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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 19

"Doctor?"

Abrams looks up.

"The prince will see you now."

Bahram's apartments are opulent. The archways framing the walkout to the balcony are shrouded in red velvet drape lining niches of white marble sculpture on ebony pedestals. The warm breeze from outside causes the drapes to sway, seeming to wave invitingly to the old physician.

He aches.

He crosses the floor and steps out into the sun. He puts his hands on the white stone railing and looks out over the city of Nuribad spread beneath him. A cloud of seabirds circles over the beach. A shining white cruise ship is docked at the pier. Cranes hum as they turn. In the markets below, camels snort.

Someone is hammering. A crew labours over a ruined section of the palace walls, clearing the rubble into giant yellow bins and chipping the broken edges smooth. A bulldozer stands by, and so does a cluster of armed guards.

Abrams straightens as he feels a presence behind him. "Dr. Abrams, I presume," comes a smooth voice.

He turns, extending his hand. "Prince Siraj," he says. "A pleasure to finally meet with you."

Bahram looks exhausted. He offers a tired, polite smile beneath his thin moustache as he shakes Abrams' hand. His suit is immaculate cream, his watch heavy and dazzling. The skin around his eyes is swollen and discoloured. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Doctor," he says hoarsely, "but my schedule is quite unmanageable at the moment."

"Forget about it. I look in a rush?"

"We very much appreciate your taking the time to see us."

"It's what I do. Can you tell me about the Shah's condition?"

Bahram nods wearily, crossing his arms. "We had...a serious security situation. An incursion into the palace, to be frank. My father was rather badly injured in the ensuing mayhem. Significant damage was done before we were able to regain control. I've been coordinating the clean up effort for days."

Abrams rubs his bearded chin. "May I ask who was behind the attack?"

Bahram waves dismissively. "Rebel forces," he says shortly. "Radical insurgents. It isn't important."

"It isn't?"

Bahram narrows his dark eyes. "I was under the impression Medecins Sans Frontieres didn't take sides."

"That's true, sure," nods Abrams. "Don't misunderstand me, Prince: I'm only curious -- there are no conditions under which I would refuse to treat your father. This is why you can be candid with me. Political judgements aren't mine to make."

"This is bigger than politics," says Bahram with a sigh. "There are certain facts I am obliged to make you aware of before you can see the Shah."

Abrams folds his hands before him attentively. "Please."

Bahram wanders over to the edge of the balcony and puts his hands on the rail as Abrams had been doing only moments before. He gazes out over the panorama, shoulders slumped. "My father's most trusted physician was killed in the attack. He will be sorely missed."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"He will be sorely missed as a man," continues Bahram, still staring out over the city, "but even more so he will be missed as a brilliant clinician already initiated with the knowledge he needed to cater to our special needs here at the palace. His responses could be anticipated."

"But mine cannot? I assure you, Prince, my responses are governed not only by my oath but also by the creed of my organization." Abrams spreads his hands in appeal. "What can I say to convince you that your business isn't mine?"

Bahram turns. His face is hard. "And I assure you, Dr. Abrams, that you have no way of guessing your reaction to our...business. You operate from a simpler vantage. You imagine you have the luxury of divorcing your duty from moral concerns." He smirks humourlessly, his tired face pinched. "You are wrong."

Abrams shakes his head. "I've worked in Rwanda --"

Bahram holds up a hand. "I am familiar with your record, Doctor. Never the less, you are in for a change in perspective. I guarantee it. Let me ask you this: how old do you think I am?"

Abrams frowns, looking the swarthy royal up and down. "Between thirty-five and forty, I should say."

Bahram sniffs, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opens them again they glint. "I was born in nineteen thirty-six, sir."

Abrams blinks. "I'm sorry? This is what -- some kind of Islamic calendar?"

Bahram shakes his head. "Common era. The Nazis encroach into Rhineland. Pittsburgh is flooded. Roosevelt triumphs over Landon. Edward the Eighth abdicates. Nineteen thirty-six."

"That's simply not possible. You would be over sixty years old..."

"I wear it well."

Abrams steps forward decisively. He reaches up and takes Bahram's face in his hand. The prince does not resist. Abrams turns his face one way and then the other, looking into his eyes. He gently tugs down Bahram's lower lip and examines his teeth and gums, then palpitates his youthfully tight jowls and unlined neck. Next he grabs Bahram's arm and forces back the sleeve in order to take a pulse through the wrist. He hesitates, however, as the sleeve snags on something on Bahram's forearm. Abrams furrows his brow as he works the fabric around the obstruction: it's a plastic intravenous valve, woven directly into the skin. He looks up sharply. "What's this?"

"That's where I take my medicine."

"Narcotics?"

"No. Ambrosia."

