By Zero


This is the story I unsuccessfully submitted for the NYC Midnight contest.  Not one to be kept down, I figured I’d let it see the light of day.  It was originally called “The Devil Is in the Details,” which in hindsight is a pretty awful title.  So I’ve given it a new name, but otherwise, this is what I submitted.  I really like the world I created here; it’s definitely one I’ll hold on to.

“In the Beginning, there was the One, which Added to another made Two, yet which Multiplied and Divided by Itself left but One.”

“By the Associative, and the Commutative, and the Distributive.”

“And the One saw that it was of the Percent, and that that Percent was One Hundred, and so it was both One and One Hundred at the same time.”

“By the Associative, and the Commutative, and the Distributive.”

“And so it is that we give of our Percent to the One, so that our Percents might come together in both the One and the Hundred, in the glory of Its wholeness.”

“By the Associative, and the Commutative, and the Distributive,” Fidicus replied, joining the other voices and growls and clicks and squeals of mathematical code raised in response to the litany.  Every morning one of the Hierarchs called out the litany, translated into sound and code and several bands of visible light, so that the assembled accountants and collectors and processors would know the truth of their purpose.

Fidicus had heard the litany every day since he’d taken his vows and joined the Roman Fiscal Church, first on Old Earth, and then at each posting he’d held throughout the Empire in the fifteen years since.  He found as much comfort in the ritual as he did in the numbers themselves.  Like the ritual, the numbers provided a comforting dependability.  Begin counting, and twenty reliably came after nineteen, which inevitably followed eighteen.  There was no guesswork.  There were no surprises.  There was only the unfailingly logical progression of mathematics, and behind it all, the wholeness of the One.

“In the Sum of the One, amen.”

“Amen.”  They rose as one as the litany ended, ready to head to their desks and consoles and virtual accounting rigs.  Some took to the air, borne aloft on wings or anti-gravity fields or waves of pure thought.  Only a few, Fidicus among them, paused and stared at the lectern, where the Hierarch responsible for today’s reading had not yet stepped down.  The weathered block of sentient granite made a grinding sound not unlike clearing its throat.  A small cloud of dust puffed out from its mouth.  The sound echoed through the congregation, sending those who had started exiting shuffling meekly back to their seats.

“We have been blessed with a new Holy Code from His Accountancy,” the Hierarch rumbled solemnly.

The hall grew silent.  Fidicus felt his heart pounding in his chest.  It was the very unchanging nature of the Codes that made them sacrosanct.  The last Holy Code had been introduced over two hundred years ago, when Certified Pope Denarius XXVII had adjusted the Codes to account for those members of the Empire who did business in the past or future.  And even that decision had taken decades to come to.  The current Holy Arbiter, Moenus XLV, must have been mulling this decision before Fidicus had even been born.

“Let us Calculate,” the Hierarch continued.  Heads bowed, antennae folded, indicator lights dimmed.  Fidicus listened, his eyes closed.  “Our Holy Arbiter writes, ‘Let it be known, in sight of the Almighty One, that henceforth that part of the One and the Hundred which is to be offered up by those who slumber in the long cold embrace of cryo sleep, shall have their part of the One and the Hundred offset by the time they are held in that embrace, as set forth in the Codicils now being transmitted to your terminals.  May the One keep you in Its wholeness.’  Here endeth the Code.”

“Amen.”  The Hierarch shifted his posterior tectonics and slowly ground away from the lectern.

Fidicus opened his eyes.  It felt as if everyone in the hall had started breathing again as one.  Dozens of excited conversations buzzed in the air, the participants gesturing wildly as they debated the finer points of the new Code.  “Any loss in tax revenue will be more than offset by taxes from the increased use of cryo facilities by those looking to exploit this new Code,” TQ-Zed-37 was holding forth in its most authoritative of pre-programmed voices, the one it usually reserved when it didn’t want anyone arguing with it.  A Koorikyan clerk rapidly chittered with her mandibles, completely oblivious to TQ’s intent.  Fidicus weaved his way through plans and arguments, debates and agreements, and wondered why he didn’t feel the same level of enthusiasm as his fellow clergy.

