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Things Exist by Imitation of Numbers

The Numbers Quartet is a collaboration between Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Fulda, Stephen Gaskell, & Benjamin Rosenbaum

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction--she is the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, and her writing has been nominated for a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award and the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Visit aliettedebodard.com for more information.

Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient, and a two-time Writers of the Future finalist. Her near-future space exploration story, "That Undiscovered Country," was jointly honored by Baen Books and the National Space Society. Nancy's writing has appeared in Asimov's, Apex Digest, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and many others. Her web site is nancyfulda.com.

Stephen Gaskell has published fiction in Interzone, Nature, and Clarkesworld, amongst other places. His SF novella, "Strata", a high-tech thriller set in the sun's chromosphere, co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of The Winds of Khalakovo, has just been released through Amazon and B & N. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF tale set in Lagos, Nigeria. More of his work and thoughts can be found at stephengaskell.com.

Benjamin Rosenbaum lives near Basel, Switzerland with his wife Esther and his children, Aviva and Noah, who demand logic puzzles, classic rock, and childrens' suffrage . He's recently become Swiss, which means of course that he is on the board of a club (in his case, a little synagogue). The Swiss have a deep reverence for clubs; they consider them the backbones of democracy, and the constitutional "right to assemble" actually translates to "the right to form clubs". No lie. His website is benjaminrosenbaum.com.

Golden ratio: In mathematics and the arts, two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one. The Greeks usually attributed discovery of this concept to Pythagoras or his followers. Approx. value 1.61803398874989--symbol φ, first known written definition dates from Euclid's Elements c. 300 BC.

