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art by Liz Clarke

How Love Works

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.

Planck's constant: a constant that gives the unvarying ratio of the energy of a quantum of radiation to its frequency, and a cornerstone of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Approx. value of 6.62 x 10-34 Js--symbol h, discovered by Planck in 1899 AD.

You never recovered from that first heartbreak.
You were sixteen. You gave her your most valuable possession, a Powell Peralta skateboard signed by Stacey Peralta himself, and promised to teach her to ollie no matter how long it took. You meant it. In 1989 you missed Rodney Mullin performing a 360 kickflip on London's South Bank in order to help paint her room. Three months later you caught her cheating in that same room with a Danish rapper named Arenski.
You couldn't understand why it'd happened. His rapping was terrible.
Gordon Hargreaves, your best friend, offered to take you to Amsterdam. Your Mum cooked your favorite dinner--haddock and sweet corn pie, chips, and veg--five nights in a row. Your Dad didn't say anything. You didn't find these things helpful, although you did enjoy the meals even if the veg was always over-boiled.
You never wanted to experience that bleakness, that loss, that crippling, gut-pitting feeling that made you curl up into a ball and rock from side to side again, so you vowed to never love another until you knew the shape of the human heart. You thought the answer lay in the world.
You dropped out of school to join a skateboarding collective in Los Angeles. You shared an abandoned house near the intersection of 110 and 10, where nobody owned anything except their board. Brad Hammersen explained your heartbreak as the result of universal karma, but you weren't convinced. Most of your painful truths came in the form of hard slams. A suited man who looked like Ewan McGregor punched you in the mouth and chipped your front tooth after you collided with him near the Koreatown Plaza. You didn't have insurance and you never got it fixed.
A stoner from San Diego told you how transcendental numbers hold the secrets of the universe. You memorized pi to ninety-nine digits, but all it gave you was a crappy party trick. You had an on-off relationship with a Biology Major at UCLA, who told you love was just a biochemical trick of your brain in service to your selfish genes. You sabotaged any longterm future together when you told her your selfish genes had made you cheat on her with a Australian au pair named Harriet.
You hadn't.
You went semi-legit and got a marketing gig with a fashion label based near Venice Beach. You impressed everyone with your curious turns-of-phrase and English accent, especially the mostly female editors of the style magazines who gave the brand fantastic coverage. The CEO began taking you on his business trips. Beijing. Milan. Johannesburg. You lost a decade in a whirlwind of collections, cocktails, and first-class flights. Nominating Hinduism as your religious denomination on your bookings always led to the best airplane meals. You broke a dozen hearts in a dozen countries, but never your own. Life became a blur of a blur, a treadmill of global proportions.
You had no idea who you were, but your where-you-were-going was clear.
You were going to die alone.
You still didn't know the shape of the human heart. You thought the answer lay in yourself.
You ditched the CEO during a manufacturer's inspection in Mumbai, and fled to an ashram near the border with Bangladesh. You renounced all your worldly possessions except your ethically-invested PEP Fund, and lived on a diet of lentils, abstinence, and Vipassana meditations. Every three months a nomadic bookseller with five pack mules visited the monastic community. One of his animals carried English-language editions. Among other titles you read the King James Bible, the Bhagavadgita, Romeo and Juliet, and Eat, Pray, Love. You pondered on many things: God as love; life as suffering; star-crossed lovers; perfectly cooked spaghetti.
You didn't learn how not to have your heart broken.
You didn't know where you were going, but who you were was clear.
You were going to die alone.
You'd heard of the uncertainty principle, but you didn't know it applied to people. Here's one formulation: it is impossible to know precisely both who you are and where you're going. Here's another: you cannot have perfect knowledge of both yourself and the world (Buddhists might aim for nirvana, but they never get there). Here's another: nobody knows how love works.
The potential for heartbreak is a necessary condition for love.
You still have time.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Author Comments

Although many people claim to hate stories written in the second-person, I find they have a certain power that is lacking in the first- and third-person forms. I guess you could say they are confrontational; they force the reader to participate in the narrative more than they might otherwise. I thought this a fitting choice for a story about the impenetrable heart of love, a state-of-being that all of us can experience, yet defies analysis and always involves risk.

- Stephen Gaskell
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