Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

On the Winds of the Rub' Al-Khali
    by Stephen Gaskell

On the Winds of the Rub' Al-Khali
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

. . . continued from issue 42 . . .

Part 2

Outside, dark bloated clouds had amassed. We'd only played three points when the first thick spots of rain fell. They felt warm against my skin.

"We better get in," Wai Tat said. "There's no such thing as a light shower here."

I didn't want to go back in, didn't want to go back to the lonely path that I was furrowing. "One more point?" It wouldn't change the game -- Wai Tat was already leading three-nothing.

"Okay, last point wins."

I played harder than I'd ever played for that point. Wai Tat would normally humor me a little, let me win the odd rally, but since the game hinged on this one point he didn't want to lose. The tennis ball tore around, a ragged yellow blur. Apart from the steady thrum of the rain, the only sounds were the squeak of the ring in the middle of the pole, and the low thud of our bats against ball. The ring edged higher, lower, then higher again. I was almost there.

Wai Tat scuffed his shot, and I had my chance. I pulled back my arm, tensed my muscles, and hit out.

The ball flew true, whacking against the communal lounge window with the string trailing behind. Several of the mathematicians looked up, and a couple wandered over to the window. They shook their heads disdainfully.

"I'll give you that," Wai Tat said. He was soaked, his shirt sodden and his hair slicked down against his cheeks. Streaks of mud laced the bottom of his trousers. "How about a game of go?"

"Go?"

"Come on. I'll teach you."

I headed in, happy not to be going back to the mathematics yet.

Go. Simple to learn. Hard to master. Not for me though. This wasn't like swing-ball. Somehow, I managed to beat Wai Tat straight off.

We sat in a corner of the lounge, both wearing dressing gowns, facing each other over a small square table. The go board was between us. Only white stones populated its surface, the black stones routed from the battlefield. 

"How?" Wai Tat blinked. "How did you do that?"

The rules were very straightforward. Each player took turns placing one of their stones on the board. If an unbroken line of a player's stones surrounded one or more of the other's, then the encircled stones were removed from the board. What I somehow understood immediately, was that certain patterns -- certain clusters of stones held more power than others. Also, I had an intuitive understanding of the relationship between the local skirmishes and the broader struggle. "I don't know. I just put my pieces where they felt right."

His gaze shifted from me, darted around the room. "No one helped you?"

"No."

"You're lying."

"As Allah is my witness," I said, pleading. "I didn't cheat." I didn't want to lose the one friend I'd made in this place.

"No one beats me at go." Wai Tat shook his head. "No one."

"Maybe I was lucky."

He let out a long breath, defeated. "People get lucky at games of chance. Not go."

I wanted to make him feel better, so I said, "I think maybe the object helped me."

"The object?"

I lowered my voice to a whisper, not wanting any of the others to overhear. Professor al-Wahab might disapprove. "Yes, the object." I explained as best I could what it had shown me.

Wai Tat stared into space for a while, then looked at me, eyes wide. "You're talking about the Minimal Boundary Problem!"

I shrugged. If I was I didn't know it.

Wai Tat swept all the white stones into their velvet-lined chest, folded up the board. "Let's have another game in my room."

I checked the time on my tablet. I still had another hour to prayers. "Okay."

"Great." He stood up, eager. "Perhaps you can help me improve my game."

The monsoon lasted for months.

Instead of playing swing-ball for a break, Wai Tat and I entertained ourselves with go or cards or puzzles. It reminded me of my days back in the desert when the men and women would gather round the campfire in the evenings, and I would make up riddles for them to solve. My favourite game was cracking the secret messages that Wai Tat would make up.

We always played in his room as this allowed us to talk about my experiences with the object. He agreed with Professor al-Wahab that I shouldn't be swayed by human mathematics, so he never ventured any of his own thoughts on the subjects, only asking me to elaborate further when he was unclear about some issue or other. I'm not sure he really understood, but he made extensive notes nonetheless.

I didn't talk to anyone else about my experiences, nor the fact that I discussed them with Wai Tat. The occasions when Dr. Cheng or Judith or Hilary Stamp asked about my progress grew more infrequent as my answers to their queries became more convoluted, less intelligible. I think they, as well as Professor al-Wahab, all thought that the little experiment that I represented had failed miserably.

I wondered why I hadn't been sent back to the desert.

I didn't mind though. I was happy with my life. I had food and shelter and a real friend.

And not only that.

Wai Tat's belief in me helped me as I built my magnificent fortress. Professor al-Wahab had been right. Mathematics was like creating an edifice, but you could only appreciate that once you had some perspective. Groundwork first, then supporting columns, then walls and so on. If one part of the structure wasn't right, then that could have disastrous repercussions later. Once the basic layout of a courtyard or a chamber had been established, then one could either move on to another part of the labyrinth construction or concentrate on the finer details of that area. Broad strokes or intricate designs?

I imagined my Byzantine creation was as far removed from Professor al-Wahab's standard Edifice as milk is different from honey. All I knew was that I was making something wonderful, a place where I could entertain myself for days and weeks and months on end as I traversed its Escher-like passages, marveled at its fractal architecture, and furnished its barren interior.

In short, I became devoted to the object.

Two years passed in this fashion. In my obsession with the object I barely noticed the air of resignation that pervaded the place. An Emeritus Professor from Oxford University went home, while Lukas took an offer of asylum in the United States. Nobody replaced them.

The U.N. presence at the site dwindled to less than a thousand soldiers, electorates in the civilized world unhappy that their servicemen and women were dying in meaningless skirmishes in the jungles of the D.R.C., when there were more important places for them to be: scouring the Caucasus mountains for mujhidn, protecting oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman from pirates, keeping the peace in a volatile Iran.

