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Igms issue 43, p.7

IGMS Issue 43, page 7


IGMS Issue 43

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  Professor al-Wahab surged on, pulling me harder. In his haste, I tripped, fell to the ground.

  I didn't get up, afraid. "Will I be executed?" I asked, thinking of the shots that had raced over my head. I knew that in the Great Kingdom traitors were beheaded.

  "No, Ismail. The soldier was only trying to frighten you into stopping." He shook his head, regretfully. "It was my fault the bullets nearly hit you."

  In those words I felt the burden of guilt that he'd carried for so long, and I felt a sudden compassion for him -- that I'd judged him too harshly. "Allah will forgive you, Professor."

  He smiled and nodded, grateful, then pulled me to my feet for the second time.

  We scrambled towards the compound, heads ducked low --


  Perhaps if we hadn't recognized the voice we would've carried on, taken our chances. Instead, we both twisted around. Wai Tat emerged from the shadowed bulk of the enclosure, his arm raised as if he was pointing to something beyond us.

  Professor al-Wahab scampered towards him. "Praise Allah, we thought --" He stopped dead, raised his hands. "Wai Tat. It's me, Professor al-Wahab."

  I peered closer. Wai Tat held a gun.

  "I know who you are," Wai Tat said unevenly, keeping his distance. "You are an enemy of the People's Republic of China."

  Could he be the one who'd shot -- no, executed -- the soldier in the security booth? I felt numb. I couldn't believe that my only friend, the gangly boy who'd taught me to play swing ball, was the same boy as the one who stood before us now. I moved alongside the stunned Professor. "Wai Tat --"

  "No closer!" His hand trembled, and in his eyes I saw a wild man. The sounds of enemy soldiers got louder. I could hear the familiar lilt now, recognizing it from when Wai Tat and Dr. Cheng spoke in their native language.

  "Wai Tat," Professor al-Wahab said softly, "I'm taking Ismail to the helicopter now." He extended his hand to me, which I took in my own. His hand was warm and strong, no hint of the terror that, like myself, he must've been feeling.

  "Stop!" Wai Tat screamed.

  Professor al-Wahab made to turn. "Goodbye, Wai Tat."

  I met my friend's gaze, shook my head. Don't do it. I could see the terrible strain that he was under, a strain that he must've kept hidden for years.

  We turned, began walking hand in hand. A single crack shook the air. Professor al-Wahab blundered forward as if somebody had given him a hearty slap on the back. He dropped to his knees, keeled forward, his free hand making an ineffectual attempt at breaking his fall, while his other stayed locked in mine. Through the dark fabric of his suit, I saw a darker patch blooming from close to his left shoulder.

  I kneeled down, tried to pull my hand from his grip in order to press the wound, but he clung tighter. "Ismail," he croaked, spitting blood. "Forgive me, Ismail."

  Tears pricked my eyes. "You have nothing to forgive, Professor."

  "I didn't know how to tell you," he wheezed, one side of his face buried in the dirt. "I still don't."

  "Tell me what?"

  "Forgive me," he whispered, quieter this time.

  I felt my cheeks wetting. "Forgive you what?"

  I didn't hear him the first time, or maybe I did and I couldn't believe it, so I leaned down, tilted my ear.

  "They're dead, Ismail. Your parents are dead."

  I couldn't move, couldn't speak. Professor al-Wahab's body slumped. As Chinese soldiers swarmed around me, I heard the sound of a helicopter departing. A shadow loomed from the right, and I just had time to see the butt of a gun. I felt a sharp pain, and the world went dark.

  They kept me at the site, but not in the life I'd become accustomed to. The only thing I got to keep was the amulet my mother had given me when I'd left the tribe.

  At night I would sleep in a windowless, concrete-walled cell, the only furnishing a dirty mattress marked with cigarette burns. Sometimes I would wake in the night, the smell of the singed fibers strong, and I would momentarily think that the place was on fire. I wished that it was. I often dreamt of a counter-attack by the U.N. forces that pitched the site into flames, and allowed me to escape into the jungle. When I couldn't sleep, which was often, I thought of my mother and father and how they'd been taken from me. I would whisper a prayer for them, thinking of the days I spent with them -- sitting on my mother's lap listening to the adventures of Sinbad, being tossed high from my father's arms, shepherding the goats.

