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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Mind of Allah

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. 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.

Pi: a transcendental number equal to the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter that has an approx. value of 3.14159--symbol π, earliest known textual approximation dates from the Egyptian Rhind Papyrus c. 1900 BC.

Emiliano hurried across the Plaza del Potro, the setting sun skewering itself on the highest minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. On one side of the plaza a dirty beggar babbled the suras of the Quran, a great feat of memory that only earned him the odd dull coin. Emiliano should've been happy. Tonight was his last night in this city of infidels. Tomorrow he would ride east to Barcelona, before setting sail for Venice--for home. The problem was he'd be heading back empty handed.
He ducked into an alleyway, the cries of a muezzin echoing off the stone, the waft of coriander rising off a streetseller's chickpea stew. Many months ago, he'd come in disguise to Cordoba to learn the inner mysteries of pi from the great Moslem mathematician Faisal al-Khalsi, a man who'd calculated the divine number to six places. Six places! Great advances in astronomy, navigation, and warfare--not to mention the glory of Christendom--were locked up in the eternal ratio, and Emiliano's superiors in Rome were terrified of losing ground to the Enemy.
He came to the mathematician's house, whispered a prayer, then knocked on the polished maple door. Faisal himself answered, his silk robe billowing as he swept the door open.
"Brother," he said, clasping Emiliano's shoulder. "Come in, come in!"
Behind him a dark-skinned servant emerged from the cellar door bearing a stout wooden tray. The servant locked the door. Emiliano had always wondered who or what the mathematician hid in the lower level of the house, but he'd been expressly forbidden from going there.
"I'm not interrupting, am I?" he asked, arching his eyebrows.
Brief annoyance registered in the mathematician's eyes, before he composed himself. "Not at all." He spun about, raised his index finger. "Tonight we feast!" As Emiliano was led into a grand room furnished with delicate brocades and colorful cushions, he couldn't help but imagine vast mathematical treasures locked away downstairs.
As they sat, Emiliano wasted no time directing the conversation towards pi. "Tell me, sufi, what more have you learnt of the mind of Allah?" He took no pleasure in referring to the number as the mind of Allah, but it was Faisal's name for it and tonight he would do his best to make his company as sweet as vanilla pods.
"I have gathered only a few grains of sand from the vast deserts that make the Creator's mind. But what a jewel each and every grain is!" From beneath the low table, upon which dishes of stuffed vine leaves, flatbreads, spiced couscous, and a dozen other mouth-watering delicacies sat, the mathematician fished out a scroll. He cleared some space on the table, rolled out the papyrus.
Emiliano goggled at the beautifully crafted digits, each written in a curling script.
3. 1 4 1 5 9 2 6 5.
The numbers were dazzling sequins on rough cloth. He tried to memorize them, but the numbers thrashed in his head like fish in a net.
"How many?" he whispered, drool pooling in the corner of his mouth.
"Nine now," Faisal said proudly, brushing his fingers over the paper, then quickly closing the scroll.
Even if Emiliano had been able to learn the digits by heart, without knowing the method of their calculation he would have no means of checking their veracity. And if the Moslems had the right numbers... he shivered thinking of their warships negotiating rocky waters, decks loaded with trebuchets that could hurl missiles with pinpoint accuracy. Sicily, Bari, perhaps even Venice herself would be in danger.
For the rest of the meal and its aftermath, when the two men took turns inhaling fragrant shisha from an ornately carved hookah, Emiliano quizzed his host incessantly. Was his method based on Greek geometry or Arabic algebra? Did it involve differentials, considerations of chance, the squaring of the circle? Emiliano jotted and explained and sketched his ideas, but his thick-bearded host would only shake his head.
"You have a fine mind, brother," he said eventually. "Go back home and explore these notions. They are seeds in fertile ground and will yield you bounteous harvests."
Emiliano didn't want speculations. Rome certainly wouldn't. Head swimming from the pungent tobacco, he grasped his host's robes and yanked him close. "You're lying! As a Moslem it is grave sin to speak a falsehood, yet you shake your head at each and every one of my conjectures."
"As is the truth!" Faisal thundered, pulling Emiliano's hands away. "We know Christian lands are gripped by darkness and heathen spies attempt to steal our wisdom, but we didn't know they could be so brazen! Very well, Impostor, you want to know how I have come to enumerate the mind of Allah? I will tell you for a price." Faisal stood, smoothed down his robes, while Emiliano's heart beat faster. "Your freedom."
Emiliano's heart sank, and he dropped his head.
"Gomis will see you out." Faisal left, candles flickering in his wake.
Emiliano stared at the papyrus scroll that the mathematician had carelessly left behind in his anger. Without a second thought he slipped it up his sleeve, a moment before the servant entered. He got up, followed the dark, muscular man through the dim passages of the house, one question nagging him like a Genoese mother-in-law: what if the numbers are wrong? He had to know more.
Near the main door, he seized a hardwood figurine and hit the back of the servant's shaved head, hard. The man crumpled silently. Emiliano unhooked a ring of keys from the man's waist, and began trying them in the cellar door. The third key turned with a stiff click, and Emiliano descended a torch-lit staircase.
A plain looking young man, pale-skinned and thin of hair, wheeled around the room, biting his hands, rolling his eyes, sometimes smiling and talking, and then seeming to be in agony, until after a minute or so, he rushed to a small desk and wrote out an enormous number.
"Do you like apples?" he asked afterwards, offering Emiliano a bowl of fruit. Stacks of paper were strewn across the desk, their sides scribbled with digits. This was how Faisal had come to the mind of Allah? By listening to the ravings of an idiot? Disgusted, he pulled the scroll from his sleeve, threw it at the simpleton, and fled into the night.
A month later, he stood under the arches of the Palazzo Ducale, recounting his story to the impassive Doge of Venice.
"There was certainly one idiot in that cellar," said the chief magistrate, steepling his fingers after Emiliano had finished. "You."
"Have you never watched the human calculators performing on the Ponte di Rialto?" The Doge shook his head. "The boy was no idiot. He was an idiot savant."
The scroll--the mind of Allah--he'd held it in his hands. And then he'd thrown it away.
"Come," the Doge said. "We must pray."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Author Comments

Calculating the digits of pi has become something of an obsession for the human race. Whereas today we use digital computers to grind out the number to ever greater degrees of accuracy, back in the eighteenth century it wasn't unheard of for mathematicians to employ idiot-savants to do the sums. When I read this I knew I had a human angle for the story. Setting the story in Moorish Spain allowed me to set up a clash of civilizations, a medieval cold-war if you will, and highlight the fact that during the so-called dark ages many cultures flourished.

- Stephen Gaskell
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