I learnt these facts from the heated arguments between Hilary Stamp and Dr. Cheng, or from the small black-and-white television that Professor Wheater had installed in our communal kitchen. For me, these events were just white noise for my stretched mind, like how I used to listen to the desert winds when I couldn't fathom a puzzle for the tribe.

Sometimes the rocket-happy Congolese guerillas would storm the outer sections of the compound, only to be forced back by the technologically-superior defensive forces. The danger was minimal, but one night a grenade landed near our block. It blew the swing-ball post into a mangled mess.

One day I came back from the object to find all the mathematicians crowded into the kitchen, a couple of them nestled in the doorway. I squeezed through, ducking beneath a couple of patched elbows, only wanting to get a glass of water. I'd been working on prime numbers -- Wai Tat had been urging me toward this area for months, and I'd finally relented -- and I wanted to clear my head.

Nobody was talking, all eyes on the television. I didn't even look at what they were watching. I grabbed a glass, reached over the sink, and twisted the cold tap. Lukewarm water sloshed noisily against a dirty plate.

"Shh!" somebody hissed.

I killed the flow of water to a trickle, filled my glass, and turned around. From where I stood I had an oblique angle onto the screen. I was taking my first sip, when I realized I was watching something horrific on the grainy feed. I tilted the glass back, stared at the jerky pictures of plumes of smoke rising over a glass skyline. The view was probably from a window in one of the skyscrapers. It reminded me of Riyadh. Below, small crab-like entities scuttled down the wide boulevards, firing missiles as they went. 

"Where is that?" I asked.

"China," Hilary Stamp said, not taking her eyes from the screen.

China? Who would attack China? Smart phages, bio-tanks, meme-machines -- China was forever parading its sophisticated weaponry to the world. A nation would have to be led by a megalomaniac lunatic to take on the communist behemoth.

Next to her I noticed Dr. Cheng was fiddling with his hands. He looked appalled -- but not angry.

"Who --"

"The bloody Chinese, of course. Dealing with civil unrest the only way they know how." Hilary pointedly stared in my direction. "Now, shut-up or go elsewhere, Ismail. I want to hear this."

"There's no need to speak to him like that, Hilary," Professor al-Wahab said calmly from the back of the room.

That only served to enrage her further. "How should I talk to him, Muhammad? Nestle him in cotton wool --"

"Hilary!"

"He's thirteen. He's old enough to know."

"Hilary, really. I must ask you to stop."

She didn't say anything more. On the TV the feed cut to a news studio. The presenter began asking questions to a smartly-dressed man who was introduced as a security analyst.

"What am I old enough to know, Professor?" I asked.

Professor al-Wahab shuffled past a couple of his colleagues. "Let's go somewhere more private, Ismail," he said, and left the kitchen.

Even all these years later -- even in this strange place -- there's very little that escapes my memory of my subsequent conversation with Professor al-Wahab. Other recollections -- of my time in the desert, or around the compound -- although true to the spirit of what happened, contain embellishments -- dramatic license if you will.

I hope you can forgive me that.

I think if Professor al-Wahab hadn't magicked me away me from the desert, I would've become, not a mathematician, but a storyteller.

However, with regard to our exchange, I need not embellish anything for it is still as clear as spring water in my mind.

"Come in, come in," he said, a little too jovially, after he'd led me down the hallway to his room in silence. He tinkered with his dusty blinds, and the last gauzy rays of the afternoon spilled in between the slats. I stepped in, the smell of fragrant tobacco rich in the air. Professor al-Wahab shifted a stack of papers off a deep-seated armchair beside the window, and gestured for me to sit down.

"Well," he said, turning round the beautifully carved chair that sat under his walnut desk. "Where to begin?"

Everything in Professor al-Wahab's room was steeped in history or craft, from the polished beech abacus to the finely filigreed hookah. There were no standard-issue furnishings or empty spaces -- no sign that this was anything but a permanent arrangement for him.

"You don't know this, Ismail, but when I came here six years ago I was happily married man." He leant back, opened a drawer, shuffled around for something. "Ah, here it is." He studied the picture, before passing it to me.

It was a photo of Professor al-Wahab with a woman and a boy. They stood in front of one of the pyramids, all sunglasses and smiles, the boy nestled between the adults.

"My wife and son. Amir would be twelve now."

The man in the picture looked like a different man to the one sat before me. Professor al-Wahab now reminded me of the elderly men and women of my tribe with their haggard faces. And he didn't have the harsh winds that blew off the Rub' al-Khali to blame.

"Do they live in Egypt?" I asked.

He looked at me hard, tears welling in his eyes. "I don't know."

How could he not know the whereabouts of his family? Had they befallen some terrible calamity?

Professor al-Wahab fished a starched white handkerchief from his breast pocket, and dabbed his eyes. "I'm sorry, Ismail. I didn't mean for you to see me like this."

I didn't want to dwell on Professor al-Wahab's naked emotions, so I asked, "Did they have to leave?"

"Ismail, you don't understand. I left them." He got up, walked over to the window. "When I first came here I told my wife that it would be for three months, six at the most. But I didn't anticipate the buzz -- the sense of possibility -- that this place fostered. There was none of the usual academic turf wars. Everyone shared everything they had. We thought we were on the verge of a new era. Six months became a year. A year became two. My wife set an ultimatum. Come home within two weeks -- or don't come at all. I thought that was easy choice. I'd packed and was ready to leave, but I decided to pay one last visit to the object. I thought I was being respectful, but deep down all that I was really doing was derailing any intention I had of going home." He turned to me, the zeal back in his eyes. "I couldn't walk away from the object."

