In the Shah's country, at the heart of the Shah's city, nestled in the most secure chamber of the Shah's palace, six top generals and their aides convene around a dodecagonal conference table of solid black opal, their faces reflected as inky ghosts trapped inside its polished surface. Hanging from the ceiling above them is a humming video projector; splashed over the wall before them is a dizzying array of graphs, flow-charts and maps.
The windows are shaded. The air slowly churns with cigar smoke.
"The question is," continues the speaker, "how much do they know? Next slide, please. Our best intelligence had posited the possession of Jamijama codices twenty through twenty-nine, but a review of more recent activity indicates that their copy of the twenty-ninth codex may be incomplete. Current operations suggest no knowledge of the tenth stanza of codex twenty-nine, which may play to our advantage if combined with a careful infusion of psyop misdirection."
The Shah nods from his high-backed chair, adjusting the gold-rimmed spectacles that sit on his nose. "Very good, General. Design a campaign. I would like to review it before the end of the week."
"We have a psyop team developing the programme now, Highness."
"Excellent. And what of the possibility of collusion?"
The general flips through a dossier handed to him by his aide. "The Secret Church of Heindel's Law has a complete copy of twenty-nine, Highness, but we estimate the risk of collusion as low. The Heindelites and the Hubbardians have a long-standing feud still in progress -- cooperation between them would be unthinkable at this point in time." He looks up from the dossier. "Victory is a more imminent threat, Highness. The Hubbardian objective seems to be to bleed the Heindelites by a thousand small wounds inflicted via a concerted payload of civil legal actions."
The Shah rasps the white whiskers on his chin thoughtfully. "What is your recommendation, General? Shall we shore up the Heindelite defense?"
The general hesitates. "The numbers aren't with us, Highness. My recommendation is to annihilate the Heindelites and thus remove them from the equation entirely."
"What about a tactical strike on their secret library?"
"With respect, we could not ensure containment that way. The Heindelites have a long history of employing hypnosis to encode fragments of critical data across a sampling of followers." The general leans forward, his hands folded before him. "If the objective is to nullify this threat, Highness, there is simply no alternative: the entire congregation must be purged."
The Shah is silent for a moment, staring at the graphs over the general's head. At last he sighs and says, "So be it, General. Silence them all."
When the generals have concluded they file out of the chamber, replaced within the minute by a retinue of scientists and engineers. They shuffle their papers and clear their throats as they take seats. The video projector flashes error blue for a moment before engaging the new package of material. The projection on the wall glows orange with a vista of rusty, rocky terrain.
The Shah bids the project leader to begin.
"Ahem, thank you. Highness, ladies and gentlemen. Ahem. As of fourteen hundred hours GMT yesterday our group has completed Phase Seven, successfully landing a team of six new specialists at Camp Alpha. They will be proceeding today with the initiation of Phase Eight by assembling and testing launch vehicles for our second stage global telemetry project. We anticipate completion of this next phase within five months, with full functionality of the new satellite network following over the course of two to six weeks thereafter. Once fully operational, our interorbital coverage will be one hundred five percent of field, nineteen times out of twenty, for timescales exceeding four hours."
"What about the American survey mission?"
"We have arranged a sabotage, Highness. The JPL vehicle will never reach orbit."
When the scientists and engineers retire they are replaced by a team of academics. "Highness, we have identified a candidate at Peking University in Beijing, name of Wong Lee Chen, twenty-four years old, currently developing a promising theory under the auspices of Professor Yao involving a novel method of automated set analysis. My man in Asia says the theory has remarkable depth."
"Is the boy one of ours?"
"Not yet, Highness."
"Get him a scholarship. Filter his contacts. Keep me apprised."
The Shah takes lunch on the western patio. He's still wearing his gold-rimmed spectacles, peering through them to ply passages of Nazik Al-Malaika's free verse, his fork a paperweight to keep the book open beside the plate. The loose edges of the pages flutter in the seabreeze.
He eats beef wrapped in grape-leaves. He washes it down with mango. Despite the affectation of insisting that his place be set in the Western style, his utensils remain clean. The Shah uses only his right hand.
After lunch he takes a brisk constitutional through the gardens, his guards diffused around him at a respectful distance. He kneels to sniff a bed of cymbidium orchids.
His next appointment is with Dr. Abrams. He hops up on the examination bed, the crisp paper crunching under his thighs. He unbuttons his shirt awkwardly, then peels it away to expose his scar-crossed cocoa chest under a layer of white hair. Dr. Abrams strides in a moment later. "How's the arm today, Hasan?"
