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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 12

It's autumn in Algeria, and the mountain passes echo with the clang and thump of tools. The sun shines, but on the northern horizon visible between the peaks a sombre line of iron-grey clouds is rising up over the Mediterranean. Soon the rains will come, and all work must stop -- a Sabbath declared by seasons.

Dr. Hallow checks her watch and frowns. It's a race against time.

"Doctor? They need you at the site."

She nods, turning away from the panorama of patchwork fields colouring the foothills of the Tell Atlas green in tight, geometric stripes. She wipes her glasses on her khakis and then slides in a practiced way off the ledge of the promontory, dropping on two feet back down into the camp. The bearded grad student steps back from her dust cloud, coughing. "What's the situation?" asks Dr. Hallow.

"They've found an aperture in the antechamber," says the grad. "Dr. Labdouni thinks we can break through before the rain gets here."

"Unlikely. The rains are coming tonight, I'll wager."

"He just told me to bring you."

"I'm coming, I'm coming."

Together they jog along the narrow aisle between tents, holding their noses as they hurry by the ceramics analysis shelter, dodging the doddering stratigraphologist out for a cigarette. He waves vaguely, bent over a notebook, his greeting lost to the noise of the chortling diesel generators. Dr. Hallow and the bearded grad student then proceed among the giant sleeping machines of dust-coated red and orange and yellow: their earth-heaving work is done, leaving the piling and reinforcing of the rock-slurry walls to crews on the ground with hardhats and wheelbarrows. The men are busy now dragging thick, black tarpaulins over everything, lashing them down and pinning the corners with boulders.

They're locals. They shout to one another in profanity-laced Darja. Some of them look up from their work to stare at Dr. Hallow, but she's used to it. She keeps her gaze locked ahead.

The inner site lies in a pit of inky shadow between two high walls of rock. Most of the rockslide debris has been scooped away by the machines, leaving a fine-grained sand underfoot. Rooted in the sand are tall tripods with intensely bright lamps at their heads, all oriented toward the half-revealed face of a crumbling Carthaginian outpost jutting from the lee of a cliff.

Dr. Hallow grabs a hardhat and clicks on the light over the brim. Her boots crunch on the gravel as she ducks inside the scaffold-supported entrance and down into the dark, avoiding by long habit the bundles of electrical cabling snaked along the floor. She hears the grad student stumble and swear behind her.

Voices echo off the close walls. Lamps glow up ahead. Dr. Hallow ducks under a second sagging lintel and straightens inside the ancient antechamber. "Yousef," she calls.

Dr. Labdouni turns and tugs a dust-filtering bandana down under his swarthy chin. "Elizabeth! Excellent. Time is of the essence, but I knew you'd want to be here. We've discovered a passage into the next chamber."

"What's the fill? Slurry or collapsed infrastructure?"

"Neither: wood."

Dr. Hallow blinks. "Pardon?"

The Arab grins. "As you suspected at the outset, we are not the first to penetrate this ruin. You were absolutely right about the trenching marks. The rockslide couldn't have come more than twenty years ago, and this passage was sealed only slightly earlier than that."

"How do yo know, Yousef?"

He steps aside, gesturing at the work area. Amid the cracked friezes depicting heroes of Punic mythology arrayed around Tanit and Ba'al Hammon, the divine sibling-couple, is an arched portal inside of which is a secondary frame of unpainted wood. The planks that seal the aperture itself have an emblem burnt neatly into them, instantly recognizable to even a layman.

It is a swastika.

Dr. Hallow looks over at her colleague, forehead crinkled. "Nazis?"

Dr. Labdouni nods. "What interest they might have had in Carthage, I cannot say, but these char and oil stains along the vault are very, very recent -- the nineteen thirties, perhaps, or the forties at latest. We might guess their work here was truncated by the war's conclusion."

Dr. Hallow takes a shaky breath. "I'm absolutely shocked."

Dr. Labdouni nods again, then hefts a crowbar into view. "Myself as well. So now that you're here let's put aside our questions and claim some answers, shall we?"