  I cried a lot. I had nobody now.

  Other times, my mind would torment me by dredging up memories of times I'd spent with Wai Tat. Apart from anger and self-revulsion, the only thing these scenes brought me was an awareness of how very good an actor he'd been.

  By day I would be taken to a small interrogation room where Chinese would question me incessantly. They wanted to know everything. They wanted to know the smallest details of my upbringing -- how often I ate red meat, or the exact breed of goats our tribe kept. They wanted to know what my daily routine at the site had been like -- what time I rose, how long I spent with the object. Most of all they wanted to explore the glittering mathematical edifice that I'd built in my mind.

  Of course, I was loathe to help them, and to begin with I lied.

  When they discovered this, they starved me -- the meager bowls of cold, sticky rice no longer pushed through the bars of my cell. I wanted to be strong, above the concerns of the flesh, but the hunger pains were so great that eventually I begged for food. They said that for each truthful answer I gave I could eat a grain of rice. For each lie I would go without for a month.

  I never lied again.

  Despite this, relating my mathematical insights was not easy. The only person who'd ever understood even the smallest part of my strange mathematical architecture was Wai Tat, and I never saw him once. Whether he was still at the site, I didn't know. They didn't let me go anywhere. They certainly never let me anywhere near the enclosure. I figured they were afraid something drastic might happen, something they couldn't control.

  Perhaps they were right.

  As for myself, I wasn't entirely unhappy to stay away from the unearthly thing, still haunted by how close I'd come to stepping into its belly -- stepping into the unknown.

  To aid sharing my knowledge, the interrogation room was furnished with a small library of mathematical texts. Through these we began to build a bridge between my edifice and the Edifice as Professor al-Wahab had always called it. In this manner I began to speak a pidgin language of human mathematics. From there it was short step to understand the applications. Celestial mechanics springing from calculus. Information compression from statistics.

  One day, while my current interrogator -- a severe lady in a dark green uniform with hair pulled back tight -- digested our latest exchange, I picked from the shelves a book entitled "Encryption." I flicked absently through the pages, my mind tired from the never-ending questions, when I caught sight of a word that had tormented me for weeks: primes. I still didn't know why Wai Tat had been so interested in the numbers, and it was eating me up not knowing. I licked the tip of my finger, carefully going back through the pages.

  Over several paragraphs of dry text, the awful truth revealed itself. I re-read the lines again, and then again, hoping that I'd misunderstood something. I hadn't.

  The non-computability of primes was the bedrock upon which modern encryption systems were built. The insights I'd gleefully relayed to Wai Tat had made the unbreakable breakable.

  I dropped the book, dizzy, staggered backwards.

  The woman snapped at me, ordered me to pick up the book, but when she saw the title she began laughing.

  "You didn't know?" she asked, mockingly. "For twelve glorious hours our mighty armies were unstoppable."

  I closed my eyes, fighting the nausea.

  "Not bad for a filthy sand-eater." She brushed past me. I sensed her bend down, return the book to the shelf. The next moment my cheek was stinging. "Open your eyes and explain this proof to me again."

I reached up to my face where she'd hit me. Her nails had broken my skin, and when I drew back my fingers they were flecked with blood.

  Months passed. My body got weaker, malnutrition and sickness making me all bones. My mind, though, got stronger. The guilt didn't go away, but neither did it consume me. I bore it like a stone upon my shoulder as if I were carrying it from quarry to worksite.

  The soldiers who escorted me between my cell and the interrogation room got more haggard, more down-spirited each day. The scientists who questioned me got more bleary-eyed, more bad-tempered.

  One day the severe lady threw a sheaf of papers against the wall and stormed out of the room when she failed to understand one of my concepts. I gleaned that the war beyond these walls wasn't going as well as anticipated, that the Chinese forces were being stretched -- and that their leaders were demanding more breakthroughs from this site.