The Shah stretches out his right arm, the gears clicking quietly. Dr. Abrams leans in close to the straps and cup at the shoulder. He unzips a small pocket that allows him to more closely examine the points of connection between the Shah's flesh and the woven graphite superstructure. The Shah says, "It feels fine. I think it's getting smarter."
Abrams sniffs. "It's you that's getting smarter, my friend. The arm is an idiot. Your nervous system, on the other hand? It's adapting well."
Using a small rubber mallet he taps the flexors and extensors of the Shah's wrist and times the responses. He puts the mallet and his stopwatch aside and makes a note in the Shah's thick file. "Reflex times continue to shorten," reports Abrams. "Your body, it never ceases to amaze."
"You give too little credit to the arm, Morris. It's pure genius."
"It's metal and clay. That's not the kind of engineering that turns my crank. Have you seen the arms that God makes? Now that's genius."
"It's a Zhang," presses the Shah. "Molecular kinaesthetic memory, realtime generation of proprioceptive stimulus, direct ulnar messaging -- all without the benefit of silicon electronics. This, Morris, is a feat of engineering that should turn anyone's crank. Atomic clockworks, arranged to perfection by a master."
Dr. Abrams waves this off. "I don't go in for gizmos, Hasan. What can I say?"
The Shah rolls his eyes. "You're a mule, my friend. Thomas Zhang is one of the most gifted artisans I have ever met in all my long days. His creations are no mere gizmos."
"Well, if my arm is lost then maybe I'll rouse some interest. Until then, it's only your stump that matters to me. Call me old fashioned, I like things with a little blood in them. It gives body parts a homey feel."
"You're a ghoul, Morris."
Abrams looks at him askance but says nothing for a moment as he draws a fresh rubber glove from the dispenser on the wall. "Now let's have a look at that prostate."
Abrams pulls on the glove and snaps it into place. "We must. You know, when a cyborg reaches a certain age..."
"Oh, don't even start, Morris."
Abrams chuckles as he applies lubricant to his gloved index finger. "Drop your shorts and roll over on your side. And try not to clench, Highness."
The Shah sighs and does as he is told.
Twenty minutes later he is at his desk, ringed by a cadre of Indian accountants with their round glasses, prim vests, quaint ties and light suits. The Shah listens to their reports with his chin propped up in one cupped hand, fighting to keep yawns at bay. When the time comes he cracks his knuckles, takes up a pen and signs a stack of proffered cheques with a centuries-old flourish. "Sign here, Your Highness, and here," narrates the clerk. "And initial here, please. And here."
Next comes the security review. A chamber maid needs to be fired, and the Shah is presented with a report indicating she has had little or no exposure to sensitive projects. "She can live," he decides. "Escort her to the gates. Total surveillance for six months, peripheral surveillance for nine."
As one group leaves another enters. Footfalls echo throughout his apartments. Everything the Shah says is studiously written down. The pages are dated, annotated, censored, copied, and finally marked for shredding. So many days, so much the same.
"Shall I send for your coffee now, Highness?"
He smiles broadly when his next appointment arrives. He stands up and comes around his desk to kiss her pale hand. "Dr. Hallow, a pleasure as always," says the Shah. "Please, let's not sit in this office any longer. Won't you join me on the balcony?"
"My papers might blow away, Shah."
"Leave your papers behind, then. If it isn't important enough to remember than it isn't important at all."
"I don't have your memory, of course."
"It won't be the end of the world if something is missed today to be made up tomorrow. C'est la vie, et cetera and tra la la. Besides, you would be obliged to come back and I'll enjoy the company of a lovely young lady again."
"I'm not so young anymore, Shah."
He snorts. "Young enough. Come -- won't you walk with me, Elizabeth?"
The afternoon is cooling. A bank of grey, water-heavy cumulonimbi are rearing up over the sea, the tips flattening and smearing at the tropopause. The breeze brings the smell of rain. From the horizon, thunder rumbles.
The Shah and Dr. Hallow stroll out to the balcony's edge, the palace gardens spread out before them. She eyes the clouds. "We might have to retreat before too long."
He shakes his head. "It's a sea storm. It shan't come inland, my dear."
"You sound so sure."