She reaches out to stay his hand. "Wait."

He grimaces. "What? Whyever for? Let go, Elizabeth."

She shakes her head. "We must wait for Bahram."

Dr. Labdouni yanks the crowbar free, scowling. "Don't be stupid. There isn't time. We can explain it to him afterward."

He aligns himself to insert the crowbar behind the first plank, but Dr. Hallow steps in front of him before he can apply leverage. "Yousef, you have to listen to me. This isn't a matter of protocol: it's a matter of life and death."

He sneers dubiously. "Whose?"

"Yours," she says shortly, their faces close together. "You haven't been working for these people long; it was such a rush to get you in after the accident that killed your predecessor. You haven't seen what I've seen, and you don't understand the nature of affairs you're caught up in."

Dr. Labdouni chuckles mirthlessly. "Women are such flighty creatures. Easily intimidated."

Dr. Hallow aggressively shoves him backward, causing him to stumble against a line of crumbling stelae. She points a finger at his chest with thrusting emphasis as she speaks, her voice edged hard and cold: "You maddening ignoramus! Do you not recall Bahram's warning to you when you agreed to work for us? Were you too busy dreaming of money to listen? Idiot: he told you this project was secret."

Dr. Labdouni sniffs and then smiles. "So now perhaps he will be obliged to pay me to stay quiet."

"Idiot!" she shouts again. "This is not like something you whisper to your cousin after you make him promise not to tell your aunt -- this is not gossip, Yousef!" She shakes her head, massaging her temples, then pierces him with her eyes once more. "No, this is much bigger than that. This is a secret in the old sense, a genuine information trap, defended with a kind of rigour you've never imagined. This is a special convenant that isn't guaranteed by a promise -- it's guaranteed by blood."

"That's very dramatic, Elizabeth," he says, taking her by the shoulders.

She smacks his hands away. "Fuck you," she hisses. "Don't patronize me, Yousef. I like you too much to watch you die."

He hesitates, gauging her expression carefully. "If the threat is so great, why didn't your prince take more elaborate pains to explain it to me?"

"Because you're disposable."

Dr. Labdouni opens his mouth again but changes his mind, closing it abruptly. There is something stark and serious in Dr. Hallow's expression -- in her sure, calculated tone -- that suddenly makes him feel extraordinarily vulnerable. For a few nervous seconds he uncomfortably contemplates the idea of disposable people, and he being one of them. He swallows. "So we must wait?"

"Yes," she agrees, breathing hard. "We must."

"How long?"

"Until Bahram wakes up."

Dr. Labdouni sighs, shaking his head. "But the man sleeps fifty hours at a stretch! He only just retired to his tent last night. The rain will be upon us before he rises, I'm sure of it, and then it's three months before we'll even be able to get near this site again."

Dr. Hallow nods curtly. "Then we ought to focus our efforts on securing the site for the season, to keep the flooding at bay or everything we've uncovered here will be destroyed."

"What if he hires another man next year?" challenges Dr. Labdouni. "What if someone else completes the dig and takes all the reward? I have children to feed, Elizabeth, and wives."

She flinches at this, but lets it pass. "We've all got our problems. This simply isn't something you have a choice in."

"Is that a fact?"

She nods again.

Dr. Labdouni scoffs, then flicks his gaze over to his men arrayed behind Dr. Hallow. "Watch me," he declares. Dr. Hallow is grabbed rudely from behind, her arms pinned and her shoulders pressed until she's forced to drop to her knees. Dr. Labdouni draws a black-gripped revolver from inside his jacket and levels it directly in front of Dr. Hallow's mouth. His eyes are narrow, and there is no trace in his face of the curious, light-hearted man whom Dr. Hallow allowed herself to be seduced by just weeks ago. Through gritted teeth says, "I need you, so you'll help me. If you don't help me, I'll hurt you. Because I'm telling you now, Allah as my witness, whatever treasure this prince is chasing will be mine."

Dr. Hallow's eyes are wide over the barrel of the gun. A tear slides down one cheek, cutting a clean path through the dirt. "I'm going to miss you when you're gone," she says quietly.

