The Secret Mathematic is an original novel told sporadically in an indefinite number of chapters, posted unpredictably by me, your well-intentioned but sometimes tragically distracted host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the thirty-fifth installment.
Multimedia: Listen to the The Secret Mathematic Overture in MP3 format, by Syntax Error.
Related reading: Stubborn Town, Three Face Flip, The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer, The Extra Cars
And now, the story continues:
The collapse of Anwar is sudden, like a tent deflated by the pull of a single rope.
Over a matter of weeks a nation which has been a bastion of stability in the region disintegrates into chaos -- food riots, sectarian clashes, gang violence. The currency is in free fall. Wikileaks spokesman Julian Assange smirks on the BBC. "What we have uncovered here is a conspiracy on an utterly massive scale to defraud the Anwari people. It is the Shah himself that has plundered their treasury, it is the Shah himself who has funneled away their every asset and resource."
"To what end, Mr. Assange?"
"Frankly, the scope of it is unimaginable. We're still working through the documents. Everything is represented -- everything: from rocketry to botany. Automation and agriculture. If there's a common thread, we haven't yet grasped it."
The Shah will not emerge from his palace. Cameras are trained on his curtains. Since the royal security forces abandoned the fight the lower floors have become smashed ruins, small fires casting oily smoke up the graffitoed walls. Every fixture, statue and golden door knob has been removed by looters. The decorative moat of coins has been smashed open, filled now only by debris, some speckled blood and a single shoe.
The army masses outside, shooting teargas to disperse the hooting crowds. An elite unit marches out through the main hall. "Charges are in place, sir."
A countdown. A loud crackling boom. Smoke blooms out of the main hall. After a beat two squadrons of masked soldiers shuffle forward to investigate, the beams on their guns plying the fog. They disappear.
A squawk of radio static. "Negative, sir. Negative. Passage remains blocked."
The Shah's inner sanctum is impregnable.
Within his apartments he is in turns delighted and irritated by the process of laundering his own clothes. Life without servants is novel. Though he is dismayed that his shirt had turned pink he is cheered to find it no longer stinks. He folds it awkwardly and drops it into the bin.
"You know," the Shah says to one of his favourite statues, "I really had not considered the consequences of retirement, but now that I've had it thrust upon me I can't help but appreciate the peace of it all. For the first time in millennia, the sun rises and my only concern is how sunny it is."
He chuckles. "C'est la vie, et cetera and tra-la-la."
He puts his laundry away and feeds the birds. He drinks a glass of water, takes his pulse, and does a few half-hearted jumping jacks. He goes to get himself a second glass of water, but as he begins to lean toward the cooler he freezes. The cooler lazily releases a mushroom of fat bubbles. The Shah remains motionless. At last, he turns around very slowly.
A feeble voice echoes from the nearest ventilation duct. "Hi."
"Are you from the army?"
"No. I'm a reporter."
"Why don't you come out of there?"
"Why not? I'll make you a cup of coffee. I do it myself now, you know."
"I can't because...I'm stuck."
The Shah is positively giddy to have an excuse to fetch his tool box. He lugs it over and springs it open with his artificial hand. He picks up a multi-headed screwdriver in his flesh hand and squints at it. "I've seen Kumar do this so many times," he mutters, flexing his wrist experimentally.
His flesh hand doesn't prove too useful but his artificial hand seems to have a built-in knack for tools. In moments the old fellow has disassembled the duct housing to reveal a somewhat gaunt, decidedly sweaty woman with a pen clenched in her teeth. She wriggles forward and spills out onto the carpet.
"Oh my, oh I'm sorry," says the Shah. "I should have caught you there. I assumed you were a very acrobatic person."
She stares at him with disbelief through strings of hair, then frowns as she pushes herself up into a sitting position. She heaves a few times and then gasps, "Water?"
The Shah shuffles back to the cooler and refills his glass. He hands it to her. "Have you been in there a long time?" he asks, accepting the empty glass back from her.
"Thirty-nine hours," she says after consulting a watchface on the inside of her wrist.
"You're a very intrepid reporter!" observes the Shah, rocking on his heels and stroking his goatee. "That's marvelous. I'm sorry for your success in this case. More water?"
"Yes please. Why in this case?"
"Protocol Four," he replies, refilling the glass at the cooler again. He gestures with the glass, cold water slopping over the edge. "This place is sealed. I'm afraid you're doomed. What's your name?"