Abrams steps back again, regarding the prince critically. How could it be true? How could this lean, smooth-skinned man be as old as he? Abrams looks down at his own liver-spotted hands, feels the throb in his knees from standing so long. Though no one but his wife knows it, Abrams wears padded undergarments because his bladder tends to leak. And that's just the start. After six decades his body is a weathered and failing apparatus...

Bahram coughs, then leans heavily against the stone railing. Abrams reaches out to support him. "You're not well."

"I am fine," insists Bahram, twisting his shoulder to shake off Abrams' hand. "I'm only tired."

"You seem worse than tired, Prince."

Bahram grimaces. "Over the last sixty years I have seen less than twenty, Doctor, because for every sixteen hours awake I am obliged to sleep for fifty. My existence depends upon the uncomfortable commingling of two disparate technologies, and I have pushed the relationship to the limit these past few days. I have not had rest in seventy hours."

"What technologies? Are you telling me the Shah has found a secret for cheating death?"

"No," says Bahram seriously, "he didn't find it -- he is it."

They both turn as a telephone rings. Bahram walks back inside and picks up the receiver. He speaks quietly and then replaces it, looking up at Abrams significantly. "My father calls us to his chambers, Dr. Abrams. Won't you follow me?"

Abrams blinks, swallows, then stoops to pick up his medical bag. "Of course, Prince."

Though the palace is labyrinthine Abrams has the distinct impression as they walk that they are pushing deeper and deeper within its precincts, each archway they pass through taking them further away from the front gates, the punctured walls, the gardens. They come at last to a brass-gilded elevator carriage flanked by two men whose dark swathing leaves only a narrow slits for their eyes -- milky, unfocused, wandering. Though it seems they cannot see him the guards nod to the prince cordially and salute in perfect concert, automatic rifles slung over one shoulder and great, curved scimitars shining behind the opposite hip.

"Has he taken his tea?" asks Bahram quietly of the guard on the right.

The man makes a series of quick gestures with his left hand. Bahram nods and then steps past him into the elevator carriage, drawing the gate closed behind Abrams. "The guard is a mute?" asks the physician.

Bahram shakes his head curtly as he enters a code into the keypad above the controls. "He has no tongue, Doctor," he says, selecting a destination and stepping back again. He looks sideways at Abrams. "Security, you understand."

Abrams feels a sinking sensation in his belly.

The carriage jerks to a stop. The gate clatters aside by Bahram's hand, which then gestures to Abrams to proceed. Abrams walks out into a tunnel scarcely larger than the carriage itself while Bahram loiters at the threshold of the elevator. "Close your eyes," he advises.

Abrams looks back. "Close my eyes?"

"The scan will only take a moment, but it does involve a pulse of fairly intense ultraviolet light. Photokeratitis is a slight but real danger."

Abrams closes his eyes. His rising anxiety causes the lids to flutter, so he squinches them shut with a determined grunt.

His eyelids flare pink, the capillaries casting lightning-like shadows on Abrams' aging retinas. The air crackles with ozone and the small hairs all over his body stand up on end. Machinery clanks metallically. Abrams shudders but holds still.

"That's fine," declares Bahram.

Abrams opens one eye cautiously, and then the other. "Okay? Alright? You're now adequately satisfied that I don't have a bomb up my tukas?"

"We are satisfied, yes," replies Bahram smoothly, "that you are indeed completely human."

Abrams casts him a wry look. "You're pulling an old man's leg now, nu?"

Bahram smirks cryptically, but says nothing. Together they pass through a door on the opposite end of the scanning tunnel and proceed through a high-ceilinged corridor whose walls are lined with portraits in oils: princes of Araby adorned in every fashion from nineteenth-century English pomp to ninth-century skins. At the end of the corridor, in stark contrast to the mahogany wainscoting and crystal chandeliers, hangs a membrane of opaque white plastic bisected by a zipper.

"Renovations?"

Bahram shakes his head. "Germ control."

The zipper zings as it's opened. They step over the membrane and Bahram seals it behind them. Abrams finds himself standing in a luxurious washroom appointed with black marble sinks and shining steel fixtures. A skylight admits a pool of harsh sunshine, a round puddle of glow in the middle of the tiled floor. The puddle is striped, for the skylight is barred.

"Wash," instructs Bahram, nodding at the closest sink. "Be thorough. Imagine you proceed to surgery."

Abrams washes. So does Bahram. They roll up their sleeves and douse their hands in germicidal soap, then rinse repeatedly in hot water. There are no mirrors in the washroom so Abrams in unable to judge the expression on his own face, unable to calibrate the effectiveness of his studied masque of professional inscrutability. Without looking up he says, "Your father...is he a hypochondriac?"

Bahram sniffs as he reaches for a hand towel. "Hypochondria, Doctor, is a matter of perspective."

"From a physician's perspective a hypochondriac worries that trivial symptoms are morbid ones. What other perspective is there?"

"Perhaps I should have said a matter of scale."

Abrams shuts off the faucet and takes his own towel. "You can explain that a little, maybe?"