He turns his back to her and jams the crowbar into the aperture. The planks groan a second before they splinter apart. "Let's get a light in here," he calls, tugging his bandana up over his mouth and nose again and coughing behind it. "Aziz!"

Dr. Hallow squinches shut her eyes against the rolling bloom of dust.

A quarter of an hour later she is being lowered by a hand-cranked winch down inside the dark recesses of the inner chamber, the light on her helmet plying an ineffectual, fuzzy amber spot on the far wall. She comes down in ankle-deep water beside Dr. Labdouni. "The lamps keep shorting out," he grumbles. "We'll have to use hand-held torches."

She says nothing, taking a flashlight from him and switching it on. She turns in a slow circle, revealing a narrow swath of the chamber amid a confusing battery of sliding shadows.

It's some kind of abandoned administration centre.

They are surrounded by metal desks and leather office chairs and rust-mottled filing cabinets, all branded with symbols of the Third Reich. An ancient radio receiver cabinet houses a mechanical cypher engine on a small shelf. A tarnished and water-bloated portrait of Adolf Hitler hangs on one wall, a detailed map of Europe and North Africa on another. The map is dotted by series of coloured pins marking the positions of Allied and Axis forces. Marked with red are the Tell Atlas mountains where they are right now. It is the rarest colour: there are only half a dozen similar pins on the whole crowded projection.

With a start Dr. Hallow notices that one of the office chairs is occupied by a sagging skeleton, brown bones connected feebly by strings of dried tendon peeking out through a ragged uniform. "Looks like they left someone behind," remarks Dr. Labdouni, adjusting his bandana. "Maybe they were planning to return...maybe their work wasn't yet done."

"What kind of work goes on in a Carthaginian ruin?"

He shrugs. "Don't ask me -- ask your prince. Come on now. There's a passage."

They slog through the black waters, feeling the way out with their steel-toed boots, flashlight beams converged on the tunnel. Dr. Hallow slows as they wade along, her beam breaking aside to scan the walls. They are covered in writing. Dr. Labdouni grunts. "This is your specialty, isn't it? What does it say?"

She withdraws a pointed trowel from her belt and carefully scrapes a layer of mold and grime from the closest tablet, then dusts the inset characters with a small brush. "The alphabet is a Phoenician derivative, definitely pre-Hellenic."

"Yes -- but can you read it, woman?"

She traces a block of text with the tip of her weathered finger, feeling out the contours. "The flesh-abacus...of prophecy born...we create...he who has been called...by the hidden calendar."

"The flesh-abacus?" echoes Dr. Labdouni. "What does it mean?"

"We can only imagine. This might be a legend or a song, or even an accounting manifest. We have no way of guessing without further context."

He throws his beam along the length of the tunnel. "Well then," he says with forced jocularity. "Further context awaits us."

They climb a set of water-rounded stone risers to emerge into a new chamber, this one with a dry floor of broken tiles. The air is closer here, tinged by a sour, animal smell. Their flashlight beams show tunnels branching off in all directions, their mouths rough and irregular. "It's a natural cave system," decides Dr. Hallow. Her beam spills across alcoves cut into the rock, dallying over the forms resting there. "And, apparently, a necropolis."

"A necropolis?" repeats Dr. Labdouni. "You mean those are bodies?"

"It's not unheard of among Punic peoples, but it is rare. Plutarch claimed that Carthage had a strong tradition of cremation but that was later, after Rome. The earlier, post-Canaanite culture isn't very well understood yet."

"Yet?"

"Well of course, Yousef. We're here, aren't we? This could be a significant find."

"But who would ever know?"

She shakes her head. "You don't understand. Ninety-nine percent of my discoveries unearthed under the Shah's auspices are cleared for the journals. I wouldn't consent to the work, otherwise. Archaeology is not secret."

"What about the other one percent?"

"None of my business."

"You have no curiosity?"

"I'm driven by it. You know that."

"Then how can you not ask?"

