three glassy, black steps, while the greater part of the sphere hollowed out like seeds being scooped from a quince fruit.

  It wanted me to climb into its dark belly.

  The whispers grew stronger, cajoling me, promising me. I placed my foot on the first step, the other on the second --

  "Allah have mercy --" Professor al-Wahab's voice was mangled, distant. "-- Ismail, no!"

  He gripped my upper arm, and at his touch my connection to the presence was greatly weakened. I could've tugged my arm free, leaped into the welcoming belly, but now that the coaxing wind had retreated the desire to do so had gone as well. I realized with a start that the faintest traces of the wind had been inside my head long before I'd stepped into the enclosure, had been with me for weeks, months, maybe even years, luring me towards this moment.

  I pushed backwards, frightened, falling away from the gaping maw. Professor al-Wahab half broke my fall, and I scrabbled away, fingers raking into the dirty, lifeless ground.

  "Come, Ismail," he said, pulling me to my feet, "we have to hurry." Beyond his calm words, I could see real terror in his eyes. He was trying to be strong for me.

  Behind him I thought I saw a shadow in the murk. We ran for the turnstile, counting aloud to keep the wind at bay. I felt it probing, trying to twist its way back into my mind, contrite and placatory, but it was too late. It scared me more than ever now, and I kept counting loud and clear:

  "Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen --"

  We bundled through the turnstile, escaping from one nightmare into another. Islands of smoke blistered the land. Not far off, I could hear the enemy's war cries -- fanatical, fearless -- punctuated by sporadic bursts of gunfire. A couple of hundred meters away, towards the smattering of buildings that made up our home, the solider who'd given us the evacuation order was waving wildly.

 
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