"Catherine Hanover. Reuters."
He passes the glass to her. "I'm afraid you're doomed, Catherine. But we'll eat well in the meantime. You're hungry?"
He feeds her. Poor wretched thing! She tears into a platter of pita and ful, then attacks a pair of fried bananas. She slows down when she gets to little steaming bowl of lemon-rice over sugared cornmeal. The Shah watches with satisfaction while he rinses the used dishes in the sink. He wipes his hands and unties his apron.
"I thought I was going to die," she admits.
"You are," says the Shah in a friendly way. "But let's not get carried away by the forecast. It's sunny before the rain."
He offers to find her some sort of a change of clothes but she is more concerned with finding an electrical outlet so her telephone can recharge. "You have your own generators," she observes as her telephone meeps happily.
"I was a Boy Scout," claims the Shah with a small smile.
She ignores this, feeding her tethered telephone out into the middle of the breakfast table and shoving the last empty bowl aside. She lays out a notebook and chewed pen. She pokes at the telephone importantly. When everything seems arranged she invites him to sit opposite her. A cockatiel flits by. She clears her throat. "What are your terms for granting this interview?"
"Terms? I haven't any terms."
She reaches out and taps the telephone. It begins recording. She reads off the date and time, and explains her situation. She looks up at him seriously. "Your country is falling apart around you. You stand accused of corruption. You have locked yourself inside a prison palace. Your Highness Shah Hasan, please tell me: why?"
The Shah strokes his white goatee. "Protocol Four," he says, "describes a series of steps to be taken in the event that my judgement is compromised by enemy control. That's happened, I'm afraid, and so my dear Siraj had no choice but to lock me in. He understands his duty. Such a good boy."
She asks for a fourth glass of water. He gets it for her. She asks, "Can you explain that? Can you tell me about how your enemies are controlling your judgement?"
He shrugs and smiles. "Our instincts usually speak to us in urges, don't they? Cravings, you might say. Appetites."
"You believe your enemies have sabotaged your appetites?"
He sniffs. "Should I give you a concrete example? I am very old, and I haven't felt aroused by a woman for a very long time. And yet I find myself fiercely compelled to touch you."
The reporter shifts defensively, but the Shah does not move. He smiles. She doesn't. "I want to talk about what's happening with your country, Your Highness. With Anwar."
"You'll forgive me as we're being candid. You're not young or nubile. You're not especially beautiful -- again, forgive me. There is no obvious reason why a man of my age and habits should find myself ignited. And yet, so it is. While I assure you I'll do nothing, beneath the surface I roil to do worse." He sniffs again. "It's a bit funny. It makes me feel adolescent. But it's the programme, of course. It has a mating reflex built in."
She crosses her arms. "Tell me about this programme."
"You know," he says, slapping his knee, "it feels really wonderful to just sit down and chat these things out, it really does. This is great." He takes a deep breath and grins. "Where were we? Ah yes, the programme. It's a piece of genomic software designed and deployed trans-temporally by a witch."
She blinks and makes a note. "Genomic software?"
"Yes, deployed in the environment of an executing genome the programme rewrites development. It is a recipe for creating cellular machinery, you understand -- parasitic machinery. Machinery that changes the nature of the man."
"How does it change you?"
"Oh, nothing fancy. I'm stronger than you. I heal faster. I remember things more efficiently. My immune system is quite belligerent, also. Most cancers are to me as the common cold is to you: unavoidable but brief nuissances." The old man pauses, eyes distant. "And I also crave to travel to the north pole."
She looks up from her notes. "Can you repeat that?"
"I've always had the abilify to sense direction, but when I started to feel compelled to travel I knew the time had come -- the programme was asserting itself not just over my muscles and viscera but over my brain."
"We're back to the strange cravings again. These cravings that caused you to order your son to lock you in here?"
"Yes, yes, that's it. He's not really my son, of course. He is the product of a dedicated breeding project. A hybrid, to be exact. Unforgivable, really, what we've done in order to achieve him."
"You believe the prince also has these microscopic machines in his cells?"
"He has some varieties, but not others. There were many failures. He is a rare success. We cannot consider him safe, of course. He could be compromised as well. That is why I've pulled the plug."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I am disempowering us both, naturally. Locked in here until I starve is my fate, and he is stuck on the run without a cent to his name. We've done all we can. The rest is up to Zoran."
She flips through her notebook. "Zoran? He's a military chief, am I correct?"