"Because besides curiosity I also have a strong instinct for self-preservation." Dr. Hallow adjusts her glasses. "I suspect you will have a more keen appreciation of this before the day is out."

"That's a rather chilling thing to say."

She sniffs. "Isn't it just?"

"You sound like you're smiling when you say that."

"Just desserts for a man with a gun at my back."

"Don't be stupid. I've put the gun away. I trust you, Elizabeth."

Dr. Hallow says nothing. They have crossed the tiled floor now and arrived at a grotto mouth, slowing beside the nearest alcove. Flashlight beams pool on the corpse. Dr. Hallow's breath catches in her throat as she takes in the proportions of the body.

Dr. Labdouni coughs behind his bandana. "It's...it's a child."

Dr. Hallow licks her lips pensively as she traces her beam down the short limbs. "It's a baby," she corrects. "Tertullian wrote about the Carthaginian penchant for infant sacrifice. It's a controversial assertion, however. Many think Tertullian maligned traditional religiosity to pave the way for the acceptance of Christianity. Infanticide was a common obsession among early proponents of the church."

"Well," manages Dr. Labdouni, turning away to cough again. "I think the notion has now become somewhat less controversial."

"Indeed."

They wander deeper, past many more alcoves, each of them occupied by the withered form of a tiny human being. At one particular alcove, however, Dr. Hallow stops abruptly and sweeps the body with her beam. "What is it?" asks Dr. Labdouni, stepping closer.

Something winks in the light. Dr. Hallow reaches a hand to the corpse, turning the neck gently with a nauseating crunch. There is a metal dog-tag chained around the infant's neck. "This...isn't Punic," says Dr. Hallow slowly. She leans in closer to read, pressing her flashlight flat against the tiny ribcage. "It's German."

"What does it say?"

She straightens and adjusts her own bandana. "It says Subject one twenty-two: Lot B, June nineteen thirty-nine." She points her flashlight to the body again. "Notice the limbs."

"They've been amputated."

"No, I don't think so. Look at the bones, here and here. They taper organically to a rounded tip." She takes a deep, steadying breath. "This isn't the result of surgery, Yousef -- this baby was deformed."

They move on, passing more alcoves housing more infants, some of them so terribly deformed as to barely resemble the species. Some of the bodies are older, too, conjuring up unwelcome images of what it must have been like to live in such a monstrous state, if only for a few years. Finally, they turn down a passage with alcoves filled by adult bodies. "What are these?" whispers Dr. Labdouni.

Dr. Hallow sighs. "I think it's the mothers. See here: in some cases the pelvises have been sawed apart, presumably to extract the babies. Absolutely ghastly."

Dr. Labdouni coughs again. "I think I'm going to be ill," he says huskily, then turns and leans against the wall between two alcoves.

Dr. Hallow watches him. Contradictory expressions flicker over her features. She feels the keen edge of her trowel against her hip. She knows in this moment of weakness she could easily use it to cut Yousef's throat. She finds she cannot act, however. Here, in the dark, hearing only his laboured breathing she has difficulty imagining the man who put a gun to her mouth; instead, all she can picture is the way they made love.

Her hand twitches over the tool, but does not close.

In the end the reason that finds most compelling is that she does not think she could tolerate being in this horrible place all alone. "Are you alright?" she asks.

"Yes," he says. "Yes I'll be fine. Let's move on, shall we?"

The tunnel exits into a large, rock-domed chamber filled by laboratory tables and chemistry flasks. Tables clearly intended for the strapping down of human subjects are strewn with moldy papers and disintegrating dossiers. Blackboards line the walls, dense notes washed down into chalky arrays of streaks. In places strings of chemical symbols and reaction vectors are still visible. "This whole place...it's one big laboratory for human medical testing," says Dr. Labdouni breathlessly. "Unbelievable. Repugnant. Evil."

"To be sure," agrees Dr. Hallow distantly, reading what can be read from the streaked blackboards. "A systematic search for a compound that produces a very specific set of birth defects."

Dr. Labdouni swallows. "Zyklon-B?"