I knew the feeling. The object had bewitched me too.

"Of course," the professor went on, "I told her as much as I was permitted to. But she was sick of my reasons. And how could I blame her? She hadn't lived in a community like this, she hadn't been touched by the majestic, otherworldly presence. All she had was a son whose heart was breaking a little more each day. She stopped taking my calls. My letters were returned unopened. One day a letter from a courier service arrived. They were holding a crate of my possessions in a warehouse in Kinshasa."

He reached for the photo, and I passed it back to him. He placed it on the table, sat back down. "When I set up the program to bring talented young minds to this site, I made a promise to myself that I would never abandon them."

Hilary's words rang in my ears: He's old enough to know. "Has something happened to my family, Professor?" I asked, my stomach pitting.

"The world is a very fragile place right now, Ismail. And Saudi Arabia, because of its oil wealth, finds itself in a very delicate situation."

I wasn't listening properly, only one question on my mind. "Are they dead?"

"Truthfully, I don't know. After the Saudis and the other Arab states militarized most of the region, there was massive upheaval amongst the Bedouin. Some tribes scattered, others merged. There was fighting too." Professor al-Wahab looked down at his hands. "We lost contact with the al-Ghafran."

I stared at the armrest, examined the cracked upholstery, uncomprehending. I had never imagined -- not for even a single moment -- that I wouldn't one day return to the fringes of the Rub' al-Khali and live again with my tribe, my family. 

"I must find them," I said. I got up out of the chair as if I might leave there and then.

Professor al-Wahab gently shook his head. "I have been searching for them for over a year, Ismail. Satellite photography, Bedouin trackers, undercover operatives -- none of them has been able to find your family."

I stood in the middle of the room, a cold anger building inside me. "You should have told me sooner."

"What good would it have done?" he asked with a raised voice. "What good's it doing now?"

I'd never heard the professor shout before. Everything I thought I knew about him seemed to be built on sand.

"It's the truth," I replied, trembling. "I thought that came before everything for you."

I stumbled out, ignoring his cries to wait.

The tears -- of betrayal, of rage, of despair -- came long before I reached my room.

They wouldn't let me leave, of course.

Professor al-Wahab explained that to let me, a thirteen year old boy, out alone into the world would be the height of negligence on his part. I listened to his lecture in stony silence, not giving him anything to get his teeth into.

Knowing that things in my homeland had changed, I suddenly yearned to be back in the desert, back with my tribe. I imagined myself tending the goats under a hot, cloudless sky, or sitting by a crackling fire, inhaling the rich aroma of smoke and cooked meats while the flames danced before my eyes.

I think part of me died, mourning the loss of that life.

The mood in our little mathematical enclave fluctuated between long stretches of quiet contemplation and short bursts of heated argument. I don't think any of the adults were doing much work, most of the talk confined to the situation beyond the chain-link fences outside. I didn't actively listen, but I couldn't help but pick up the broad strokes.

Food shortages and rioting in Western Europe. A brief, localized civil war in China. A heightened state of tension between the Arab Bloc and India.

Hilary Stamp muttered that war was coming. A nasty, messy, protracted war. No one disagreed with her.

Wai Tat swore that he hadn't known about my tribe's disappearance. "I'm seventeen, but they treat me like a kid," he said. He told me his day would come -- and they'd regret how they'd underestimated him. He was the only person I talked to. He encouraged me to keep working on prime numbers.

I was happy to oblige. Apart from him, the only thing in the world I still had was the object.

I wasn't sure how much longer I'd have even that.

The object quivered. Thick ripples swirled over its surface, distorting its shape. Every so often, bubbles puckered and popped on its skin like a thick stew simmering on the fire. An intense low drone filled the air, and I could feel the hairs on my arm standing tall.

My confidence had grown over the years, and I felt barely a trace of anxiety as I opened my mind to the presence. Whereas once I'd stood passive and petrified, I was now able to channel the otherworldly wind towards the elements of my edifice that most aroused my curiosity.

Today, that was primes.

Primes were the building blocks of mathematics, the very clay from which my magnificent fortress was wrought. Deepening my understanding of them could only strengthen my entire edifice.

The presence scattered, coalesced again, reacting to my wishes. These days I could almost smell the differing strands of its being, as if I was developing a sixth sense. Today, as I conceived them: sesame and camel's hair, the acrid smell of an electricity generator, the blood of a slaughtered goat. They were familiar sensations, like I was tapping into elements of the presence that I'd communed with before.

I began by summoning the natural numbers, visualizing them as stepping stones on a spiral path, zero at the centre, infinity somewhere over the never-ending horizon. In my mind's eye, I took a single pace outwards from the middle, stepping from the slab that represented zero to the one that represented one. One isn't prime because it has only a single divisor. I stepped onwards to the number two slab. Two is prime since it has exactly two distinct divisors: one and two. So is three. As I marched over them, they made a grinding noise and raised themselves several dozen hand widths above the plane. I carried on in this way, walking anti-clockwise in ever-increasing circles, raising those numbered slabs that were primes, and leaving alone those that weren't.

After a few minutes I'd taken one hundred or so paces, and the first twenty-five primes -- two, three, five, seven, and so on -- stood like a dark, stone forest to my left. To my right, the unexamined slabs formed an endless flat landscape as far as the eye could see. I often began my consideration of the primes in this manner. Of course, I knew the first twenty-five -- even, the first fifty -- off by heart, could recite them as easily as the sras of the Qur'an. That wasn't why I wrought this dead terrain. I began this way because it was a powerful reminder of the enigma of the primes, of my own ignorance.