"Of course not," snaps the Shah, and then adds more thoughtfully, "well, perhaps. Wouldn't the coincidence be charming? At any rate, no, I'm not talking about anyone in the military. Zoran is a mathematician. Or a physicist. In his particular field the line between the two has blurred, I understand."
She leans forward across the table. "Did he design these microscopic machines?"
"Certainly not. Zoran is a good man. Zoran would never spit in the face of Allah like that. The men Zoran makes are pure -- not perverted flesh, such as myself and my fellow monsters. Zoran's men are angels, Catherine."
She sits back. "So what's his significance?"
"What's his significance?" the Shah echoes. He shakes his head, stroking his beard. "Everything. Listen to me, Catherine, and I will tell you something men have died trying to prove false: the universe is a puzzle. And it has a solution. Given enough kinds of thinking things on enough worlds in enough time, someone, somewhere, will find it." He paused. "The solution is inevitable. We cannot control that. Do you understand?"
"Not exactly --"
"The choice we are left with, Catherine, is simply who gets there first?" The Shah straightens importantly. "I acknowledge my bias in prefering it be a human being. I accept it, and will act on it to the extent that I can shape events. I also acknowledge my bias in prefering that the human being is the witch, and this I act against." He smiles. "I want a compassionate person to hold that power. I choose Zoran."
She furrows her brow. "You choose what you don't prefer?"
"As I explained, the programme allows strange wishes to coexist. I have spent my life getting Zoran just where I want him."
"Surrounded by friends who love him, informed of his destiny, free to let his mind see what it must see."
The reporter glances back at her notes. "At the north pole?"
"Precisely," agrees the Shah. He stands up to put a pot of coffee on. "Well, more or less," he amends. "At any rate it's where the north pole was or where it will be or some such thing. I can't keep it straight, frankly. Not at my age. C'est la vie, et cetera and tra-la-la."
"You have Zoran just where you want him -- on the other side of the world?"
"Naturally," replies the Shah. "I'm his nemesis."
"I'm sorry? His nemesis?"
"But instead of interceding to help steal the power he will uncover I have taken myself out of the equation altogether. I understand my destiny, Catherine. I know why I exist, and what I am to do." He flicks on the coffee machine. "And I'm saying 'No.'"
"No to the designer of your programme..."
"Because she's a...witch? What is a witch, exactly? Are we talking about the Wiccan faith here?"
"What?" frowns the Shah. "No. I mean the kind that are unmoved by suffering. That's what evil is, Catherine. That's all that it is." He looks down at his soft hands. "The absence of compassion. The will to act for ends too noble for consideration of the collateral consequences. Too keen. Too hard. Too smart to be good."
"You're describing yourself now, Highness."
"I am, for I am an evil thing." He leans against the counter and closes his eyes. "But I will die happy, knowing I have thwarted my puppeteer. I've been pulling for the other man all along. And now my work is done."
"You'll die happy as your people riot in the streets?"
"Frankly, I'd suicide but the programme won't allow it. Allah knows I've tried. The best I can do is put myself under siege." He closes his eyes and breathes in. "I love the smell of this coffee."
She swallows uncomfortably. "You leaked the documents."
"Naturally," he says, resuming his smile. "I don't know what tales of derring-do and intrigue you've been told, but the truth is that Julian was my guest here at the palace. I handed him the documents personally."
"You took down your own regime to curtail your own ability to act."
"Now you have it. And at the pole I've set the Canadian armed forces out against Prince Siraj, in the event that he loses perspective. His purpose has been served." He pauses, tilting his head. "You see why I'm overdue for my exit, don't you? I hand my boy to the jackels and my heart barely even breaks."
"Are you claiming there's a connection between what's happening here in Anwar and the weather anomalies over North America?"
The Shah raises his brow, a new twinkle in his eyes. "Isn't it exciting? The veil is about to fall, the calculations to actualize."
"It is the Word, Catherine. The breath of Allah."
She frowns as the table vibrates, causing her telephone to rattle. The Shah's birds shriek, flapping around wildly and gathering in a turbulent knot beneath skylights now darkened from the sky by metal shielding. The chandelier in the hall sways. The reporter looks around. "Do you think they're blasting their way in, Highness?"
The Shah shakes his head. "The boundaries reinforcing those walls are...special. A gift to me from an ageless head. No conventional warfare will breech them. You yourself must have passed through only minutes before the last apertures were sealed."