Bahram crosses his arms and leans against the wall. "How many times have you flown in an airliner, Dr. Abrams?"

"I couldn't count. I fly dozens of times each year for my work. A couple of hundred flights? It's a guess."

"Do you feel safe when you fly?"

"More or less. Shouldn't I?"

"You may or may not know that the incidence of airliner fatalities lies between one in four hundred thousand and one in five million, depending on the type of aircraft sampled. In order to be assured of losing his life in an airliner tragedy, a man might have to fly every living day for a thousand years."

"Sure, sure -- but that's not a concern to me, obviously. If it were, I doubt my insurer would take my business."

Bahram nods seriously. "Quite right, Doctor. Quite right." He beckons as he walks to the far side of the washroom and mists himself with an antibacterial spray from a wall-mounted dispenser. "The rate of airliner failure is acceptable to man who doesn't expect to ride five million flights. But what if you did?"

Abrams joins him at the misting station, brow furrowed. "I suppose I'd opt to walk?"

"Indeed, if you valued your life. Let me ask you this: what is the mortality rate for a typical human rhinovirus?"

"The common cold? Practically nil, provided no complicating factors like compromised immunity or preexisting infection."

"But the chances of rhinovirus fatality are greater than zero, are they not?"

"Sure, sure. It can happen, particularly if the virus settles in the lower respiratory tract. It's not unknown in infants and the elderly."

"How many rhinovirus attacks do you imagine a man might have to defend himself against before contracting a strain whose characteristics or his own circumstances rendered it fatal?"

Abrams shrugs. "Too many to worry about, Prince. A healthy man has a far better chance of exploding in an aircraft or being eaten by a shark than dying from a cold. In an average lifespan an immune system might come in contact with a few thousand varieties of rhinovirus, out of which only a small percentage would actually gain a foothold in the body."

Bahram nods. "An average lifespan..." he muses, then looks up sharply. "So consider, Doctor, how these gauges of risk are altered if one's lifespan is, in fact, very far from the mean." He looks into the physician's eyes. "How many colds would you allow yourself to catch and combat, if it were your hundred thousandth infection instead of your fiftieth? How many flights would you board? How many red-light runners at intersections would you brave with your car? How many times would you leap instead of looking, knowing that your luck is finite and your opportunities for harm endless?"

"The Shah is immortal?"

"No. If he were he would scarcely be concerned with safety. He is not at all immortal, Doctor -- his life is merely long."

Abrams takes a breath. "How long?" he whispers.

"Long enough to change the scale of risk...long enough to be preyed upon by the thinnest shadow of a statistical basis point. Long enough to live in fear."

Abrams crosses his arms. "So why bother to go on?"

"Because critical work remains unfinished," says Bahram heavily. "Come."

Another zippered membrane, another corridor. The terminus of this corridor is flanked by two robed guards. They turn to meet Bahram and Abrams, their milky, sightless eyes wandering. Their nostrils flare. The guards incline their hooded heads toward the pair, sniffing like dogs. Abrams widens his eyes in discomfort but holds still for this unusually intimate inspection.

"Oy," mutters Abrams, "the dogs at Ben Gurion have nothing on these guys. This is what I call a thorough screening."

"They are Saqaliba zduhaci," explains Bahram as he is snuffled. "They can smell discord."

"Discord?" echoes Abrams with a wry smile. "I'm more of a Polo man, myself."

"You joke. My father will like you."

"I'm being perfectly serious. What can these...Saqalibas detect through odour? Anxiety, maybe? Nervous ill-will?"

Bahram shakes his head. "That would be too coarse a metric to be useful. People have all kinds of reasons for feeling afraid. Besides, as you say, it's a job for a dog."

"So explain it to me?"

"Human scent perception is based on an electron exchange with the G-protein coupled receptor, inducing a quantum tunneling effect whose consequence is a characteristic reverberation in the electrical field of the particle being examined. Zduhaci are preternaturally sensitive to unexpected perturbances in the resulting resonance."

"And this tells them...what?"

"That something is amiss."

The guards draw back and resume their posts. Abrams smoothes down his jacket. "I'm not sure that's how they explained the nose to me in medical school."

Bahram raises one brow. "Your education is about to be augmented, Doctor."

The Shah's chambers are a world unto themselves. Colourful birds flit beneath a glass ceiling, chirping as they swoop into and out of a massive, broad-leafed deciduous tree growing from a well in the marble floor. The well is surrounded by a circular moat fed by a gurgling fountain, crossed by two quaint footbridges whose posts are intricately carved into the forms of horses. Outside the moat is a host of sofas with velvet pillows spaced between golden pillars. Everywhere there are statues of green copper, some describing figures classically while others follow a more esoteric school. Many of the tall green figures are depicted wearing stylized armour of a kind Abrams has never seen before. In place of eyes they wear polished opals.