Dr. Hallow shakes her head. "Not likely. Zyklon-B was developed prior to the war and its purpose was to kill, not to deform."

"But then...why?"

She shrugs, then considers. "'We create he who has been called by the hidden calendar.'"

Dr. Labdouni laughs without humour. It's a wheezing, desperate laugh. "You believe the Nazis were trying to bring to fruition an ancient Carthaginian prophecy?"

"I don't know what to believe," she admits.

Dr. Labdouni's flashlight gutters slightly, then begins to grow visibly more dim. "I'm losing my torch," he reports.

"Mine too," she confirms. "We'd better get back. I don't want to have to feel my way out of this place."

They backtrack out of the laboratory and along the tunnels of the necropolis. Dr. Hallow continues to examine the bodies in the alcoves on either side of them but Dr. Labdouni keeps his gaze locked straight. He clears his throat awkwardly. "So tell me, Elizabeth, what is Bahram's condition? Why does he sleep for two days after only a usual amount of activity, and what is the medicine he is always injecting himself with? What is his disease?"

"He says he's diabetic," she replies distantly, probing the corpses with her fading flashlight beam.

"You don't believe that."

She shrugs. "I'm not a physician."

They arrive back at the Nazi administration centre. Dr. Labdouni grunts irritably as they slosh over to stand beneath the aperture to the antechamber above. "What's happened to our lamps?" he grumbles, then bellows: "Aziz -- light!"

There is no reply. Dr. Labdouni's flashlight beam turns orange and then flickers off. He bellows again, his voice echoing away in overlapping yells throughout the necropolis. "Aziz?"

He turns to Dr. Hallow. She smells the air. "The rain's started."

"They couldn't have called him away. I left orders."

Someone shifts their weight up above. A trio of pebbles fall over the edge and drop into the swill. Gooseflesh breaks through the layer of sweat coating Dr. Labdouni's body, and he suddenly feels cold despite the oppressive humidity. He tugs the bandana down off his face. "...Aziz?"

"Aziz was very loyal to you," says Bahram quietly.

"Oh no," whispers Dr. Labdouni.

"Oh yes," counters Bahram. "I'm afraid things are a bit of a mess up here. Quite unpleasant, to be frank. On the walls, underfoot, dripping from the ceiling: there's Aziz everywhere. And that other fellow, the burly one. What was his name?"

Dr. Labdouni screams, "That was my son!"

"Yes, well, was is indeed the operative word, I'm sad to say."

The chamber illuminates with six rapid strobes of orange light as Dr. Labdouni squeezes off six shots one after the other. The overlapping concussions slam through the small space, and Dr. Hallow drops to her knees with a splash, hands clutched over her ears.

The ringing subsides enough for her to detect Dr. Labdouni's laboured breathing beside her. He sobs. "No, no, no..."

"Bahram?" calls Dr. Hallow. Her own voice sounds feeble and far away.

Bahram peeks over the edge of the aperture, his face illuminated by a flashlight. He looks more tired than any living being has a right to be, purple sacs like bruises swelling out beneath his dark eyes. He glances over at Dr. Labdouni, then back to Dr. Hallow. "Elizabeth dear, why don't you come out and have a spot of lunch before we break camp?"

"He made me," says Dr. Hallow huskily. "Bahram, you have to believe --"

He waves at her dismissively. "I know all about it. Here, let me offer you a hand." A second later a length of knotted rope drops through the aperture and dangles in front of Dr. Hallow's face. She takes a breath, seizes the rope, and then begins to work her way up the knots. She cannot shake the feeling that she's being played with, that at any moment the rope will come loose and she'll fall. But at the top Bahram grabs her firmly by the belt and hauls her through the aperture. She drops to the ground beside him, panting. Her eyes remain squeezed shut.

The rope jerks slightly as Dr. Labdouni takes a hold. Bahram cuts it. The rope and Dr. Labdouni splash down into the bracken waters of the inner chamber. "Please!" he cries, sputtering. "Spare my life, Prince!"

"Seal the aperture," says Bahram wearily.


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