The room shakes again, more violently this time, followed by a cracking sound. The reporter widens her eyes. "Something is happening, Shah Hasan."
Their ears pop after a loud thump. Clouds of plaster rain down from the ceiling. "Oh my," says the Shah, blinking. "I think you're right, Catherine..."
There is an explosion in the sitting room. Feathers and splintered wood splash out against the far wall. Dishes topple and shatter all around them in the breakfast nook. The reporter grabs her telephone and rolls in behind the kitchen counter for cover.
The Shah, his expression fixed in childish surprise, inclines his head toward the passage. "Isn't this exceptional..." he whispers to himself. "I have absolutely no idea what's happening next! It makes me feel young."
"They could kill you!" hisses Catherine from the floor.
"That would certainly be easiest," nods the Shah, squaring his shoulders to meet whatever is to come.
The birds have all fled to the furthest corner of the apartments, shitting in fear. The air seems to buzz, alive with small noises. The Shah faces the smoking entrance hall expectantly.
Shadows slide around the corner.
An armoured knight strides into the foyer, the reports of his metal boots barking off the close walls. Without looking around or slackening pace the knight strides the length of the hall and the sitting room to come to a halt in the kitchen. Black lenses turn on the little Shah sitting in the breakfast nook. "Anwar," says the mask.
The Shah nods. "You've knocked your way in. You have command of Veiled Computations. I must say, I'm very impressed! And grateful to be so." He whistles. "Simply tickled pink." He smacks his hands on the table and leans forward. "Now, young man, do tell me: are you my assassin?"
The knight shakes his head.
"Oh? Indeed?" says the Shah, smoothing his moustache. "We're friends, then?"
The knight shakes his head once more, then extends a dark gauntlet to indicate the way he had come. "Anwar," the mask breathes again.
"Oh my, what a grim reaper," chuckles the Shah. "Such pageantry! Such melodrama! Quite honestly I don't know what to say." His eyes shine. "I'm touched. This is so much more interesting than I deserve. Just think: after all this time I expected to fade or to fizzle, but instead I stand to die of a plot twist." He closes his eyes and breathes in, then opens one eye in a panic. "The coffee!"
The Shah slides out of the booth and flips the switch on the coffee machine, the knight's long shadow across him all the while. "Anwar," hisses the mask.
"Nevermore!" replies the Shah, then laughs.
He prepares two cups and puts them on a tray, then shuffles right past the knight and out of the kitchen. He passes into the hall and turns right to the study, the knight's heavy footfalls behind him. He puts the tray on a low oak table between two wing chairs. The knight darkens the arched doorway. "Anwar."
The Shah cajoles his artificial arm into sleeve of a smoking jacket, then shrugs on the other sleeve and tugs his favourite fez on his head. He takes two excellent specimens from the humidor, cuts them, then lays them on the table with the steaming cups and a bowl of only slightly unfresh fruit. From the corners of the room four statues look on.
"Well?" prompts the Shah. "Sit down. Have a smoke. Let's savour this."
"Listen my friend, I get it. It's wonderful. What a turn! Here I am beyond her reach, looking up to find myself within her fist. Well played, Majesty. Well played indeed." He gestures to the table. "Your coffee's getting cold. Let's not be so uptight. Do you have the capacity to enjoy coffee?"
The knight says nothing, standing at his chair.
The Shah sits. "You're one of them, that's obvious. But which? If you're on my queen's errand than you can only be the betrayer -- you can only be Ludwig. Am I right?"
"Speak not my name, Judas Iscariot. Your wretched tongue perverts it."
"Civility, please. This is an honour, in a terrible way."
"You will come. We journey to the crucible."
The Shah sips his coffee. "No thank you," he says brightly. "I've retired. History will simply have to knot itself from now on."
"Do you imagine I lack the means to compel you? Trust me when I say it has all been accounted for: your idealism, your treason, your ploys. From our design arises your every impulse."
"You chew the scenery well. But I have my own crib-notes. I know who you are, too." He glances past the knight to see Catherine slink through the hall. "I know you are a fallen angel -- or, to be more starkly accurate I should say a fallen robot. An executive with a mind woven from the Veiled Computations, propelled backward through time to flail against our plan."
"History has been forked. Reintegration is essential. You are the key."
"I've stripped myself of power. You're too late. I'm nothing to all this now."
"Your ambitions are known to us."