Through the skylights Abrams notes braces of guards on patrol, slowly circumnavigating the roof, their scimitars winking in the sun as their boots cause the gravel to murmur.

Beyond the tree is an orrery, a grand and imposing brass filigree of orbs and arms, marking the position and rotation of all the largest heavenly bodies in the Solar System with muted strains of overlapping ticking. The apparatus reaches nearly to the skylights, its base eight or nine meters in diameter. On the side of the base is a heavy metal key for winding the works. As they pass beneath it Abrams cranes his neck to take it all in, taking particular note of a cluster of tiny markers ranged on wire-thin armatures between Earth and Mars...

In the furthest corner of the chamber is a magnificent bed, a throne of comforters and silk sheets veiled behind a gathered peak of diaphanous fabric suspended from a single point above. A form stirs within.

"Father," calls Bahram. "The new doctor is here."

"Very good," replies a voice from the bed, reedy and bright. "Bring him around to me, Bahram."

Abrams feels his guts lurch in sudden dread. His imagination reels, presenting him with image after image conjuring the various kinds of horror that might lurk behind the veil. If what Bahram tells him is true, he is prepared to accept that anything might await him. A Frankenstein's monster, a repugnant mutant, or someone merely sallow, sick and sad.

Abrams suppresses a gasp.

Sitting in the bed, propped up by pillows, is a little old man with cocoa skin, a pot belly and a small red hat. "Hallo!" he smiles.

"Highness," says Abrams with a bow of the head. And then, after an uncomfortable pause, he adds, "I like your fez."

The Shah's eyes dart upward, as if he might see his own hat. "This, Dr. Abrams, is what is known as a cahouk. It is very special to me, as I the last of the Mamluks. Thank you for your compliment." He looks over at Bahram and snaps, "Go to bed!"

Bahram steps closer. "I will, Father, I promise. I only have to tend to the --"

The Shah raises a hand and Bahram falls silent. "Your health does not belong to you," he says crisply. "Mind your duty and protect it as you should. There is no argument. Go now."

Bahram bows, turns on heel, and strides across the chamber to sweep past the blind Saqaliba guards. Seconds later the zipper zings. Abrams turns to face his host, who is putting aside a tray of tea. Beside his pillow are yesterday's international newspaper editions spread in a fan of chronicles, heralds, times, journals and posts.

The Shah wears a neatly cropped white Van Dyke beard and a nightshirt with a napkin tucked into the collar. He is missing his right arm. The shoulder is bandaged. He favours the area when he moves.

"Highness, you're injured."

"I'm healing. And call me Hasan."

Abrams sniffs. "Morris," he says, and then places his bag on the bed and opens the clasp. "And I'm examining you anyway. Since when does a patient know from healing?"

The Shah smiles. "Feel free, my new friend."

Abrams puts a stethoscope around his neck and looks up inquiringly. The Shah untucks his napkin and spreads the top of his nightshirt to present his chest. Between the little curls of white hair the skin is crisscrossed by scars. Abrams listens to the heart and lungs, then measures the blood pressure. He unvelcroes the cuff and puts the sphygmomanometer aside, then uses his own bare fingers to check the pulse in a few locations. He snaps on a pin-light, screws on an oto-opthalmoscopic head and looks into the Shah's eyes, and then his white-tufted ears. "Say ah."

"Ah," says the Shah.

"You have contusions on your neck," mumbles Abrams around the pin-light jammed into his mouth. He gently probes the area. "Is this tender?"

The Shah winces. "Not very."

"What happened to you?"

"I was thrashed with my own arm after it was torn from its socket."

Abrams pauses, blinks, then slowly removes the pin-light from his mouth and clicks it off. "Who would do such a thing?"

The Shah shrugs. "A friend of mine." He pauses, then shrugs again and smiles haplessly. "I suppose it's fair to say we're not on the best of terms right now, he and I. Such things are unavoidable in the long run -- c'est la vie, et cetera and tra la la."

Abrams raises his brow and offers an apologetic half smile. "Hasan, I'm not sure if I want to be a friend of yours."

It's quiet for a moment. Abrams doesn't dare blink.

The Shah giggles. "I can already tell how much I'm going to like you, Morris," he says.

Abrams unpeels the layers of bandaging from around the Shah's shoulder. He picks up his pin-light again and snaps it on to examine the site of the trauma critically. The clean up work is precise and professional, the wound healing nicely with good colour and odour. The bandages are fresh. Abrams doesn't look up as he says, "You're being well looked after. This is good work. I wouldn't worry."

The Shah nods.

Abrams recovers the wound, then straightens with a quiet grunt, rolling his shoulders to adjust his back. It cracks and he sighs happily. "How long ago did this happen?" he asks, replacing his tools in the medical bag.

The Shah glances over at an ornate, clockwork calendar ticking on a shelf above his pillows, squinting at the panoply of gauges. "Three days, less an hour."