With the never-ending plain on one side, and the chaotic, but somehow ordered, monoliths on the other, I felt perfectly the central paradox of primes: that on the one hand they grew like weeds amongst the natural numbers, that there was no means of predicting where the next one might sprout, and yet on the other hand they exhibited stunning regularity, that there were laws governing their behavior obeyed to an almost military precision. 

I walked faster, then broke into a run, slabs grinding under my feet as I passed. At 347 I made a mistake, anticipating that the slab would rise when it didn't. I misplaced my step and fell. As I caught my breath, the calculations continued faster and faster, the sound building from individual rumbles to the discordant roar of a mighty sandstorm. Soon enough I found myself entombed in the stone woods. 347. Not bad. Maybe I would make 400 one day.

Instead of erasing the whole scene like I usually did, I got up, wandered around. I walked away from the middle, the numbers engraved on the sides of the standing stones getting larger and larger 2663, 5393, 16127. I ran, hoping to come to the edge of the claustrophobic woods -- I knew that each spiral outwards would consume more and more reckoning on the part of the object, and that it must have its limits too. I zigzagged between the pillars, but there was no suggestion of an end. Eventually, I slowed down, came to rest. I breathed hard, leaning against one of the stones. 27644437.

I was defeated.

I launched myself into the air for a bird's eye view, expecting to see a moving boundary somewhere.

There wasn't.

I soared higher, seeing more and more of the landscape -- a landscape covered with an endless forest. I realized with a shock that the object knew the secret of primes, that it always had. I felt the otherworldly wind whip around me, teasing.

Suddenly, the landscape pitched and rocked as if there were tectonic plates in motion underneath. Mountains rose and valleys formed with a thunderous noise, a fractal order in their organization. The first hint at a pattern . . .

The wind smothered me briefly, pleased, then triggered another transformation in the terrain.

I watched on, thrilled.

I ran straight back from the enclosure to share the news with Wai Tat. It was late, but he wasn't in his room. Instead I found him sitting alone in the dining room with his tablet.

"It showed me!" I gasped, my clothes damp against my skin with sweat.

Wai Tat looked up, startled. "What?"

I took a breath, walked around the table. "I know the secret of primes." I could hardly believe my own words. What the object had shared with me had been wondrous . . . awe-inspiring.

Wai Tat stared at me, eyes wide. He bit his lip, glanced at the door. "You know how to find them?" he whispered.

I nodded. "It's not easy, but --"

"Not here." He turned his attention to his tablet, closed down a mail window filled with Chinese script. "Let's go to my room."

At that moment, Dr. Stamp came in. She wore a red silk dressing gown, and carried her favourite cup that was adorned with Klimt's The Kiss. Her hair was all straggly. "You two can't sleep either?" she asked, bleary eyed.

I couldn't hide my excitement, and was about to tell her about my discovery, when Wai Tat spoke over me. "I have some herbal tea that might help." He got up, gave me a slight shake of the head as if he were telling me not to share my news. "Here," he said, passing her a small, calligraphed tin. "You'll sleep like a hard-working peasant after a day in the fields. That's what my grandmother used to say, anyway."

Dr. Stamp tapped the lid. "Thank you, you're very kind." She stepped past, picked up the kettle. "Did you say something about primes, Ismail?"

Wai Tat shook his head more forcefully, while Dr. Stamp filled the kettle, her back to the pair of us.

"No," I said. "Nothing about primes."

"Oh." Dr. Stamp turned around, smiled. "I must be going senile in my old age. Well, good night, boys."

"Good night," we chorused, and left.

"Why did you make me lie?" I asked when we were out of earshot.

Wai Tat turned. While I was still waiting for the onset of adulthood, he'd kept getting taller this last couple of years, and he now towered over me. "I'm trying to protect you, Ismail."

"Protect me? From what?" My life had been more dangerous in the desert than this place.

"Listen, the others think you're a waste of time already. Let me check the mathematics --"

"The math works," I interrupted, raising my voice. The ideas were beautiful -- and true. I didn't appreciate Wai Tat's doubt.

"Okay, okay," he said, raising his hands. "Quiet down. At least let me help you so they can understand."

I paused, tried to examine his face, but it was hidden in the shadows.

"Ismail?"

Deep down I knew I still wanted the others' approval. I nodded. Wai Tat turned and led me down the unlit hallway.

I never got the chance to share my discovery with Dr. Stamp or Dr. Cheng or Professor al-Wahab.

In the days that followed that night with Wai Tat -- a night in which I stayed up way past dawn leading him through the labyrinth tunnels of pure reason to the treasure of the primes -- he would never be quite ready to take my revelations to the others. "When?" I would ask him, but all he would say on the matter was "Soon."

Soon never came.

One morning, not more than a week later, three U.N. soldiers marched into the communal lounge. Their faces were flushed, serious. "Your attention, please," said the first one loudly, the other two flanking him. His voice was urgent but controlled.

"What is it?" Professor Wheater asked, waving his cane in annoyance. He scratched his brow as if he'd lost his train of thought.

The solider ignored the question. "Is everybody here?"

We looked between one another. The oiled smell of their guns was heavy in the air. "I count eleven. We're one short," Dr. Stamp said.

Somehow, I knew right then that Wai Tat would be the one missing. A brief scan of the room confirmed my suspicions. "Wai Tat," I said, a sickening feeling in my stomach.

The solider flicked his head and the other two left. Dr. Cheng and Professor al-Wahab looked at one another uneasily.

"If there's --"

The soldier cut Professor al-Wahab off mid-sentence. "I have orders to evacuate you all from the base. Immediately."

Half a dozen voices spoke all at once:

"What's the meaning of this?"

"Now listen here, Lieutenant!"

"I want to speak to Director Adams."