For those who had eyes to see, there were signs. Clea ate beanless vegetarian burritos. Entering a room with a mirror, she turned off the lights. She couldn't listen to most music--she didn't like the tuning. And then there was the silence.
Clea's silence was absorbing and addictive. She looked straight into your eyes. You had, not only her full attention, but more of your own than you'd ever felt before. It wasn't awkward, it wasn't urgent. The silence of clouds driven across a summer sky.
Clea's silence, infectious, spread across the tables of the Student Union bistro. Undergrads, grad students, faculty, security guards, looked up from their books and cash registers, noticing each other.
It was kind of weird, and it didn't last long; conversation filtered back, a warm buzz refilling the space. But it was noteworthy. Clive noted it. He asked.
"I spent five years without speaking, once," Clea said.
Clive couldn't believe it--she was only, what, twenty-six? When would these five years have been? "Jesus. Did your parents raise you in some ashram or something?"
Clea blinked, and looked uncomfortable, which was unusual for her.
He didn't know what he suspected. An affair, a hidden tragedy? Maybe a secret life as a spy? She was a postdoc with a specialization in combinatorics; some of her colleagues got intelligence jobs, but they got them at job fairs, with cushy commutes to Langley or Cambridge. No need for secret meetings in parking lots.
But Clea as a spook was less absurd than Clea having an affair.
That first night--on his beat up corduroy salvage couch in his tiny living room--his hands had shivered on his beer bottle (she didn't drink), and when he'd lunged to kiss her, she'd put a palm on the center of his chest, stopped him. "Wait," she'd said, never looking away. "Tell me more about this. You want to kiss me. Tell me why. Tell me how your attitudes and expectations will change. Think for yourself. Carefully." As if assigning homework.
It was three more dates before they'd kissed. It was less that he'd got the answers right, than that she appreciated that he was trying. "For me to feel safe," she told him, her umbrella dripping onto the gray-and-black artificial carpet outside his apartment door, "it is necessary that there be absolute clarity. It's okay to say 'I don't know.'" (He fumbled with his keys, got them in the lock, rain in his eyes.) "Some quantities are unknown. They are variables, under investigation. But don't lie. Do you love me?"
He pushed the door open, he stepped through, his heart pounding. She followed.
"I don't know," Clive said.
"Yes," Clea said, "good." She hung the umbrella on the coat tree. She took off his clothes. She took off her clothes. She kissed him. She slid onto him. She was ravenous, but unhurried. As if the fact that she had been starving was no reason to rush.
Skip forward three years, like a stone glancing off a pond, leaving a trail of rings--and here he is, pulling into the strip mall parking lot off the I-395, chasing secrets.
Fluorescent lights, a broad blue carpeted area, leather couches and ferns. A crisp logo--ten dots in a pyramid--above the small reception area. An urn of decaf, styrofoam cups, croissants, julienned veggies and hummus. A portly professorial black man, a diminutive underslept power-suited Chinese woman with spiky hair, Irish jocks in sweatshirts, Latino landscapers in work pants, a Lebanese-looking guy and a Hispanic-looking guy in matching tracksuits and rapper bling... about fifty people altogether.
They all had it; the silence, the peace. You belonged, that you mattered, you were among friends. No doubts in the room, except the doubts Clive brought in with him.
They looked up, calm, wordless, welcoming. Only Clea looked a little shocked. She chewed her lip.
There was a chime: a chord, a fifth, more perfect than any fifth Clive had heard before. People filtered back to the classrooms, leaving Clive with Clea and a black woman--box haircut, gold earrings, stylish blue dress.
"Clive? Welcome to the Center," she said. "Clea mentioned you. I'm Delia."
Clive felt a chill. He shook hands with Delia briskly, looking at Clea. "So... what is it? A religion?"
Clea was watching him. The shock was gone from her face, replaced by acceptance and curiosity. It was the same look she'd had on those first two dates: waiting patiently to see what he would do.
"Of a sort," Delia said.
"Math," Clea said. "It's math."
"But if it's a testable hypothesis..." Clive had been reading Popper and Quine; also Aristotle; also Derrida. Histories: Samos, Croton, Thebes. The other band members had quit. He taught bored eight-year-olds classical guitar. Maybe he should re-enroll, cram all this philosophy into the abandoned ethnomusicology dissertation. He was hanging out at the Center, auditing classes for outsiders.
Mostly he was hunting Clea.
"Oh, it's testable," she said. "It's more than testable; it's usable."
"An underlying meta-reality of philosophically real numbers? You have proof?"
Clea enlaced her hands behind her head. She lay on his sheets; the pillows (she didn't use pillows) were on the floor. Long red hairs bristled in her armpits.
"But why, then?" Clive said. "Why don't you publish? Why would I have to... to do the five years to know this? How can you support this kind of... medieval chicanery? Secret societies and..."
She reached from behind her head, put her hand at the base of his abdomen, tangling her fingers in the wiry hair. "Some things," she said, "are only for the mathematekoi."
The visible index of his unbidden desire rose to press dumbly into her wrist, but she did not smile or look down; she looked into his eyes. Only very careful inspection of the pulse at her throat would reveal its acceleration. Clea did not despise her animal nature; she enjoyed it. But she ruled it.
Resentful, he clambered up to his knees. Uncertain if he meant to fish his shirt and underwear from the ruin of his floor, get the hell away from her. But he didn't want to leave.
Her hand still bound him.
"And you can hear 'the music of the spheres'? The sound of the planets moving? You can? Literally?"
She only spread her legs.
"It's impossible," he said, flushing. "There's no air in space."
Succumbing was like falling. She closed her eyes. She smiled.
The distinction of sound and silence, Pythagoras said, lies in contrast. Untrained, we cannot hear what we have always heard.
Stars, thick in the night above the mesa, limned her breast, shoulder, lips, cheek, tears.
You don't have to do this, she'd said.
Then, later: don't do this. I don't know if I can wait for you. What do you want with these secrets?
And then she'd stopped saying it aloud.
"We should sleep," Clive said. He braced himself above her. "The initiation..."
"No," she said. "Please, Clive. I want more. Now." She traced his shoulders, chest, flanks, committing him to tactile memory. "Five years..."
Of chastity, as well as silence.
Their silent motions, then sounds in her throat--either pleasure or grief.
"You can hear it?" he said. He was looking up--watching the stars rage above them. "Really?"
She nodded, weeping, unseen.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Author Comments

I wavered a bit in deciding on the mathematical constant for this story. Phi is certainly the constant most associated with Pythagoras today, but it didn't feel, at first, like a story about phi. I considered the number one, arithmetic unity; I also considered the number 10, which today isn't considered a mathematical constant, really, but which the Pythagoreans revered, not least because it is the sum of the first four natural numbers (which is why this story is 1,234 words long). Eventually, though, I realized the plot of the romance does recapitulate the Golden Ratio: "I am to you as you are to us."

- Benjamin Rosenbaum
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