  I didn't feel any sympathy for them.

  It was against this background that I began to plot my escape. I noted shift patterns, sketched maps of the site as I remembered it and hid them in the textbooks, carefully examined the weapons and keys each soldier or scientist carried. Making my plans gave me a purpose, gave me strength.

  I didn't know where I would go, everything I'd ever known -- my tribe, my clan, my family -- all gone, but go I would.

  One morning I came to the interrogation room to find Wai Tat standing there, hands folded behind his back. Seeing him provoked all kinds of feelings. Pity. Sorrow. Nostalgia. Most of all I felt anger.

  He wore military uniform -- forest green trousers and jacket, black boots that shone, and a finely polished medal hanging from his breast pocket. He looked much older than I remembered, gaunt and pale. The soldiers who'd escorted me to the room left, leaving us alone.

  "My name is Wai Tat Lau," he said, as if it was the first time we'd ever met. "I will be handling your questioning from now on."

  I gazed at him looking for . . . I don't know . . . something to show me that underneath all his obedience, all his masks, he was still a person. He didn't even meet my eyes.

  "What made you so empty?" I asked.

  He brought his hands out from behind his back. He was holding a couple of texts. "We know about your pathetic escape plans," he said, and threw the books at me. One struck my shoulder and fell to the floor, pages splayed. I recognized the cover. It was a text on set theory. I'd hidden some information about my interrogators working patterns in the margins.

  I felt my whole body shaking, livid. It wasn't for my plans being found, though. I half wanted my captors to know. It would unsettle them, maybe make them change things. No, my rage was for the disrespect. "That changes nothing." My voice trembled. "I will escape whatever you know."

  He laughed, then went stony-faced. "No, Ismail, you will not escape." He unbuttoned his jacket slowly, deliberately, the actor who he was coming to the fore again. "You will reveal everything you know, just like you revealed the secret of the primes."

  I knew then how I would escape.

  "No!" Wai Tat thumped the table with a hard crack. "This is old ground. Useless!"

  We'd been working together for fifteen days, but it had taken more of a toll on him than me. He could see my edifice better than anyone, but my presence must've been a constant reminder of his betrayal, of his butchery. He was fanatical in his love for his country, but under all the slogans and ceremony, buried deep, he couldn't escape his feelings.

  I gave him no easy way out, no channel for his discomfort. I was always reasonable, always keeping my rage hidden like a wounded tiger sheltering from the midday sun.

  We sat side by side -- another echo of days past, another splinter in his mind. He smelt of old sweat as if he slept in his clothes. "I think this area," I said, pointing to a dense line of algebra near the top of the page, "could be fruitful."

  I had to be careful not to frustrate him so much that someone else would get assigned. It had to be him. With measured steps I had to lead him out from the grand, hallowed chambers of my edifice, through the untended gardens and into the barren land beyond. Distracting him with trinkets -- a sculptured colonnade here, a baroque frieze there -- would allow me to keep the real splendors from him.

  He turned his head to me. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin pallid. He nodded. "Show me," he said. His breath smelt of Chinese tea laced with alcohol. He didn't look away.

  I reached to turn to a fresh page, and he grabbed my wrist. "You know that when the pitcher is empty, we return to the well." He bobbed his head. "I was there that day. I saw it open. I saw it craving to consume you."

  I shook my head, slowly to begin with, and then faster and faster. "Don't take me back there," I whispered, eyes wide. "I beg you. I'll give you all the treasures you need."

  He released my hand, got up, the chair legs grating against the floor with an ugly grind. With his back to me he took a swig from the small canteen I knew he carried in his shirt pocket. He turned around.

  "You do that," he said, "and I'll see what I can do."

  For the next few days the treasures that I had professed to give him turned out to be fool's gold. An obscure topological result. A minor refinement to a geometrical theory. Other useless artifacts that I knew for certain to have no practical applications. His temper worsened, along with his drinking. Sometimes his superiors would linger outside, cold looks on their faces. He was the golden boy -- the brave fighter who'd given the glorious republic a winning start to the war -- but now the epithet was a curse as much as a prize.

