21st Century Science Fiction (5 page)

BOOK: 21st Century Science Fiction
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The web-strand touches him, and he feels its cool, alien smoothness on a fingertip.

A door opens. They step through.

It is dizzying, this wild ride. Sometimes he gets flashes of his own world, scenes of trees and streets, and distant blue hills. There are indications that these flashes are at different points in time—at one point he sees a vast army of soldiers, their plumed helmets catching the sunlight, and thinks he must be in the time of the Roman Empire. Another time he thinks he is back home, because he sees before him his own courtyard. But there is an old man sitting in his cane chair, drawing patterns in the dust with a stick. A shadow falls across the ground. Someone he cannot see is stealing up behind the old man. Is that a knife agleam in the stranger’s hand? What is this he is seeing? He tries to call out, but no sound emerges. The scene blurs—a door opens, and they step through.

Abdul Karim is trembling. Has he just witnessed his own death?

He remembers that Archimedes died that way—he had been drawing circles, engrossed with a problem in geometry, when a barbarian of a soldier came up behind him and killed him.

But there is no time to ponder. He is lost in a merry-go-round of universes, each different and strange. The shadow gives him a glimpse of so many, Abdul Karim has long lost count. He puts thoughts of Death away from him and loses himself in wonder.

His companion opens door after door. The face, featureless except for the orifice that opens and shuts, gives no hint of what the shadow is thinking. Abdul Karim wants to ask: who are you? Why are you doing this? He knows, of course, the old story of how the angel Gabriel came to the Prophet Mohammad one night and took him on a celestial journey, a grand tour of the heavens. But the shadow does not look like an angel; it has no face, no wings, its gender is indeterminate. And in any case, why should the angel Gabriel concern himself with a humble mathematics master in a provincial town, a person of no consequence in the world?

And yet, he is here. Perhaps Allah has a message for him; His ways are ineffable, after all. Exultation fills Abdul Karim as he beholds marvel after marvel.

At last they pause in a place where they are suspended in a yellow sky. As Abdul Karim experiences the giddy absence of gravity, accompanied by a sudden jolt of nausea that slowly recedes—as he turns in mid-air, he notices that the sky is not featureless but covered with delicate tessellations: geometric shapes intertwine, merge and new ones emerge. The colors change too, from yellow to green, lilac, mauve. All at once it seems as though numberless eyes are opening in the sky, one after the other, and as he turns he sees all the other universes flashing past him. A kaleidoscope, vast beyond his imaginings. He is at the center of it all, in a space between all spaces, and he can feel in his bones a low, irregular throbbing, like the beating of a drum. Boom, boom, goes the drum. Boom boom boom. Slowly he realizes that what he is seeing and feeling is part of a vast pattern.

In that moment Abdul Karim has the flash of understanding he has been waiting for all his life.

For so long he has been playing with the transcendental numbers, trying to fathom Cantor’s ideas; at the same time Riemann’s notions of the prime numbers have fascinated him. In idle moments he has wondered if they are connected at a deeper level. Despite their apparent randomness the primes have their own regularity, as hinted by the unproven Riemann Hypothesis; he sees at last that if you think of prime numbers as the terrain of a vast country, and if your view of reality is a two-dimensional plane that intersects this terrain at some height above the surface, perhaps at an angle, then of course what you see will appear to be random. Tops of hills. Bits of valleys. Only the parts of the terrain that cross your plane of reality will be apparent. Unless you can see the entire landscape in its multi-dimensional splendor, the topography will make no sense.

He sees it: the bare bones of creation, here, in this place where all the universes branch off, the thudding heart of the metacosmos. In the scaffolding, the skeletal structure of the multiverse is beautifully apparent. This is what Cantor had a glimpse of, then, this vast topography. Understanding opens in his mind as though the metacosmos has itself spoken to him. He sees that of all the transcendental numbers, only a few—infinite still, but not the whole set—are marked as doorways to other universes, and each is labeled by a prime number. Yes. Yes. Why this is so, what deeper symmetry it reflects, what law or regularity of Nature undreamed of by the physicists of his world, he does not know.