All I could think about was being denied that susurrant presence that made my spirit soar.

The soldier raised his voice over the hullabaloo, fishing a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket as he did so. "This isn't an invitation. This is an order." He flicked open the piece of paper with a couple of jerks of the wrist, then stepped a couple of paces forward and handed the order to Dr. Stamp. "Resistance will be met with force," he said. To emphasize the point he slid the gun from his side, gripped it across his chest.

Dr. Stamp scanned the document, hands shaking. Afterwards, she looked up, met the eyes of her colleagues. "We have to leave."

"Let me see that," Professor Wheater said.

It was then that I made my move, running for the door. The soldier made a clumsy grab for me, but, like one of the difficult goats, I jinked to the side, escaping his grasp.

I sprinted down the hallway to the sounds of shouting -- and then gunfire. Chips of plaster tumbled from the ceiling ahead, a fine rain of dust following. I glanced back to see Professor al-Wahab wrestling with the soldier, before being thrown to the floor. I ducked down a side passage, heart hammering, praying that I wouldn't hear any more shots.

There weren't.

At least not until I got outside. I stopped dead. Far to the west, near the edge of the base, the tree line was ablaze, thick black smoke curling into the air. I could hear the distant rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire exchanges, and the low rumble of heavy armor. A couple of jet fighters streaked across the sky, followed by the supersonic screech that made me press my hands over my ears. I smelt something unnatural, chemical.

This wasn't an attack by any militia group.

I pressed on, running as hard as I could. Far off, artillery shells fizzed through the air, exploding with dull thumps that I could feel through the ground. The walls of the enclosure loomed larger. The soldier's booth by the entrance appeared to be empty.

As I approached, I heard the gradual building of a low whump-whump-whump noise, and when I glanced in the direction away from the hostilities I noticed a camouflaged transport helicopter getting closer. It kept low, its landing rails scarcely above the buildings. It came down on the other side of our small compound, the noise suddenly lessening as it slipped out of view.

I knew exactly what it was: it was our means of escape.

I leaned forward to the retinal identifiers, uncertain.

Was the kinship I felt with the multitudinous presence a childish sham? What would come from this petty gesture anyway?

As I hesitated, I caught sight of a pair of soldier's boots in the entrance to the security booth. They were still being worn, the solider slumped unconscious -- or worse. I stepped closer. The man was face down, crumpled into an ugly heap.

"Do you need help?" I shouted over the din. I couldn't leave an injured man to die.

He didn't respond.

I leant down, shook his shoulder. I could smell blood. "Wake up."

With growing dread I grabbed his legs, pulled him out of the booth, then rolled him over. A neat red hole marked the centre of his forehead.

"Ismail!"

I looked up. Professor al-Wahab was half-striding, half-running in my direction. He didn't look hurt in any way.

"We have to go, Ismail," he shouted. "Please."

Go? Go where? My tribe was scattered, my family lost. I gave the Professor a small shake of the head. I'm not coming.

I turned away, stepped to the identifier, pressed my face against the familiar shape. I couldn't hear the chimes for all the racket, but when I pushed my weight against the turnstile it yielded. Inside, the sounds became muffled. The air was different today -- the tingling sensation intense, the murk thicker. My shirt crackled. I felt tiny pricks on my arms not unlike the first signs of a sandstorm. The presence invaded my mind, rushing in more forcefully than it had ever done before. It was agitated, imploring. With reverent steps as if I was in a holy place, I made my way to the object.

No mathematical arcana filled my head this time, only a tremendous sense of being summoned. I imagined it was not unlike the feeling of being swept into the Al-Masjid al-Harm during the hajj. My father had shown me pictures of the Grand Mosque and promised to take me there one day. I used to close my eyes, become giddy as I envisioned the babbling, rapturous throng around me.

Through the dark veiled air, I suddenly came to the object. It was seething with energy, shuddering and cracking as I'd never witnessed before. I stood enthralled as it began rearranging itself. A thick protrusion extended from near its levitating base. The mass congealed, forming itself into three glassy, black steps, while the greater part of the sphere hollowed out like seeds being scooped from a quince fruit.

It wanted me to climb into its dark belly.

The whispers grew stronger, cajoling me, promising me. I placed my foot on the first step, the other on the second --

"Allah have mercy --" Professor al-Wahab's voice was mangled, distant. "-- Ismail, no!"

He gripped my upper arm, and at his touch my connection to the presence was greatly weakened. I could've tugged my arm free, leaped into the welcoming belly, but now that the coaxing wind had retreated the desire to do so had gone as well. I realized with a start that the faintest traces of the wind had been inside my head long before I'd stepped into the enclosure, had been with me for weeks, months, maybe even years, luring me towards this moment.

I pushed backwards, frightened, falling away from the gaping maw. Professor al-Wahab half broke my fall, and I scrabbled away, fingers raking into the dirty, lifeless ground.

"Come, Ismail," he said, pulling me to my feet, "we have to hurry." Beyond his calm words, I could see real terror in his eyes. He was trying to be strong for me.

Behind him I thought I saw a shadow in the murk. We ran for the turnstile, counting aloud to keep the wind at bay. I felt it probing, trying to twist its way back into my mind, contrite and placatory, but it was too late. It scared me more than ever now, and I kept counting loud and clear:

"Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen --"

We bundled through the turnstile, escaping from one nightmare into another. Islands of smoke blistered the land. Not far off, I could hear the enemy's war cries -- fanatical, fearless -- punctuated by sporadic bursts of gunfire. A couple of hundred meters away, towards the smattering of buildings that made up our home, the solider who'd given us the evacuation order was waving wildly.