Abrams freezes, hand hovering over the edge of his bag. He looks up slowly, brow crinkled. "I'm sorry, Highness -- I've misheard you?"

"You haven't," says the Shah. "It's been seventy-one hours since the unpleasantness."

Abrams takes a breath, cocking his head sceptically as he frowns. "I'm not sure any man can heal like this in three days, Hasan. There's no inflammation. I can barely see any evidence of fibrillar collagen in the granulation matrix -- it's almost totally obscured by new Type I growth. And you want to tell me your body did this in seventy hours?" Abrams shakes his head. "You're having me on, nu? You want to play games with me for some reason." His eyes narrow and he slaps his own knee with emphasis. "Nobody grows Type I collagen that fast. It's not a matter of relative health, it's a matter of violating the laws of chemistry."

The Shah grins. Abram's befuddlement seems to somehow entertain him. "Why do you say that, Morris?"

Abrams spreads his hands in appeal. "These things happen in a specific sequence! When the body detects damage it responds with a tightly linked series of chemical events, each successive stage building on the last. Alright, I can buy that a very healthy man might show mature granular tissue growth in three days, okay, but that's just a scaffolding -- the cellular factories have to get up to speed, too. And I'll tell you, union or no union, it's going to take a hundred hours to even start rolling out the first molecules of Type I collagen."

The Shah nods. His eyes gleam. "What if the collagen could be prebuilt and stored in crystalline form until needed?"

Abrams shrugs. "It's a great idea but it just isn't how animals work. I'm not sure where one is supposed to direct suggestions like that. Prayer, maybe?"

"That is how my body works," says the Shah. "But rest assured that your understanding of the usual mechanisms is not flawed. I know that Bahram has told you: I am not a usual man. I have been tweaked, as my engineers say."

"Tweaked?" echoes Abrams, baffled.

"Modified," clarifies the Shah.

"What do you mean by that, modified?"

"Improved."

Abrams experiences a twinkling of gooseflesh across his shoulders and down his arms. His shirt feels too tight. He whispers, "How can that be?"

"My fate is in equal communication with both Allah and the Devil."

Abrams licks his lips. "Oh yeah? And who do you listen to?"

The Shah closes his eyes as he takes a breath, then casts his gaze at the glass ceiling. "I look only to the light," he says softly. "Ever the light, my friend."

Abrams shifts, but says nothing.

The Shah blinks and turns to him. "I've been in this bed too long, Morris. Will you help me up? I want to dip my feet in the water."

Abrams obeys, grunting as he takes the man's weight. The Shah slips off the edge of the bed and straightens slowly with a sigh. He is very short. He looks down at his nightshirt and then looks up again with an apologetic shrug. "You'll have to forgive my attire. I tend toward the informal whenever I'm recovering from a major injury."

"This happens to you often?"

"Often is a relative term," argues the Shah. "In the long run, everything happens. But it's trifles, just trifles. I'll be right as rain soon enough."

"Sure. Who needs two arms?"

"Exactly right, my friend, exactly right. One cannot unspill milk. C'est la vie, et cetera and tra la la."

The Shah pads over to the moat cut into the floor and gingerly sits down at its edge. He dangles his feet into the gentle clockwise current, wincing and then giggling at the water's coolness. He wiggles his toes. "Why don't you join me, Morris? It's divine."

Abrams hesitates. "Highness, you don't want anything to do with my shoes coming off. It embarrasses me to have to tell you this, but, I have...an issue with foot odour. I use powder, wear special insoles, the whole nine yards -- but, still."

The Shah waves dismissively. "C'est la vie, et cetera and tra la la. Sit down with me now, Morris."

Abrams makes a face, shrugs, then sits down on the smooth marble and unties his shoes, then peels off his socks. "I'm sorry," he says quickly.

The Shah sniffs and rolls his eyes. "I'm not bothered by the smell of people. It reminds me of simpler times."

Abrams slips his hairy feet into the moat. Tiny balls of lint from his socks wash loose, tumbling through the current and away around the tree looming over the two men. They are quiet together for a few moments. Birds chitter.

Abrams clears his throat. "Can I ask you this, Hasan? What's the vehicle for your...improvements? If I were to believe this for a minute, and I'm not saying I do, the first thing I'd want to know is how different are your cells from mine? I mean, no offense, but are you a human being, even?"

The Shah seems tickled to be asked. "Well," he gushes happily, "it's taken me an enormous amount of time to get to the bottom of it. It wasn't until the seventeenth century that, with Hooke's stalwart assistance, I first gleaned that the nature of my anomaly might be inspected and quantified."

"Hooke? Robert Hooke, Hooke? The Father of Microscopy, Hooke?"

The Shah smiles. "He preferred to be called Bob."

"Of course he did. And why not?"

"Observing them was challenging, naturally, because they dissolve instantly upon being separated from my living tissues --"

Abrams raises a hand to interrupt. "Wait, wait -- what dissolve?"