  "Not good enough!" he bellowed, pacing around the room. "Everything you give me we already know." He stopped beside one of the bookcases, grabbed a text at random. "Lagrangian Variables in Three Dimensional Calculus," he read out. "We know." He tossed the book away, grabbed another one. "Mathematics of Tensor Matrices. We know." He dropped the book, then swept his hand along the whole shelf, tumbling all the volumes to the floor with a crash. "All of this? We know!"

  He trampled over the fallen tomes, brought his face up close to mine. "Give me something new, something special -- or we go to the object." He stank. His teeth were almost black with grime.

  "Please," I whimpered, "I'll do anything."

  My hands shook, but I picked up a pencil, made to write anyway. "Look --" I said, trying to scrawl a summation sign, "-- Fourier series --"

  He ripped the notebook out from under my hand. "Fourier series?" he roared. "You insult me." He grabbed me by the collar, hauled me towards the door.

  Down decrepit passages I stumbled, cowering, constantly pushed on by his violent hands. With snatched breaths, I recited one of the longer suras.

  We came outside, the air thick and muggy, the sun hazy. The ground was completely dead now, the mark of countless tank treads and boot steps having killed all the life. What army there had been though, was elsewhere now. I realized that I'd been confined to what used to be the U.N.'s Pakistani barracks, not three hundred paces from my old home.

  Outside the enclosure there was lot of activity. On one side, two dozen or so children, none more than ten years old, waited in a neat line. They were all Chinese. The queue led up to a table beside the turnstile entrance, manned by a young officer. On the other side was a small field hospital. I knew it was a hospital because of the cluster of medical staff smoking outside. As we approached -- Wai Tat still pushing me forward -- a solider carried a motionless youngster out of the enclosure and into the hospital.

  The boy at the front of the line stepped towards the turnstile, but then stopped after Wai Tat barked something at him. He looked relieved. A short conversation between Wai Tat and the officer ensued.

  Afterwards, Wai Tat leaned in close. "You better not mess up. For my sake as well as yours."

  "Please, have mercy --"

  He shoved me forward, killing my words.

  The place hadn't changed.

  Dead ahead through the murk, the dark mass floated, its stark otherworldly nature as clear as day. The first tendrils of its presenc
e lazily brushed the corners of my mind, and I flinched at its touch. I felt the hairs on my forearms rise.

  "Are you scared?" Wai Tat asked. I could hear the glee in his voice.

  I walked on with trembling paces. The wind felt different -- crippled as to what it had been. And like lame old men who couldn't sleep because of their aches and pains, it moaned, bad-tempered and restless.

  Was it dying? I suppressed an urge to break into a run. I clutched my amulet, said a small prayer under my breath.

  Mentally, I threw a colorful kite up into the breeze. It was only a small meditation on the transcendental numbers, but the wind caught it and lifted it higher. The breeze became a blustery gale whipping the kite around in furious loops and spirals. A strand of the wind shot down, demanded more.

  I delved deeper into my mind, began tossing streamers and balloons, Chinese lanterns and confetti, skywards. The concepts caught on the updrafts, sailing or darting or drifting higher, always up, up, up.

  The sky thronged with beauty. It hadn't been dying -- it had been sleeping.

  Ahead, the object writhed, awakening. I gave up my pretense then, began running.

  "Ismail!" Wai Tat cried in alarm.

  I didn't look back. As I ran, I savored the small sensations: the taste of electricity on my tongue; the hard resistance of the earth beneath my feet; the crack and buzz in my ears. I can't say that I was entirely fearless, that would be a lie, but the greater part of me was emboldened, excited. I trusted the presence, knew that if it had really wanted to take me it could've done that as easily as a man counts to ten.

  I leapt.

  The substance was so cold it burned. I felt my skin blistering at its touch, but there was no pain. As I was swallowed, a choked scream was the last thing I ever heard, the last thing I ever felt with flesh and blood.

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