"That isn't an effective threat, my dear fellow. Not when you're warring trans-temporally, at any rate. Of course our ambitions are known to you, and in turn that knowledge is known to us. Naturally, you know that we know that you know how we know -- but what you don't know is why."
"If that proves critical it will be extracted."
"Your choice of tense reveals that window has already closed for you. A worthy attempt, however. C'est la vie, et cetera and tra-la-la." The Shah grins as he reaches for the fruit bowl and begins peeling himself an orange. "History has been forked, quite correct. But it was no mere bifurcation -- a simple split where one history heads west and another east. Oh no. Oh no, my fear fellow."
Ludwig steps closer. "Reintegration is essential."
The Shah holds up a single curving helix of liberated orange peel. "It's synclastic," he says. "All positive curvature at all points." He tosses the peel away and selects a segment of the fruit. "What goes around comes around: reintegration is built in to the fork." He pops the segment into his mouth, commenting, "Very sweet."
"Enough," says Ludwig, extending his gauntlet. "You will come."
"I will not," replies the Shah, wiping orange juice from his moustache. "You must understand: I'm not your key. There is no key. The fork rectifies itself -- all it needs is time. Time enough to outrun any pursuit your witch might fuel by burning the sun -- time enough to hide just over the horizon."
Ludwig shakes his head curtly. "You lie. If that were true the fork would not be rectified for more than twenty thousand years. Your champion Zoran would find himself as ultimately impotent as our queen."
The Shah giggles.
"Stop your childish mockery!" bellows Ludwig suddenly as he surges forward and seizes the little Shah by the shirtfront. He hefts him out of his chair and casts him upon the floor. The old man winces as flesh arm breaks. Ludwig removes his mask to reveal a humanoid face of a bizarre and intricate texture, neither clearly grown nor clearly built but instead a union of the two. Those strange features are pinched now into a very human scowl.
"The twin histories will never be reintegrated on your terms," pants the Shah, rubbing his arm. "The very geometry of the fork dictates it. The artifact is its architect."
"Event Zero is coming!"
"Event Zero is not what you think it is," says the Shah seriously.
"You know nothing. Your mind is an emergent property of meat lies."
"I'm more than my mind," smiles the Shah as he gets to his feet. "I am method, sir. I am a thousand experts across a thousand years, catalogued, verified and cross-checked. The genius is my enterprise. It is larger than even you, executive. Method, sir. That is how I can rise above my programme."
"And what has your method taught you?" asks Ludwig darkly, standing over him.
The Shah grins as he pats his pockets for want of a match. "That the story of the story is the story. It's a trap. It's all a trap. It's always been a trap." Once more he closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, unlit cigar hanging from his fingers. "I never dreamed it was this, though. It's so simple, but so brilliant. Praise Zoran."
"Be silent," commands Ludwig. "Come now, the crucible awaits."
"I don't think so," mumbles the Shah around his cigar. He lights it. He puffs. He draws. He looks up at the knight significantly. "This is your cage as well as mine now, Ludwig."
"Penetrating your pathetic barriers was elementry."
"Naturally," agrees the Shah, blowing smoke rings placidly. "It's a honeypot."
When the crowd has been pushed back to a safe distance the detonators take their signal, monitoring their charges from behind concrete blast barricades. An electronic beeper sounds the final seconds. There is a series of lockstep flashes. Explosions tear through the foundations of the palace with overlapping roars. Minarets collapse as a wave of shattered stone shoots up into the air followed by a bed of smoke. Balconies topple, windows break.
Catherine Hanover stumbles into the arms of military medics just seconds before the blast wave hits them. The medics have earplugs but she does not, so she screams when her eardrum is perforated by the violent pressure change. She collapses. They shield her from falling debris.
Wind begins to clear the site. Soldiers mutter.
The palace is still standing.
Military engineers are escorted by the wandering rifles of sharpshooters to the foundations where the charges had been laid. The supporting pillars of old, old stone have fallen away in ruin, revealing pillars within. These inner pillars are transparent, bending the light with pristine clarity.
Demolition machines move in. The wrecking ball smashes away panels of stone facing, exposing more of the gleaming skeleton beneath -- and it is utterly unscratched. The engineers speculate: diamond nanorods?
The Shah's palace has a palace within the palace, and though he had believed it would be the place of his ending he now starts to suspect it could be where everything begins. Trans-temporal conflicts can be funny that way.
C'est la vie, et cetera, and tra-la-la.