The space where primes live—the topology of the infinite universes—he sees it in that moment. No puny function as yet dreamed of by humans can encompass the vastness—the inexhaustible beauty of this place. He knows that he can never describe this in the familiar symbols of the mathematics that he knows, that while he experiences the truth of the Riemann Hypothesis, as a corollary to this greater, more luminous reality, he cannot sit down and verify it through a conventional proof. No human language as yet exists, mathematical or otherwise, that can describe what he knows in his bones to be true. Perhaps he, Abdul Karim, will invent the beginnings of such a language. Hadn’t the great poet Iqbal interpreted the Prophet’s celestial journey to mean that the heavens are within our grasp?

A twist, and a door opens. He steps into the courtyard of his house. He turns around, but the courtyard is empty. The farishta is gone.

Abdul Karim raises his eyes to the heavens. Rain clouds, dark as the proverbial beloved’s hair, sweep across the sky; the litchi tree over his head is dancing in the swift breeze. The wind has drowned out the sounds of a ravaged city. A red flower comes blowing over the courtyard wall and is deposited at his feet.

Abdul Karim’s hair is blown back, a nameless ecstasy fills him; he feels Allah’s breath on his face.

He says into the wind:

Dear Merciful and Compassionate God, I stand before your wondrous universe, filled with awe; help me, weak mortal that I am, to raise my gaze above the sordid pettiness of everyday life, the struggles and quarrels of mean humanity . . . Help me to see the beauty of your Works, from the full flower of the red silk cotton tree to the exquisite mathematical grace by which you have created numberless universes in the space of a man’s step. I know now that my true purpose in this sad world is to stand in humble awe before your magnificence, and to sing a paean of praise to you with every breath I take . . .

He feels weak with joy. Leaves whirl in the courtyard like mad dervishes; a drop or two of rain falls, obliterating the equation he had scratched in the dust with his stick. He has lost his chance at mathematical genius a long time ago; he is nobody, only a teacher of mathematics at a school, humbler than a clerk in a government office—yet Allah has favored him with this great insight. Perhaps he is now worthy of speech with Ramanujan and Archimedes and all the ones in between. But all he wants to do is to run out into the lane and go shouting through the city: see, my friends, open your eyes and see what I see! But he knows they would think him mad; only Gangadhar would understand . . . if not the mathematics then the impulse, the importance of the whole discovery.

He leaps out of the house, into the lane.

This blemished radiance . . . this night-stung dawn

Is not the dawn we waited for . . .

, Pakistani poet (1911–1984)

Where all is broken

Where each soul’s athirst, each glance

Filled with confusion, each heart

Weighed with sorrow . . .

Is this a world, or chaos?

, Indian poet (1921–1980)

But what is this?

The lane is empty. There are broken bottles everywhere. The windows and doors of his neighbors’ houses are shuttered and barred, like closed eyes. Above the sound of the rain he hears shouting in the distance. Why is there a smell of burning?

He remembers then, what he had learned at Gangadhar’s house. Securing the door behind him, he begins to run as fast as his old-man legs will carry him.

The market is burning.

Smoke pours out of smashed store fronts, even as the rain falls. There is broken glass on the pavement; a child’s wooden doll in the middle of the road, decapitated. Soggy pages filled with neat columns of figures lie scattered everywhere, the remains of a ledger. Quickly he crosses the road.

Gangadhar’s house is in ruins. Abdul Karim wanders through the open doors, stares blindly at the blackened walls. The furniture is mostly gone. Only the chess table stands untouched in the middle of the front room.

Frantically he searches through the house, entering the inner rooms for the first time. Even the curtains have been ripped from the windows.

There is no body.

He runs out of the house. Gangadhar’s wife’s family—he does not know where they live. How to find out if Gangadhar is safe?

The neighboring house belongs to a Muslim family that Abdul Karim knows only from visits to the mosque. He pounds on the door. He thinks he hears movement behind the door, sees the upstairs curtains twitch—but nobody answers his frantic entreaties. At last, defeated, his hands bleeding, he walks slowly home, looking about him in horror. Is this truly his city, his world?

Allah, Allah, why have you abandoned me?