By the time he’d taken the hoverlift to his office on one of the middle branches of the great Binomial Tree that housed the Church here on Gliese, that lack of enthusiasm had grown into a full-on sense of unease.  Something about the new Code was simply not sitting right with him, but for all his years of study, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.  On its surface, the Code seemed perfectly reasonable.  So perhaps the trouble was not in the concept, but the execution.

He strode quickly into his office and went straight for his terminal, calling up one of his tutorial accounts he frequently used to avoid any possible disasters with a live account when experimenting with possible deductions and discounts.  He had an idea what he wanted to try.

“A tax payer enters cryo sleep…” he muttered to himself as he worked his hands over the input sensors.  “Let’s just assume, oh, above average income, he’d have to afford the cryo somehow … cryo chamber is placed on a temporal freighter heading back, let’s say two centuries, selling weapons to the Insurgency … now apply the discount from the new Code…”  As his hand cut the beam of light that would begin the calculation, his eyes caught the screen and widened in horror.

Fidicus was dividing by zero.

He yanked his hand back, but too late.  The screen froze, shuddered, then filled with an angry burst of static.  The sensor lights dimmed in quick succession, and error reports began furiously pouring from every output port on the terminal:  long spools of thermal paper, flashing beams of light, atonal shrieks of chromatic harmony.  The floor shook, and Fidicus could see leaves shaking loose and falling past his window.

Then from behind him came a loud tearing sound, and everything went still.

“You rang?”

Fidicus felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up at the sound of the voice.  He turned slowly, and for an instant, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a man in a tightly-tailored red suit.  But when Fidicus had fully turned, the man seemed to dart back and forth across his vision, flickering and blurring in a crimson streak.  “I’m sorry?” Fidicus said slowly.

“Come on,” the man said in a voice that shifted from a low distorted drawl to a high squeal, “you called me, so stop wasting my time and tell me what you need.”

Fidicus turned his head from side to side, each time the man snapping into focus just as he reached the edge of Fidicus’ peripheral vision, always becoming indistinct when Fidicus viewed him straight on.  “Who are you?”

“Now you should know better than to ask that,” the man snapped.  “How can you put a name to something that cannot be defined?”

“The Undefined,” Fidicus whispered, forgetting he risked excommunication simply by uttering that name.

“Still using that one, are they?” the Undefined said, a hint of humor creeping into his voice.  “Doesn’t have quite the flair of some of the names from the old days.  Now those had some oomph!”

“In the Beginning, there was the One, which Added to another made Two, yet which Multiplied and Divided by Itself left but One,” Fidicus prayed.

The Undefined gave a harsh laugh.  “You think the One bothers me?  I used to have to deal with three of them.  And where are they now?  Getting sung to by a handful of paupers back on your Old Earth.  Now did you or did you not divide by zero and call me here?”

Fidicus shook his head.  “It was an accident,” he stammered.  “A new Code…”

“They always try to say it was someone else, at first.”  The Undefined set himself down on a nearby chair, yet also appeared as a fuzzy image hanging from the ceiling, while another ghostly image raced around the room.  It hurt to look at him directly, so Fidicus lowered his eyes.  “Yet in the end it’s always the same.  They’re always buying what I’m selling.”

“And just what is it you’re selling?” Fidicus said before he even realized he’d spoken the words.  He glanced up, and the image of the Undefined seemed ever so slightly clearer.

“See!  It’s happening already!”  The Undefined leaned forward eagerly.  “My offer is the same as it’s been since the beginning of time:  whatever you want.”

Fidicus looked away from the ever-sharpening shape.  “That seems rather vague.”

“I’ve never been one for rules and conditions,” the Undefined said, rising.  “Just ask my first boss.  Well, my only boss, really.  I got smacked down pretty hard for saying, ‘This is what I want.’  So I’ve made it my business to see that people get what they want.  It’s simple.”

“But how is there any satisfaction in just being given what one wants?” Fidicus said, slowly backing away as the Undefined walked towards him.  He could almost make out his face now, the sharp, angular cheekbones, the neatly trimmed beard, the piercing eyes.  “Do we not truly cherish that which we strive to achieve?”