"I've watched many storms from this balcony. One gets to know their character. A thousand tiny factors conspire to keep the thunderheads off the coast in May, and I'm sure my meteorologists study each of them. Myself, however, I simply smell the wind and watch the whorls. Heuristics over statistics." He smiles grimly and turns to her. "You've made a finding?"
She nods, adjusts her glasses and passes a small notebook from one weathered hand to the other. "Codex ten, Shah. We've managed to corroborate the Korbanot Interpretation by cross-referencing the text with the new Solomon tablet your men recovered from the Rosicrucians."
The Shah's white brows rise. "And?"
"It's a man, Shah," Dr. Hallow declares in a serious tone. "The flesh-abacus is a man. A deformed man, to be specific. The Nazis used the Solomon numbers as a template to re-create the physical traits of the deformity in hopes of thereby re-creating the cognitive deformities that fulfill the abacus function."
"We've been through this. I think we've moved beyond mere speculation that Hitler hoped to hasten the prophecy's fruition by generating favourable conditions for this flesh-abacus to arise."
"True, Shah, true. Now we have their blueprint. Now we have the means to identify the flesh-abacus, should he ever actually arise. The pharmacologically-induced phocomelia is an attempt to draw out a symptom only, a signpost -- the real goal is an exceedingly rare disorder known as Somnianimus conscientia; the Nazis wanted a man with neither arms nor legs --"
"That much we've long ago established," interrupts the Shah impatiently.
"-- Who remains conscious throughout the sleep cycle," persists Dr. Hallow, raising her voice to continue over him. The Shah closes his mouth. Dr. Hallow leans in closer to him, speaking with whispered intensity: "You see, that's the key. We're talking about an individual with unfettered access to the raw calculatory power of his own subconscious. We're talking about a walking biological computer."
The Shah blinks slowly. "Somnianimus conscientia..." He pauses then, furrowing his brow. "We have intelligence that a pair of girls were born several years ago in Orissa, India -- a set of identical Untouchables with birth defects the local people consider divine in origin."
"Conjoined twins, fully fused, with a growth of abnormal corpus callosum-like tissue bridging the brains." He looks at Dr. Hallow significantly. "They say the girls are asleep and awake simultaneously."
Dr. Hallow's eyes widen. "This has been verified? Physicians have seen the girls?"
The Shah shakes his head. "The parents don't want doctors anywhere near. They're afraid someone will take their girls away. They believe they have been blessed, and through them, the world." He straightens. "Naturally, I have a team en route."
"Naturally," she says with a small smile. She takes off her glasses, polishes them, and put them back on. "What are the limbs like?"
"I would have to consult the report, my dear. I believe there is an extra arm -- shrunken, semi-functional."
She bites her lip. "I don't think that's our abacus. If codex ten is indeed our guide, then we've now established a very explicit qualification for 'he who is called by the hidden calendar' -- no natural limbs. In light of the Solomon tablet this is no longer a question, but one of our firmest and most specific leads."
"You're certain, Elizabeth?"
She nods primply. "You pay me to be certain, Shah. I'm a scientist first. Personally, I don't mind telling you that I've never been fully convinced that any of this is necessarily true -- what I do know, however, is that a thread of internal consistency can be teased out of the source material. If the prophecy is a fiction, I can detail for you what shape that fiction ought to take. That's it. And I'm telling you now, the flesh-abacus has a preternatural continuity of consciousness, is very likely male, and is certainly limbless."
As the Shah considers this the sound of hurried footfalls begins to echo from within his apartments. Dr. Hallow turns to the doorway. Bahram runs out to them, slows as he crosses the balcony, then leans into the railing to catch his breath. "Father!" he gasps.
"What is it?" cries the Shah, touching his shoulder with graphite fingers.
Bahram straightens and faces him, his chest still working to capture more air. Between breaths he manages to say, "We've found him!"
Dr. Hallow frowns. "The flesh-abacus?"
"No," cries Bahram. "The author!" The sun has disappeared behind the thunderheads as they drift west. A country of shadow bleeds over the city, over the palace gardens, over the balcony.
The Shah staggers backward, his eyes very wide. "Bahram -- can it really be?"
"The author of what?" demands Dr. Hallow.
A halo of sunshine, the rays tinted by moisture, wreaths the anvil cloud over the sea and casts a strange, unearthly light on Nuribad. Distant thunder mutters. "The author of the Veiled Computations," replies the Shah heavily. "The man who lives at the crux of everything my entire long life has been about." He wheels on Bahram. "The details, boy. Now."