Professor al-Wahab surged on, pulling me harder. In his haste, I tripped, fell to the ground.

I didn't get up, afraid. "Will I be executed?" I asked, thinking of the shots that had raced over my head. I knew that in the Great Kingdom traitors were beheaded.

"No, Ismail. The soldier was only trying to frighten you into stopping." He shook his head, regretfully. "It was my fault the bullets nearly hit you." 

In those words I felt the burden of guilt that he'd carried for so long, and I felt a sudden compassion for him -- that I'd judged him too harshly. "Allah will forgive you, Professor."

He smiled and nodded, grateful, then pulled me to my feet for the second time.

We scrambled towards the compound, heads ducked low --

"Stop!"

Perhaps if we hadn't recognized the voice we would've carried on, taken our chances. Instead, we both twisted around. Wai Tat emerged from the shadowed bulk of the enclosure, his arm raised as if he was pointing to something beyond us.

Professor al-Wahab scampered towards him. "Praise Allah, we thought --" He stopped dead, raised his hands. "Wai Tat. It's me, Professor al-Wahab."

I peered closer. Wai Tat held a gun.

"I know who you are," Wai Tat said unevenly, keeping his distance. "You are an enemy of the People's Republic of China."

Could he be the one who'd shot -- no, executed -- the soldier in the security booth? I felt numb. I couldn't believe that my only friend, the gangly boy who'd taught me to play swing ball, was the same boy as the one who stood before us now. I moved alongside the stunned Professor. "Wai Tat --"

"No closer!" His hand trembled, and in his eyes I saw a wild man. The sounds of enemy soldiers got louder. I could hear the familiar lilt now, recognizing it from when Wai Tat and Dr. Cheng spoke in their native language.

"Wai Tat," Professor al-Wahab said softly, "I'm taking Ismail to the helicopter now." He extended his hand to me, which I took in my own. His hand was warm and strong, no hint of the terror that, like myself, he must've been feeling.

"Stop!" Wai Tat screamed.

Professor al-Wahab made to turn. "Goodbye, Wai Tat."

I met my friend's gaze, shook my head. Don't do it. I could see the terrible strain that he was under, a strain that he must've kept hidden for years.

We turned, began walking hand in hand. A single crack shook the air. Professor al-Wahab blundered forward as if somebody had given him a hearty slap on the back. He dropped to his knees, keeled forward, his free hand making an ineffectual attempt at breaking his fall, while his other stayed locked in mine. Through the dark fabric of his suit, I saw a darker patch blooming from close to his left shoulder.

I kneeled down, tried to pull my hand from his grip in order to press the wound, but he clung tighter. "Ismail," he croaked, spitting blood. "Forgive me, Ismail."

Tears pricked my eyes. "You have nothing to forgive, Professor."

"I didn't know how to tell you," he wheezed, one side of his face buried in the dirt. "I still don't."

"Tell me what?"

"Forgive me," he whispered, quieter this time.

I felt my cheeks wetting. "Forgive you what?"

I didn't hear him the first time, or maybe I did and I couldn't believe it, so I leaned down, tilted my ear.

"They're dead, Ismail. Your parents are dead."

I couldn't move, couldn't speak. Professor al-Wahab's body slumped. As Chinese soldiers swarmed around me, I heard the sound of a helicopter departing. A shadow loomed from the right, and I just had time to see the butt of a gun. I felt a sharp pain, and the world went dark.

They kept me at the site, but not in the life I'd become accustomed to. The only thing I got to keep was the amulet my mother had given me when I'd left the tribe.

At night I would sleep in a windowless, concrete-walled cell, the only furnishing a dirty mattress marked with cigarette burns. Sometimes I would wake in the night, the smell of the singed fibers strong, and I would momentarily think that the place was on fire. I wished that it was. I often dreamt of a counter-attack by the U.N. forces that pitched the site into flames, and allowed me to escape into the jungle. When I couldn't sleep, which was often, I thought of my mother and father and how they'd been taken from me. I would whisper a prayer for them, thinking of the days I spent with them -- sitting on my mother's lap listening to the adventures of Sinbad, being tossed high from my father's arms, shepherding the goats.

I cried a lot. I had nobody now.

Other times, my mind would torment me by dredging up memories of times I'd spent with Wai Tat. Apart from anger and self-revulsion, the only thing these scenes brought me was an awareness of how very good an actor he'd been.

By day I would be taken to a small interrogation room where Chinese would question me incessantly. They wanted to know everything. They wanted to know the smallest details of my upbringing -- how often I ate red meat, or the exact breed of goats our tribe kept. They wanted to know what my daily routine at the site had been like -- what time I rose, how long I spent with the object. Most of all they wanted to explore the glittering mathematical edifice that I'd built in my mind.

Of course, I was loathe to help them, and to begin with I lied.

When they discovered this, they starved me -- the meager bowls of cold, sticky rice no longer pushed through the bars of my cell. I wanted to be strong, above the concerns of the flesh, but the hunger pains were so great that eventually I begged for food. They said that for each truthful answer I gave I could eat a grain of rice. For each lie I would go without for a month.

I never lied again.

Despite this, relating my mathematical insights was not easy. The only person who'd ever understood even the smallest part of my strange mathematical architecture was Wai Tat, and I never saw him once. Whether he was still at the site, I didn't know. They didn't let me go anywhere. They certainly never let me anywhere near the enclosure. I figured they were afraid something drastic might happen, something they couldn't control.

Perhaps they were right.

As for myself, I wasn't entirely unhappy to stay away from the unearthly thing, still haunted by how close I'd come to stepping into its belly -- stepping into the unknown.

