The Number

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 11, 2019

Reads: 92

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Submitted: June 11, 2019



            It was a Thursday—although not, strictly-speaking, Thor’s day—and I awoke from a nap with a number across my eyes.  I mean that quite literally:  there was a long, long number in the lower left-hand field of my vision, like a heads-up display.  The font was sans serif (Arial, maybe?) and the digits a medium blue.  Here is the exact number:


I could look at the number directly, or look up and away from it, banishing it to my peripheral vision.  It persisted even when I closed my eyes, sort of in the way that “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” persists even when you put cotton in your ears and press your hands really, really hard against your skull; so hard, in fact, that your nose starts to bleed.
            Now, by crossing my eyes like a Çatalhöyük[1] shepherd I could verify that a separate version of the number was visible to both my eyes independently.  The number was just floating there, in stereo, dull yet insidious, like the people you meet at church picnics.
            I didn’t panic at first, perhaps because I thought I was dreaming.  I’ve got to stop playing so many video games.  This wasn’t even the weirdest thing I had ever seen upon waking, mind you: once, I woke up in a ditch in the Qattara Depression, staring sideways at a Rüppell’s fox eating a beetle.  How that happened is kind of a long story, but I’ve just started telling an even longer story, so I hope not to be distracted.
            As I was saying, I didn’t panic at first, but within twenty seconds or so, I did start to freak out.  What the fuck?  Am I hallucinating?
            My freak out was very similar to the freak out that Jacopo Dondi dell'Orologio had in 1390 when his beloved clock tower was destroyed in the war.[2]  The freak outs were similar not in cause, mind you, but in degree.  The freak outs had a similar vibe, in retrospect.  But that is neither here nor there.
            I stood up.  There was a momentary disorientation when I realized I was already dressed and that sunlight was seeping in through the west-facing window of my bedroom.  It was late afternoon.  I must have been napping.  I couldn’t recall why I had decided to take a nap in the first place.  I don’t generally take naps.
            I stumbled into the bathroom and lurched up to the mirror.  I stared into the mirror with both eyes, then with one, then with the other.  I didn’t know what I expected to see.  Well, OK, maybe I did know: I expected to see the number written onto my sclera with a blue sharpie, perhaps.  But there was nothing.  The whites of my eyes were slightly bloodshot but the number wasn’t visible in the mirror.  The face I saw was tired and not a little crazed.  It looked like a stranger.
            In fact, the face in the mirror looked like one of my doppelgängers— specifically the one born in Diedenhofen in 1890, who died from typhus in World War I.
            But anyway.
            The number was still floating in my field of vision.
            I am dreaming.  This is a dream, of course.  I am dreaming.  
            But it didn’t feel like a dream; the details were too specific, too visceral. And not surprisingly I was starting to feel a bit anxious.
            How to describe my anxiety?  You know that feeling when you’re patting down your pockets, you can’t find your wallet, it’s not on the counter, it’s not on the bedside table, it’s not anywhere you usually put it; maybe you left it at the House of Ribs in Madrid?  Multiply that feeling by 2?i.  That is, the anxiety was about six times worse, but imaginary.
            I poked and prodded my eyes, roughly, feeling for contact lenses.  I didn’t wear contacts, but maybe someone had put contacts in without my consent.  How exactly could someone accomplish that?  I must have been drugged, right?  Have they developed robots that can put contact lenses into unconscious people?[3]  But there were no contacts.  Fuck.  I slapped myself hard across the face and screamed at the mirror.  I stared at myself and tried to snap myself back to reality but reality didn’t return.  Or rather, reality did return, but that reality had a number in it, a 72-digit number, that squatted upon the ground and mocked me.
            And ate of my heart.
            And at my bedside table there was a glass (really, a washed-out kudzu jelly jar) with maybe an inch of water at the bottom.  I sniffed the glass.  Drugs?  I couldn’t smell anything—no alcohol for sure—but if there had been some sort of roofie in the water, I didn’t think I would know.  Or would I?  g-hydroxybutyric acid has a distinctly salty taste, which—
            Sorry.  Getting distracted.
            The digital clock on my bedside table said 6:41 pm.  There was maybe an hour and a half of daylight left.  Had I really taken a nap?  On Thursdays that semester, I only taught one class at the community college, Calculus I, and that was from 9:45 am to 11 am.  I remembered what I had discussed that day: integration by parts.  I hadn’t talked about numbers at all.  Especially not 72-digit numbers.  “Suppose you want to integrate some function u, maybe u as a function of v.  That amounts to finding this area, here, under the curve, from v(a) to v(b).  Now tilt your head sideways.”  Do you see a desert fox?  “See how the points a and b define a different area, the area on this side of the curve, from u(a) to u(b)?  These areas are related.  See, if you take this rectangle, and subtract this section, and then—”
            And so on.
            The number hadn’t changed.  Or had it?  I realized that there wasn’t any way for me to know.  Only one way to make sure.  I went into the kitchen and fumbled around in the junk drawer and ignored the screwdrivers and batteries and Gorilla Glue and chapstick and paper clips and flash drives and a dime bag and Sharpies and found a yellow legal pad and a blue pen and wrote the damnable number down.  The blue ink matched the HUD:

            Well then.
            After pouring myself a glass of pomegranate juice I took the yellow legal pad and walked into the living room to sit down at my desktop computer.  It was already on; the screen saver was vintage flying toasters.  I zig-zagged the mouse to awaken the silicon beast.
            Fuck fuck fuck I’m going crazy.  I sipped my drink.  I enjoyed how sweet the juice was, and how it was mine, and how it was bitter.
            I brought up Chrome.  My homepage, of course, was Google.  Why have any other page as your homepage?  Don’t you want to have all human knowledge at your fingertips?  I was poised to type something into the searchbar when I noticed that one of my newsfeeds said that Prince had died.  That bothered me a little: I liked Prince.  I liked his guitar playing.  I liked how he’d play basketball with you and then make you blueberry pancakes afterward.
            So it was that “Sometimes it Snows in April” was going through my head[4] when I typed

seeing numbers in front of me

into the searchbar.
            The results described nothing remotely like my predicament.  There was a lot of stuff about “Angel Numbers”, though; apparently if you looked at the clock and it read “11:11” or some such nonsense, it was an angel trying to send you a message.  Like, reminding you to pick up your clothes at the drycleaners.  Or telling you not to get off the bus at Puch-d’Agenais but to continue on instead to Bordeaux.  Or suggesting you plant the sorghum in May instead of early June.  Or telling you, it’s time to wake up, John.  You’re real life’s about to start.  Numerology nonsense.
            I’m batshit crazy, aren’t I?
            The number didn’t glow, or pulse, or move; it just sat there, sure in its own importance.  It was not too distracting visually, in the same way that a small health bar in the corner of the screen isn’t that distracting in a video game.  No, it wasn’t distracting, but it was disturbing.  I could not not see it.  I kept looking at it, even though I didn’t really want to.  I kept picking at it, like a scab.  It was that piece of popcorn stuck between your teeth that keeps you from enjoying a movie.  Which movie?  Memento, maybe.  Or The Matrix.  Or Pi.  Or Fight Club.  I felt like I could be in any of those movies right about then.  Or in a book:  The Three-Body Problem came to mind.  In that book, a scientist saw a countdown across his field of vision, as a warning to stop his research.  Only, my number wasn’t counting down.  Or was it?
            And then I thought, maybe I should call someone.  But who?  Jessica would have been working at the Justice Center.  Angela and Mark had said they were taking their kids to see The Jungle Book.  Christopher, well, who knows?  He was probably playing World of Warcraft.
            The more I thought about it, though, the more I didn’t want to call anyone just yet.  I figured that I was either (1) drugged, and hallucinating, or (2) mentally ill, and hallucinating, or (3) experiencing the neurological side effect of some physical problem, such as a stroke.
            Is this a strange form of aphasia?  Have I been hit in the head?  My head felt OK and there were no visible signs of trauma, and I hadn’t lost function in any physical part of my body.  I mean, the left side of my body hadn’t gone numb or anything like that.  But when things happen to the brain, like a concussion, weird things could occur, right?  And a concussion wouldn’t have been outwardly obvious.  Is this related to Tourette’s?  Do I have epilepsy?  I wasn’t a doctor so I didn’t have any idea.
            I spent the next hour or so Googling various neurological ailments and working myself up into a panic.  You know how you get a rash on your leg and you convince yourself, through the internet, that you have Lyme Disease?  I convinced myself that I had dozens of different afflictions.  But I never even considered going to the hospital.  A part of me felt embarrassed, ashamed even, of talking about the number with someone else.  I imagined calling 911:
            “This is 911, what’s your emergency?”
            “Um, well, I have a number floating in front of me.  It’s a very long number.”
            “Sir, have you been drinking?  Taking any drugs?”
            “I’ve been eating cereal.”
            “I think I may be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”
            No, I wasn’t going to call anyone just yet.
            And it was now dark.  I hadn’t eaten dinner, but I didn’t care; I had no appetite.  A microwaved Totino’s hamburger pizza didn’t sound too great right about now.  The number was there, still there, a splinter in the mind’s eye that wouldn’t go away.[5]
            The number.
            But then I thought: I am a mathematician.  I should be able to figure out a number, right?  No matter that my specialty in grad school was group theory.  I doubted my Master’s thesis had a single number in the entire thing, except for incidental numbers like “See Theorem 3.4.13, the Jordan-Hölder Theorem”.  But that number, that fucking 72-digit number, I should have been able to puzzle it out, right?
            I went to  In the calculation bar I typed