Bahram nods wearily, wiping sweat from his brow. "He's a Serbian mathematician, one of ours. His name is Drago Tesla Zoran, and his latest paper is...remarkable. More than remarkable. Frightening."
"Zoran..." the Shah echoes thoughtfully.
"We started funding him while he was at Budapest, Father. He showed middling promise -- an unusual character, gifted but erratic. He rode one of our scholarships to Canada where he's been collaborating with Dr. John J. Felix at McGill. We decided to move in for closer scrutiny when their team began registering patents at a very intense rate beginning eighteen months ago. And now...this."
The Shah reaches out to take the publication Bahram has produced from the inside pocket of his cream suit. It is the current issue of the American Journal of Mathematics. The Shah unrolls it and then flips through to a marked page. The article is headlined: THE ACTUALIZATION OF ALGORITHMIC ARTEFACTS VIA VIRTUAL PARTICLE PROBABILITY SHEARING -- An analysis of non-passive information constructs and their effects on waveform collapse; D.T. Zoran, J.J. Felix, et al.
Dr. Hallow scans the abstract over his shoulder, then looks up. "What does it mean, Bahram?"
Thunder rumbles again, closer now. "It means that this man, this Zoran, is on the cusp of learning how to directly manipulate spacetime with mathematics," replies Bahram. "In short, he claims it is possible to describe events with a form of numeracy so akin to the qualities of spacetime itself that the universe doesn't know the difference."
The sun vanishes behind a wall of cloud again. Dr. Hallow shivers. "I'm sorry?"
"Events described by such a system," explains the Shah with slow emphasis, his eyes burning and reverent, "would be indistinguishable from real events. In this way a numerical fiction could become fact. With it, we could speak the very language of Allah himself."
"It's a trick," claims Bahram. "It's a trick that fools even God. What Dr. Zoran is suggesting is that the laws of physics can be hacked -- that we might induce the universe to run programmes of our own design."
The Shah nods solemnly. "The very essence of the Veiled Computations, summed." He reaches out and touches Bahram's shoulder again, his brow sloped in concern. "Could it be coincidence?"
Bahram shakes his head firmly. "There's more, Father. You'll recall, of course, our campaign to collate data on unusual events in the hopes of capturing a sample of warps in probability directly affected by the genesis of the full set..."
"Yes, of course."
"One of them has found something," says Bahram, withdrawing a paper from his pocket and unfolding it to reveal a map of the North American continent. "The spots marked in red are events our operative has investigated; the blue regions represent areas in which he believes investigations will soon be warranted..."
The Shah draws a shallow breath. "It's an interference pattern."
"Yes, it is. And enough of the pattern has been filled in to make forecasts possible." He taps the page with one manicured brown finger. "The zone in green shows the extrapolated origin of the pattern."
The Shah and Dr. Hallow both squint at the map. Dr. Hallow looks up at Bahram. "Those lakes...they're astroblemes?"
"Yes. Current geological opinion puts the impacts in the Permian. Both impacts are imagined to be have been simultaneous -- a binary meteor, possibly a result of an atmospheric break-up, possibly a co-orbital pair. The respective ejecta blankets have comparable content and structure. But it isn't the craters that caught my attention."
The Shah hands off the map to Dr. Hallow. "What caught your attention?"
Bahram clears his throat. "It just so happens that McGill University operates a geological sciences station there at Lac a l'Eau Claire. It also just so happens that Dr. Zoran and Dr. Felix have just relocated their applied research facility...to Lac a l'Eau Claire."
The Shah turns pale. He reaches behind his back blindly, finds a chair and lets himself drop into it. His hands are shaking.
Dr. Hallow says, "Why would mathematicians be interested in a geology station?"
"I don't know," admits Bahram. Lightning flashes; thunder rolls.
The Shah is slowly shaking his head back and forth. "This is it," he whispers, then looks sharply to Bahram. "Endgame. After such a long, long time...this is it, my son."
Bahram hesitates, then nods. "I believe so, Father. Yes."
"Tell me about the man following this pattern. What is his name?"
"Mississauga, Sky Mississauga. I've met with him only once or twice. He's a former intelligence investigator with the Canadian government, now on contract with us."
"What do we provide him?"