"The animacules," says the Shah brightly, rolling his ankles under the water. "Microscopic clockworks, folded protein machines that populate my body and extend its operational parameters, living alongside and within my natural cells, assisting in and augmenting their powers."

Abrams swallows. "With all respect, I'm not sure I can believe that."

"You're not expected to," replies the Shah breezily. "We're just talking, you and I."

"But you can prove this?"

"You will prove it to yourself," says the Shah. "You will have leave to take any samples of my biota you wish, and you can test them personally in the palace medical wing. My staff will assist you in the use of any device or diagnostic technique you might require in order to quell every corner of your scepticism. You will, Morris, see it with your own eyes. Until then, however, I beg your indulgence in order to keep our conservation together moving ahead."

Abrams lets out a long breath. "Where does it go from here?"

"You'll want to know how I came to exist this way, and the answers will rouse your curiosity to ask after my plans and motivations. Ultimately I hope to assure you that my cause is worth fighting for, and that you will agree to come into my service."

Abrams laughs, then spreads his hand again. "Okay, alright, I'll bite. Imagine I just asked you those questions. I've got no shoes on -- who am I to pretend at dignity?"

The Shah nods. His smile fades as his gaze melts, unfocused, into the current of water sliding around their immersed feet. "There are some in this world, Morris, who are loath to die. I am just one of them. There are others. Not as many as there used to be, but some still persist." He dips his fingers into the water, watching the eddies curl around them in response. "When I first realized that I was different -- when my nieces and nephews aged and died before my unwilling eyes -- I embarked on a mission of sin. I won't bother denying it to you, Morris. I fornicated and slaughtered, ate and drank and laughed, razed and ruined. I was a living nightmare, and my desires were my master."

"Being young isn't always pretty," notes Abrams.

"I believed I had been wrought by the hand of Allah, but I was bitter because I had been charged with no mission, no focus for my endless wakefulness. I had been made a monster and abandoned among men to guess at my purpose. On that account I railed against goodness, in effect daring Allah to confront me...or simply to punish me. I craved damnation. Even the most backhanded acknowledgement would have filled my aching void."

"So what changed?"

The Shah is quiet for moment, his eyes closed in recollection. "One day I encountered the artifact -- a golem, if you will. Though it was severely damaged, it was able to communicate to me the opportunity my role presented."

Abrams shakes his head. "Let me get this straight -- you spoke with a golem? A real, honest to God, golem?"

"He would not call himself that. Nor would he call himself precisely a robot, which is another term we might be tempted to use for a complex mechanical system in the shape of a man who has the power to speak his own mind."

"So what would he call himself, this not-a-golem, not-a-robot?"

"Jeremiah," says the Shah.

"Jeremiah? Are you going to tell me now there are robots in the Torah? Because my uncle tried that one, right before he went to live at the hospital. You wouldn't believe the trouble we had with him after that, sexually harassing the nurses and stealing food from the cafeteria."

The Shah shrugs philosophically. "Maybe your uncle suspected the truth. All of the pieces are out there, for anyone to find. Sometimes I'm surprised it isn't common knowledge."

"What -- robots in the Torah?"

"No, that twenty thousand years of history pivot on a critical moment in the year two-thousand twelve that will decide the fate of the universe as we know it."

Abrams blinks, then slowly begins to nod. "You know, when you mentioned Allah and the Devil I should've counted on prophecy entering the story sooner or later."

The Shah smirks darkly. "This is no mere prophecy," he says. "This is science."

"Sure," agrees Abrams with a careless shrug. "Everybody's got a method. My wife? Don't get me started. She's meshugeneh for astrology. It's all rising this and setting that, rays of Narnia dominant over the influence of Neverland in the House of Krypton. For the life of me I can never keep it straight."

"You're teasing me," says the Shah. "I'm delighted. We've watched you for so long. I was certain from the start I would like you."

"I am teasing you. About suggesting that you've kept me under watch for years, I've got nothing. It's a little too creepy for teasing. I don't know what to say to that. It's my first time having to take for serious something that should be movie dialogue, maybe. Do you use agents in black cars or is it more of a spiritual surveillance kind of thing?"

"There are some agents in black cars," nods the Shah, "but for the most part it's researchers in black chairs."

"That's sufficiently Orwellian," concedes Abrams, rubbing his bearded chin. "Who could complain? It's star treatment. So, what have your nefarious librarians learned? That my son is a frothing Zionist who won't talk to me and I can't seem to help but vote for reprobates?"

"That, given the state of your cancer, you will shortly be uninsurable as a medical practitioner; that, given your dedication to Medecins Sans Frontieres, you are a man whose efforts might be motivated by a noble cause; and finally, that you are knowledgeable, skilled, and sociologically open-minded."