Prime factors of 972046672959245108202723267418663835019578697625551344977427528239324403

The Wolfram Research corporation told me that the “standard computation time” had been exceeded, whatever that meant.  So I didn’t know if the number was prime, or not.  I was told, however, that the number could be approximated by
9.72 × 1071,
which was patently obvious by looking at it.  The number of protons in the known universe is something like 1080, so I was below that threshold.  Whoop-de-doo.
            Did I sense something, then, crouching in the dark?  Who is to say?
            I played around with the number for a while longer, almost at random.  It didn’t look like the digits of ? or e anything like that.  Nothing about it rang a bell.  The digits added up to 329, which itself was not prime, being the product of 7 and 47.  Looking at the digits themselves, and doing a sort of census, I saw that the digit 2 occurred most frequently, and that the digit 1 occurred least frequently.
            This is all bullshit.  What the fuck am I doing?
            Then I thought to google the number itself—why hadn’t I thought of that?
            I put the number into the Google searchbar.

Your search -972046672959245108202723267418663835019578697625551344977427528239324403- did not match any documents.


  • Make sure all words are spelled correctly.
  • Try different keywords.
  • Try more general keywords.

Maybe it was a string of phone numbers?  But no: 72 was not divisible by 7, nor divisible by 10.  What area code was given by the first three digits, 972?  The Eastern part of Dallas.  Hmm.  I didn’t know anyone in Texas, nor did I want to.  I couldn’t motivate myself to take the first ten digits and call anyone.
            How about social security numbers?  72 was divisible by 9.  So maybe the number was just 8 different SSN’s.  A quick Google search told me, though, that very, very few social security numbers had ever been issued that began with a 9.
            Why am I even doing this?  If I’m hallucinating, or crazy, or have had a stroke, then the number means nothing.  It’s pointless.  I might as well have a bowl of Cocoa Puffs.  I might as well write out the Jordan-Hölder Theorem in calligraphy on the back of the actual Declaration of Independence.
            Which I did do, once before.  With a Sharpie.
            But anyway.
            How about zip codes?  97204 was in Portland, Oregon.  Coincidentally, that was a zip code I’d been to: it included the Morrison Bridge, a bridge that I had crossed.  Unfortunately, the next five numbers, 66729, corresponded to a zip code for Värmland, Sweden.  I’d never been to Sweden (at least, not in ages) but I did once make a Flying Jacob casserole for a picnic.
            It was getting late for a school night, almost 10 pm.  I had an 8 am class in the morning.  Did I intend to go to work?  Surprisingly, I did.  Even now I’m not sure why.  Maybe I couldn’t stand the idea of being alone at home with the number.  Maybe I just needed something else to do to get my mind off that bullshit.  Masturbation can only get you so far.  I got up from my computer without turning it off.
            For the first time since my nap, I checked my smartphone.  Christopher had texted, wanting to know if I wanted to play racquetball the next day at 4:15.  I hesitated, then texted back “sure”.  I didn’t think a 72-digit number in my field of vision would be too much of a handicap.