To aid sharing my knowledge, the interrogation room was furnished with a small library of mathematical texts. Through these we began to build a bridge between my edifice and the Edifice as Professor al-Wahab had always called it. In this manner I began to speak a pidgin language of human mathematics. From there it was short step to understand the applications. Celestial mechanics springing from calculus. Information compression from statistics.

One day, while my current interrogator -- a severe lady in a dark green uniform with hair pulled back tight -- digested our latest exchange, I picked from the shelves a book entitled "Encryption." I flicked absently through the pages, my mind tired from the never-ending questions, when I caught sight of a word that had tormented me for weeks: primes. I still didn't know why Wai Tat had been so interested in the numbers, and it was eating me up not knowing. I licked the tip of my finger, carefully going back through the pages.

Over several paragraphs of dry text, the awful truth revealed itself. I re-read the lines again, and then again, hoping that I'd misunderstood something. I hadn't.

The non-computability of primes was the bedrock upon which modern encryption systems were built. The insights I'd gleefully relayed to Wai Tat had made the unbreakable breakable.

I dropped the book, dizzy, staggered backwards.

The woman snapped at me, ordered me to pick up the book, but when she saw the title she began laughing.

"You didn't know?" she asked, mockingly. "For twelve glorious hours our mighty armies were unstoppable."

I closed my eyes, fighting the nausea.

"Not bad for a filthy sand-eater." She brushed past me. I sensed her bend down, return the book to the shelf. The next moment my cheek was stinging. "Open your eyes and explain this proof to me again."

I reached up to my face where she'd hit me. Her nails had broken my skin, and when I drew back my fingers they were flecked with blood.

Months passed. My body got weaker, malnutrition and sickness making me all bones. My mind, though, got stronger. The guilt didn't go away, but neither did it consume me. I bore it like a stone upon my shoulder as if I were carrying it from quarry to worksite.

The soldiers who escorted me between my cell and the interrogation room got more haggard, more down-spirited each day. The scientists who questioned me got more bleary-eyed, more bad-tempered.

One day the severe lady threw a sheaf of papers against the wall and stormed out of the room when she failed to understand one of my concepts. I gleaned that the war beyond these walls wasn't going as well as anticipated, that the Chinese forces were being stretched -- and that their leaders were demanding more breakthroughs from this site.

I didn't feel any sympathy for them.

It was against this background that I began to plot my escape. I noted shift patterns, sketched maps of the site as I remembered it and hid them in the textbooks, carefully examined the weapons and keys each soldier or scientist carried. Making my plans gave me a purpose, gave me strength.

I didn't know where I would go, everything I'd ever known -- my tribe, my clan, my family -- all gone, but go I would.

One morning I came to the interrogation room to find Wai Tat standing there, hands folded behind his back. Seeing him provoked all kinds of feelings. Pity. Sorrow. Nostalgia. Most of all I felt anger.

He wore military uniform -- forest green trousers and jacket, black boots that shone, and a finely polished medal hanging from his breast pocket. He looked much older than I remembered, gaunt and pale. The soldiers who'd escorted me to the room left, leaving us alone.

"My name is Wai Tat Lau," he said, as if it was the first time we'd ever met. "I will be handling your questioning from now on."

I gazed at him looking for . . . I don't know . . . something to show me that underneath all his obedience, all his masks, he was still a person. He didn't even meet my eyes.

"What made you so empty?" I asked.

He brought his hands out from behind his back. He was holding a couple of texts. "We know about your pathetic escape plans," he said, and threw the books at me. One struck my shoulder and fell to the floor, pages splayed. I recognized the cover. It was a text on set theory. I'd hidden some information about my interrogators working patterns in the margins.

I felt my whole body shaking, livid. It wasn't for my plans being found, though. I half wanted my captors to know. It would unsettle them, maybe make them change things. No, my rage was for the disrespect. "That changes nothing." My voice trembled. "I will escape whatever you know."

He laughed, then went stony-faced. "No, Ismail, you will not escape." He unbuttoned his jacket slowly, deliberately, the actor who he was coming to the fore again. "You will reveal everything you know, just like you revealed the secret of the primes."

I knew then how I would escape.

"No!" Wai Tat thumped the table with a hard crack. "This is old ground. Useless!"

We'd been working together for fifteen days, but it had taken more of a toll on him than me. He could see my edifice better than anyone, but my presence must've been a constant reminder of his betrayal, of his butchery. He was fanatical in his love for his country, but under all the slogans and ceremony, buried deep, he couldn't escape his feelings.

I gave him no easy way out, no channel for his discomfort. I was always reasonable, always keeping my rage hidden like a wounded tiger sheltering from the midday sun.

We sat side by side -- another echo of days past, another splinter in his mind. He smelt of old sweat as if he slept in his clothes. "I think this area," I said, pointing to a dense line of algebra near the top of the page, "could be fruitful."

I had to be careful not to frustrate him so much that someone else would get assigned. It had to be him. With measured steps I had to lead him out from the grand, hallowed chambers of my edifice, through the untended gardens and into the barren land beyond. Distracting him with trinkets -- a sculptured colonnade here, a baroque frieze there -- would allow me to keep the real splendors from him.

He turned his head to me. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin pallid. He nodded. "Show me," he said. His breath smelt of Chinese tea laced with alcohol. He didn't look away.

I reached to turn to a fresh page, and he grabbed my wrist. "You know that when the pitcher is empty, we return to the well." He bobbed his head. "I was there that day. I saw it open. I saw it craving to consume you."

I shook my head, slowly to begin with, and then faster and faster. "Don't take me back there," I whispered, eyes wide. "I beg you. I'll give you all the treasures you need."

He released my hand, got up, the chair legs grating against the floor with an ugly grind. With his back to me he took a swig from the small canteen I knew he carried in his shirt pocket. He turned around.