He has beheld the glory of Allah’s workmanship. Then why this? Were all those other universes, other realities a dream?

The rain pours down.

There is someone lying on his face in a ditch. The rain has wet the shirt on his back, made the blood run. As Abdul Karim starts toward him, wondering who it is, whether he is dead or alive—young, from the back it could be Ramdas or Imran—he sees behind him, at the entrance to the lane, a horde of young men. Some of them may be his students—they can help.

They are moving with a predatory sureness that frightens him. He sees that they have sticks and stones.

They are coming like a tsunami, a thunderclap, leaving death and ruin in their wake. He hears their shouts through the rain.

Abdul Karim’s courage fails him. He runs to his house, enters, locks and bars the door and closes all the windows. He checks on his mother, who is sleeping. The telephone is dead. The dal for their meal has boiled away. He turns off the gas and goes back to the door, putting his ear against it. He does not want to risk looking out of the window.

Over the rain he hears the young men go past at a run. In the distance there is a fusillade of shots. More sounds of running feet, then, just the rain.

Are the police here? The army?

Something or someone is scratching at the door. Abdul Karim is transfixed with terror. He stands there, straining to hear over the pitter patter of the rain. On the other side, somebody moans.

Abdul Karim opens the door. The lane is empty, roaring with rain. At his feet there is the body of a young woman.

She opens her eyes. She’s dressed in a salwaar kameez that has been half-torn off her body—her long hair is wet with rain and blood, plastered over her neck and shoulders. There is blood on her salwaar, blood oozing from a hundred little cuts and welts on her skin.

Her gaze focuses.

“Master Sahib.”

He is taken aback. Is she someone he knows? Perhaps an old student, grown up?

Quickly he half-carries, half-pulls her into the house and secures the door. With some difficulty he lifts her carefully on to the divan in the drawing room, which is already staining with her blood. She coughs.

“My child, who did this to you? Let me find a doctor . . .”

“No,” she says. “It’s too late.” Her breath rasps and she coughs again. Tears well up in the dark eyes.

“Master Sahib, please, let me die! My husband . . . my son . . . They must not see me take my last breath. Not like this. They will suffer. They will want revenge . . . Please . . . cut my wrists . . .”

She’s raising her wrists to his horrified face, but all he can do is to take them in his shaking hands.

“My daughter,” he says, and doesn’t know what to say. Where will he find a doctor in the mayhem? Can he bind her cuts? Even as he thinks these thoughts he knows that life is ebbing from her. Blood is pooling on his divan, dripping down to the floor. She does not need him to cut her wrists.

“Tell me, who are the ruffians who did this?”

She whispers:

“I don’t know who they were. I had just stepped out of the house for a moment. My family . . . don’t tell them, Master Sahib! When I’m gone just tell them . . . tell them I died in a safe place . . .”

“Daughter, what is your husband’s name?”

Her eyes are enormous. She is gazing at him without comprehension, as though she is already in another world.

He can’t tell if she is Muslim or Hindu. If she wore a vermilion dot on her forehead, it has long since been washed off by the rain.

His mother is standing at the door of the drawing room. She wails suddenly and loudly, flings herself by the side of the dying woman.

“Ayesha! Ayesha, my life!”

Tears fall down Abdul Karim’s face. He tries to disengage his mother. Tries to tell her: this is not Ayesha, just another woman whose body has become a battleground over which men make war. At last he has to lift his mother in his arms, her body so frail that he fears it might break—he takes her to her bed, where she crumples, sobbing and calling Ayesha’s name.

Back in the drawing room, the young woman’s eyes flicker to him. Her voice is barely above a whisper.

“Master Sahib, cut my wrists . . . I beseech you, in the Almighty’s name! Take me somewhere safe . . . Let me die . . .”

Then the veil falls over her eyes again and her body goes limp.

Time stands still for Abdul Karim.

Then he senses something familiar, and turns slowly. The farishta is waiting.

Abdul Karim picks up the woman in his arms, awkwardly arranging the bloody divan cover over her half-naked body. In the air, a door opens.

BOOK: 21st Century Science Fiction
5.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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