            On the way to the kitchen to get a snack (hunger had finally caught up with me) I passed my synthesizer keyboard in the dining room.  It gave me an idea: maybe the number was a musical message, somehow?  Something like Rush’s YYZ in Morse code or Schostakovich’s DSCH or Bach’s BACH or the spell to summon prince Orcus imbedded in the Barney theme song.  Each number may be a note—
            Over the next half hour I “translated” the number into musical notation while eating some dried, chopped dates.  For lack of any better ideas, I stayed in the key of C and let 0 = C, 1 = D, 2 = E, etc., up to 7 = C’ (one octave higher), 8 = D’, and 9 = E’.  I then played the “melody” with the keyboard set to grand piano.
            It was awful, truly awful.  But it was also a fitting soundtrack to my day, in an Eyes Wide Shut, György Ligeti-sort of way.[6]
            Later, in the bathroom, I opened my eyes as wide as possible—my best impression of the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange, eyelids stretched open to their maximum.  Eyes wide open.  I thought: two Kubrick movies in two minutes.  That’s got to be a personal stream-of-consciousness record.  Whatever you do, I told myself, don’t think of Full Metal Jacket.
            And of course the number was still before my eyes.  The number could not be seen in the mirror.  I pried at my eyeball with the back end of a toothbrush, thinking of Isaac Newton, who placed a bodkin betwixt eye and bone—but there was nothing, no number, no trauma, no clue, just pain and purple after-images on my retina.  I even took a few wide-eyed selfies, then zoomed in on the photos, but there was nothing to be seen.  Maybe I have some weird eye disease.  Or some parasite, eating at my optic nerve—
            I checked the number a final time, digit-by-digit.  It hadn’t changed.  If it was counting, up or down, it was counting very slowly.
            I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight, am I?  When I closed my eyes, the number was still there: cold, blue, nefarious, like a pedophile standing in the snow.  I was going to need some chemical help.
            I took two Xanax with another glass of pomegranate juice.  I neglected to lock the deadbolt of my front door, as was my habit.
            While waiting for the drug to kick in, I sat down at my keyboard, selected harpsichord, and began to play a piece by Couperin: Les Barricades Mysterieuses.  It’s a baroque piece from 1717, almost 300 years old, now.  I’d always been intrigued by its mosaic-like harmonic progressions, its sense of going somewhere and going nowhere at the same time.  Its repetitions which aren’t quite repetitions after all.  Its struggle against a barricade which isn’t definable, much less visible.  Its repeats which aren’t quite repeats after all.  Its struggle against a wall which cannot be seen and cannot be defined.
            I played the piece again and again and again and again.

            It was on the 23rd repeat of the piece that someone crept up behind me, grabbed my hair forcibly, and brought a rusty fillet knife scraping against my larynx.  I noticed a spectacular jet of blood before I lost consciousness.



[1] I pride myself on not being racist.  However, as the town of Çatalhöyük was abandoned before the Bronze age, I feel fully justified in my long-standing hatred of these cross-eyed tossers.

[2] This, despite the fact that dell'Orologio had already died some 60 years earlier.

[3] They have.

[4] Not “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.

[5] Did I have a kaiburr crystal lodged in my skull?

[6] My life is not a work in major key or minor key, but (I suspect) a sort of twelve-tone muddle.

© Copyright 2019 Matthew Rave. All rights reserved.


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