"Next to nothing, as a matter of fact. Goodness knows I've offered -- even insisted -- but Mississauga is a stubborn, stubborn man. He's never accepted anything beyond a basic stipend to cover gasoline, food and tobacco. Last time I met with him he was driving around the country in an old schoolbus, eating canned soup. I told him that based on his results to date we'd be happy to equip him more adequately, but all he would ever say is, 'I'll manage.'"
"This is too important for pride. We absolutely must see this man Mississauga taken care of."
"There must be something we can do for him. Does he have any special needs?"
Bahram cocks his head as he considers this. "Well, he is handicapped, but he's loathe to even acknowledge that fact, let alone permit assistance."
The Shah shoots out his chair. "Handicapped? How?"
Bahram shrugs awkwardly, startled by the Shah's latest fervour. "He was a thalidomide baby, Father. Like hundreds of others born in the late nineteen sixties. He has no arms and no legs."
The Shah turns to look at Dr. Hallow. Her jaw has dropped open, and the tiny hairs all over her body have tensed to stand on end. "The flesh-abacus..." she mouths silently. The Shah nods.
Bahram shivers as he looks back and forth between the Shah and Dr. Hallow. "What?"
"The Jamijama," rasps the Shah, his mouth dry. "Codex ten. He who is called by the hidden calendar. A malformed man whose unique mind will catalyze the formation of the final set."
Lightning flashes, making the balcony and its occupants appear briefly ghost-like and blue. Bahram's face goes tight. He swallows. "Then I'm right. This is it." He looks to the Shah. "Endgame."
Thunder punches through the air. A curtain of rain sweeps out from the sea, its first drops pitting and patting on the balcony tiles. The Shah stares into it. Dr. Hallow wipes drops from her face. "I thought you said it wouldn't turn inland, Shah."
"There are so many more ways to be wrong than to be right," says the Shah without turning around. His voice sounds strained. Dr. Hallow notices that his shoulders are shaking.
"Shah, are you unwell?"
The Shah rubs his temples, then takes a breath as he slowly turns around. "Elizabeth, I must ask you to leave us." He reaches inside his jacket and withdraws a small key. He tosses it to his son. "Bahram, open my nightstand and bring me the envelope you find within the drawer."
They both hesitate until the Shah barks in an uncharacteristically harsh voice, "Move!"
Bahram returns alone to the balcony a moment later with a sealed Manila envelope. He hesitates on the threshold, uncertain whether he should allow the envelope to become wet. The rain is pouring down now, Nuribad cloaked behind shifting sheets of grey weather. Lightning flashes, silhouetting the Shah. "Father?"
"Take the package to your apartments," says the Shah, staring out into the storm. "Memorize the contents, then destroy it."
"But what is it, Father?"
The Shah turns around, water streaming down over his craggy face. "Protocol Four. Your instructions, in the event that I become compromised."
"What do you mean?"
The Shah's eyes narrow. "I was born Zoran's enemy, Bahram. I cannot be trusted. I do not know -- cannot know -- how or when I might be caused to serve that end. But I do know that it cannot -- must not -- come to pass." He gestures at the envelope. "This is the endgame, my son. Should something dark awaken within me and compel my will, you must know the signs to watch for and the codes that will confine me. These apartments will become my prison at your command." He swallows. "Should the need arise, do not hesitate."
"Father, I cannot --"
The Shah holds up a hand, rain running over his palm. "Do not hesitate," he says icily, his eyes locked on Bahram's. "This is more important than love."
Bahram grimaces but nods as he looks down at the envelope in his hand. "Yes, Father," he whispers.
"Send a thousand men to the New World," he continues, sounding suddenly more weary. "Use the shadow shipping network. Use the railroad if you have to. There must be no records, no paperwork, no stamped passports."
Bahram nods silently.
"And then, when the last of them is in place -- send a thousand more."
Thunder cuts off any response from Bahram. The Shah turns back to face his rainswept city, shoulder square and hands gripping the balcony's edge. Beyond him, bright forks of light connect the sea to the sky.
Bahram turns to go, but before he's crossed the threshold the Shah calls out, "And, there's something else..."
Bahram stops. "Yes?"
"This investigator of ours..." says the Shah, looking over his shoulder at his son.
"What about him?"
The Shah touches the slick hide of his artificial arm, fingers fondling the edges of the Zhang Workshop logo. "Talk to Zhang. Get Mississauga set up with some arms and legs."
The Shah turns back to face the oncoming storm.
Bahram slips the envelope inside his jacket. "Thy will be done," he says softly.