Abrams is startled. He takes a shaky breath and frowns. "Given the state of my cancer," he echoes, "I couldn't be of much use to you for very long."

"Long enough," says the Shah. "Your responsibility will be to train a younger man."

"And then in sixty years you'll do it over again?"

"No. The man you will be teaching has been augmented."

"He's like you?"

"No, he's like Bahram. Only one in a million are genetically compatible to inherit a dwarfed form of my legacy, and from those only a select few are immunologically compatible to play host to my animacules." The Shah sighs, kicking his feet gently in and out of the water. "They last a few centuries. Not as long as I'd like, but long enough to help...long enough to gain the necessary perspective." He wipes at his eye. "I can't tell you how desperately I wish they lasted longer. But c'est la vie, et cetera and tra la la."

Abrams falls silent. A brace of colourful birds swoop over the moat and then flap back up to the glass ceiling. The sky is very blue. The birds' existence is a generous but limited simulation of freedom.

"The artifact told me," continues the Shah, "that I was designed by the Devil."

"By Satan?"

"By a witch, to be precise. I would call anyone with the power to act against Allah a devil."

"How can you tell if someone's acting against Allah?"

"If there is one province of existence that is incontestably the domain of Allah and Allah alone," says the Shah, "it is time and events -- the succession of phenomena from one state to the next. It is this primordial impetus, this direction of flow, that gives rise to all causality."

"Aristotle's Prime Mover," contributes Abrams.

The Shah chuckles. "Aristotle was an asshole. When I find him in the afterlife I have some lessons to administer, and I'll tell you frankly he won't be happy about it." He shakes his head. "My point, Morris, is that any force of will that fetters the passage of history is acting against Allah -- against natural consequence, and ordained causality."

"How does one detect that? How can you tell these so-called natural consequences from unnatural ones?"

"Time," explains the Shah, "is a fluid. It is inherently amorphous, shaped by the topography through which it passes, gushing inexorably toward an attractor whose shape dictates its flow. That attractor is comprised of the laws of physics, created by Allah with all history as its goal." He points down at the current swirling around their immersed feet. "Look at the water, Morris. Were you a blind thing who lived in this stream, could you avoid colliding with my ankle?"

Abrams frowns. "A blind thing?" He squints at the undulating surface. "I'm not sure."

"Notice then," lectures the Shah, "how the flow of the current is perturbed in the vicinity of my legs. If you were a creature attuned to the stream, would you not sense the disturbance?"

Abrams nods. "I see what you're getting at. Even before you get to our legs the shape of the surface changes -- there's a bowshock in front and a wake behind. Am I good student or what?"

"You are a good student," confirms the Shah. "You lack only one crucial detail: the detection of disturbances in time is not so difficult as feeling the bowshock. It is, instead, a matter of feeling the wake."

"How's that?"

"Because, despite our human perceptions and cognitive idioms, the flow of time is not from past to future."

Abrams snaps his head over to stare at his host. "What?"

"Time," presses the Shah, "is drawn irresistibly by the primal attractor to flow from future to past. In short, my friend, we experience history backwards." He points to the water again. "To detect disturbances we don't need to attune ourselves to the subtle lip of surface tension at the bowshock. No, instead, we catalogue the eddies and splash of the turbulent wake -- the signature of interference that defies time's homeostasis, and scars the orderly passage of events."

Abrams chews his lower lip thoughtfully. "How would such eddies manifest themselves? What would one look for?"

"Distortions of probability," answers the Shah, gaze locked on Abrams. "Violations of likelihood, perverting the outcome of chance."

"And these are apparent to you somehow?"

"They would be apparent to anyone who cares to spend a thousand years flipping coins."

"Oh, sure. Let me just get out my daytimer."

The Shah laughs and claps Abrams on the shoulder with his good arm, then takes a hold of his bicep and squeezes it emphatically as he hisses, "There is no craft in the world that could make me this way. There are no secret laboratories capable of morphological manipulation on this scale. There are no underground facilities where such complex programmes are encoded into the orbits of electrons. There exists no spell that could conjure me."

"So who made you, Hasan? Little green witches from space?"

The Shah laughs again, letting his arm drop. He scoops up a palmful of water and watches it rain through his short, brown fingers. "My genesis is not alien to our space, my friend -- no, only alien to our time. The words of the artifact have proven it to me, but there is more. This war that I am in the midst of -- this terrible struggle to own the power at the heart of time's disturbance -- straddles millennia. Half is fought in prehistory, half in the centuries to come. We, Morris, sit here with our feet in the water, just a little over a decade from the fulcrum upon which it will all be decided."

"And what is this fulcrum?"

"It is a science as yet uninvented, a system of numeracy the effects of whose calculations reverberate through reality itself." The Shah pauses significantly. "It is known as the Veiled Computations, and it is the native tongue of Allah. Its algorithms give shape to all there has ever been, or ever will be."

"'In the beginning, there was the Word...'"