The Undefined laughed again.  “That’s what whoever’s in charge would like you to think.  All that toil and strife keeps them in business, what with, ‘O grant me this,’ and ‘Deliver us from that’ all the time.  If people actually got what they wanted, what need would they have to pray for anything ever again?”  He stretched out his arms and smiled.  “Which is where I come in.  Anything you want.  And in exchange for that, no lifetime of servile devotion, but just one simple thing.”

“My soul,” Fidicus said.  His back bumped into his terminal, leaving him nowhere to retreat to.  The Undefined now stood before him fully revealed, and his beauty nearly made Fidicus queasy.

The Undefined nodded.  “Something sorted and ordered within an inch of its life by the rules you follow, with no regard for the inherent chaos all around us!”

“But … but the planets … their orbits…”

“Oh yes, your precious physics.”  He rolled his eyes.  “And yet meteors still strike your worlds, storms still plague your cities, one random being with will and purpose can end the lives of dozens, hundreds, millions.”  He looked right into Fidicus’ eyes.  “Your order is an illusion.  Your soul yearns for the roiling freedom of chaos.  Wouldn’t you love to wake one day not having to slog your way down to listen to that hoary litany that hear every single day?  Wouldn’t you love to have the choice?”

“This is all I have known,” Fidicus said quietly.

The Undefined shook his head sadly.  “What an appalling lack of imagination.”

Fidicus raised his head.  He steeled himself, and met the Undefined’s intense gaze.

“I think I know what I want.”

“Excellent!” The Undefined clapped his hands with glee.  “Now, there’s just some paperwork we need –”

Fidicus raised his hand.  He tried to keep it from trembling.  “I hope you don’t think me rude, but the prudent buyer always samples his wares first.”

The Undefined raised an eyebrow.  “You’re asking me to pass a test?”

“Just answer a simple question.  Surely one who can promise me the universe can do this one small thing?”  His heart raced as the Undefined considered for a moment.  Then the man grinned.

“I accept.”

Fidicus turned and considered his terminal.  The machine was still dark; the power conduits to his office had most likely been blown, so he’d have to do this the old fashioned way.  He found a stray sheet of paper and fumbled for something to write with, finally finding an old stylus that still had some carbon on the tip.  He scrawled quickly, then presented the sheet to the Undefined.  “Tell me what this means.”

The Undefined snatched the sheet away with lazy arrogance.  He considered it, then looked at Fidicus quizzically.  “This is your test?  A math question?”

“Like I said, it’s all I have known.  It would be a comfort.”

The Undefined shrugged, then examined the sheet once again.  “Very well.  This is the square root of negative one.”

There was another loud tearing sound, and a gust of wind scattered hard copy reports around the office.  The Undefined immediately blurred again, his red coloring Dopplering into dozens of different shades as he howled in outrage.  “What have you done?” he bellowed as the wind swept him towards the glowing opening that hung suspended in the air.

Fidicus grinned.  “Order is not the only thing with which we mortal beings have sought to tame the chaos of the universe.  We have also used our imaginations.  To create myths to explain that which we fear.  To express that which we once thought inexpressible.  To send our words out into eternity.”  He shouted over the rising gale.  “And you just read an imaginary number!”

The Undefined’s curse was lost in the din.  The tear was now quivering, as if in anticipation, and the room shook once more.  Fidicus reached out and gripped the edge of his terminal, lest he be pulled into the maelstrom as well.  By now, the Undefined was simply a streak of red swirling along the path of the wind, until he brushed the edge of the tear and was whisked inside with a final inarticulate cry of rage.  The tear closed with a crash, and the sudden silence was nearly as painful to Fidicus’ ears as the noise had been.

The lights came back on.  His terminal was beginning its boot sequence.  His office, a calamity mere moments before, was as ordered as it had been when he’d first entered.  All that remained to give any indication of what had happened was a small sheet of paper with a mathematical symbol drawn on it.

Fidicus slumped to the floor, clutching at the piece of paper.  He struggled to catch his breath.  Facing down the Undefined himself had been easy.  Now he had to summon the courage to tell the Hierarchs that the Holy Arbiter had been wrong.  He wasn’t sure he wouldn’t have preferred facing the Undefined again.

He thought he saw a flash of red before his eyes, and dashed from his office to speak to the first Hierarch he could find.

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4 thoughts on “By Zero

  1. Pingback: New Story: “By Zero” «

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