"You do that," he said, "and I'll see what I can do."

For the next few days the treasures that I had professed to give him turned out to be fool's gold. An obscure topological result. A minor refinement to a geometrical theory. Other useless artifacts that I knew for certain to have no practical applications. His temper worsened, along with his drinking. Sometimes his superiors would linger outside, cold looks on their faces. He was the golden boy -- the brave fighter who'd given the glorious republic a winning start to the war -- but now the epithet was a curse as much as a prize.

"Not good enough!" he bellowed, pacing around the room. "Everything you give me we already know." He stopped beside one of the bookcases, grabbed a text at random. "Lagrangian Variables in Three Dimensional Calculus," he read out. "We know." He tossed the book away, grabbed another one. "Mathematics of Tensor Matrices. We know." He dropped the book, then swept his hand along the whole shelf, tumbling all the volumes to the floor with a crash. "All of this? We know!"

He trampled over the fallen tomes, brought his face up close to mine. "Give me something new, something special -- or we go to the object." He stank. His teeth were almost black with grime.

"Please," I whimpered, "I'll do anything."

My hands shook, but I picked up a pencil, made to write anyway. "Look --" I said, trying to scrawl a summation sign, "-- Fourier series --"

He ripped the notebook out from under my hand. "Fourier series?" he roared. "You insult me." He grabbed me by the collar, hauled me towards the door.

Down decrepit passages I stumbled, cowering, constantly pushed on by his violent hands. With snatched breaths, I recited one of the longer suras.

We came outside, the air thick and muggy, the sun hazy. The ground was completely dead now, the mark of countless tank treads and boot steps having killed all the life. What army there had been though, was elsewhere now. I realized that I'd been confined to what used to be the U.N.'s Pakistani barracks, not three hundred paces from my old home.

Outside the enclosure there was lot of activity. On one side, two dozen or so children, none more than ten years old, waited in a neat line. They were all Chinese. The queue led up to a table beside the turnstile entrance, manned by a young officer. On the other side was a small field hospital. I knew it was a hospital because of the cluster of medical staff smoking outside. As we approached -- Wai Tat still pushing me forward -- a solider carried a motionless youngster out of the enclosure and into the hospital.

The boy at the front of the line stepped towards the turnstile, but then stopped after Wai Tat barked something at him. He looked relieved. A short conversation between Wai Tat and the officer ensued.

Afterwards, Wai Tat leaned in close. "You better not mess up. For my sake as well as yours."

"Please, have mercy --"

He shoved me forward, killing my words.

The place hadn't changed.

Dead ahead through the murk, the dark mass floated, its stark otherworldly nature as clear as day. The first tendrils of its presence lazily brushed the corners of my mind, and I flinched at its touch. I felt the hairs on my forearms rise.

"Are you scared?" Wai Tat asked. I could hear the glee in his voice.

I walked on with trembling paces. The wind felt different -- crippled as to what it had been. And like lame old men who couldn't sleep because of their aches and pains, it moaned, bad-tempered and restless.

Was it dying? I suppressed an urge to break into a run. I clutched my amulet, said a small prayer under my breath.

Mentally, I threw a colorful kite up into the breeze. It was only a small meditation on the transcendental numbers, but the wind caught it and lifted it higher. The breeze became a blustery gale whipping the kite around in furious loops and spirals. A strand of the wind shot down, demanded more.

I delved deeper into my mind, began tossing streamers and balloons, Chinese lanterns and confetti, skywards. The concepts caught on the updrafts, sailing or darting or drifting higher, always up, up, up.

The sky thronged with beauty. It hadn't been dying -- it had been sleeping.

Ahead, the object writhed, awakening. I gave up my pretense then, began running.

"Ismail!" Wai Tat cried in alarm.

I didn't look back. As I ran, I savored the small sensations: the taste of electricity on my tongue; the hard resistance of the earth beneath my feet; the crack and buzz in my ears. I can't say that I was entirely fearless, that would be a lie, but the greater part of me was emboldened, excited. I trusted the presence, knew that if it had really wanted to take me it could've done that as easily as a man counts to ten.

I leapt.

The substance was so cold it burned. I felt my skin blistering at its touch, but there was no pain. As I was swallowed, a choked scream was the last thing I ever heard, the last thing I ever felt with flesh and blood.

It wasn't my scream though. It was Wai Tat's.

Then everything changed.

It's not easy to describe what I am now.

I am one branch in a tree, one refrain in a concerto, one movement in a dance -- and yet, at the same time, I am the tree, the concerto, the dance.

I am a collective of minds -- minds from the belt of Orion and the brow of Sagittarius and all the corners of the cosmos.

We roam the heavens seeking to neither wage war upon, nor liberate those whose paths we cross. We merely seek talented minds. Minds that cannot be built or programmed or grown. Minds that climbed from their primordial slime eons ago to be shaped by the light and wind and rain of a million days. Minds that can enrich the colossal, glittering tower of knowledge that we carry -- a stupendous Tower of Babel besides the edifice I used to have.

Perhaps we will discover the mind of Allah.

Perhaps we won't.

The most important thing is that I am no longer alone. I am part of a tribe again.

Sometimes, when I get caught up in the wind, caught up in the beauty, I take a moment to remember where I came from, who I am.

I remember the generosity of the sheikh when Professor al-Wahab came to our tribe. I remember the loyalty that my mother and father showed when they let the dearest part of themselves be wrenched from their hands. I remember my cunning in escaping from the Chinese, but most of all I remember the honor I felt, and still feel, at representing my clan.

I remember that I am -- and always will be -- Bedouin.

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