He nods with a grunt. "Its discovery was inevitable, given a sufficient span," continues the Shah, eyes roaming the leaves above him. "In this past little while, these past few centuries, as the world has awakened and ignited I would know, even without my proofs, that the time is nigh. Hooke's Royal Society galvanized an international movement of collaborative research, accelerating the pace of knowledge acquisition and cataloguing to a flurry. In a blink we pass from steam to electromagnetism -- another decade goes by and men are looking to split the atom. And now what? Artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic modification, quantum computing...in such an environment of aggressive discovery, how long could the Word stay hidden?"

"And you believe this...science of the Word -- these Veiled Computations -- underlie your miraculous animacules?"

"I know it," says the Shah.

"And now, what? You want to make sure it all plays out the way you've been told it should -- you want to preserve and defend the moment that makes your life possible?"

"No," says the Shah firmly. "No, not at all. You don't understand. I am a pawn, my friend, a pawn in a black game. But the artifact has changed the rules, by making me aware that I am a pawn. I cannot see the board from my humble vantage, but I know the will that propels me acts to pollute the purity of Allah's history. I know that that ambition cannot be allowed to succeed." He turns to Abrams, his face grave. "I have sworn that come Hell or high water, I shall see my queen frustrated."

"So you want to stop the discovery of the Word?" guesses Abrams.

He shakes his head. "Impossible. The apple has already been eaten. There is no going back. Humanity marches unswervingly into full knowledge, for good or for ill. Civilization cannot be put back in its cage, or induced to regress without mutilation. It, too, desires life. It would defend itself against pruning, and would automatically reroute around censure. Information, too, is a fluid. C'est la vie, et cetera and tra la la."

Abrams sags. "So I give up. What's your big plan, Hasan?"

"Shortly after the human genesis of the Veiled Computations, the science is fractured, its elements disguised. For want of a better term a safe subset of its tools will be distilled and released to open research; the better part will be camouflaged, encoded and hidden, kept by uncorruptable guardians for a day when humanity's collective wisdom is ready to wield it, or when wielding it is our only option against certain doom...whichever comes first." The Shah leans back on his good elbow, kicking lazily in the pool. "Is that the best solution, a perfect solution? I can't pretend to know. But I'll tell you this, Morris: the alternative is worse. The alternative is unthinkable. The alternative is the victory of my Lady, in which she uses the power of the Veiled Computations to elevate herself as a false god, and detonates the Sun to harness its energy to recarve the laws of physics according to her own perverse design."

Abrams cocks his head. "She wants to be God."

"Yes. And I, and my kind, have been wrought to realize that end." He sighs. "We are sick things. We are wrong. We should never have been. But I have been awakened, and I am compelled to act. The Word must be cleaved and compartmentalized. And I will see it done. There is no proper term for what I am, but I promise you what I will become: an instrument of Allah, and a reasonable facsimile of a good man."

Abrams raises his brow. "No proper term? Are you kidding me?" he asks.

The Shah looks genuinely puzzled. "What do you mean, Morris?"

Abrams shakes his head. "You're telling me you're some kind of technologically-enhanced superman with blood filled with nanites from the future, on a mission to save the universe, and you think there's no name for that?"

The Shah blinks.

"Have you never in your life read a comic book, Hasan?" he asks, his expression an inscrutable mix of amusement and gravity. "My friend, you are a cyborg."

This hangs in the air between the two men for a moment. A telephone rings, startling them both. It is a crimson telephone, resting on a pedestal next to the bed. The peal of its rattling bells is very loud. There is a sudden rustling as a horde of birds flee the chamber, making for quieter and more distant wings of the Shah's apartments.

Abrams helps the Shah to his feet and then the little fellow scampers over to the pedestal leaving a trail of wet prints, feet slapping on the marble. Abrams follows him and then sits down on the edge of the bed. The Shah depresses a button on the crimson telephone. It illuminates and a voice sounds from the speaker grille: "Your grace, you have an urgent voice communication from Windsor. Hash check confirmed."

The Shah's eyes widen. "Put it through in here, please." The speaker crackles and then the hiss of international telephony comes on the line. The Shah clears his throat. "This is Anwar."

A crisp, British voice: "Your Highness, please hold the line for Her Royal Majesty."

"Yes, of course."

A click, a change in background noise. "Hasan, are you there?"

"Betsy? What's wrong?"

Abrams does a double-take, staring between the barefoot Shah in his nightshirt and the gleaming red telephone. As he hears the familiar, regal tone issuing from the speaker he feels suddenly rude and uncouth sitting on a bed with rolled up trousers and dripping toes. He stands. He feels it is the least he can do in the presence of the voice of a monarch.

Elizabeth hurriedly continues, "New York has come under attack, Hasan. Have you seen the television?"

The Shah frowns. "No, my dear. What's the situation?"

"The artifact has been stolen!"


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