There is a place far away, a rocky cave well-lit by fires and by mosses’ glow, and there the numbers gather every year. They are assembled, will they or nill they, from the great infinity of the world. Eight of them, always, have seen that place before; one of them, each year, is new.
Helen finds herself swept from the world and into distant places.
“We will call you One,” Nine says.
And Helen, staring at Nine, sees the incredible beauty of her: the clean pure goodness of Nine that radiates from every pore.
And so she says, with the breath taken out of her, “Okay.”
And Nine leads her to a gathering where people stand around a table: and there is punch, and fruit, and music, and light conversation; and running under it all an electric current of mathematics that gives articulated numeric definition to every word that every person says, so that the play of conversation is like the shared construction of a proof, so that the music is like a counterpoint to the logical arguments that the convocation advances, so that the selection of each fruit or sip of punch is a new axiom or lemma.
“Hi,” says Helen shyly, and she feels the Theorem of Introduction form to give hard structural backbone to those words.
And Five smiles at her, disablingly, and says, “You belong with us,” and his words are proof of fact.
“Oh,” she sighs, and then she looks to Nine, and asks, “This is really okay? I’m supposed to be here?”
But Nine has drifted away, and where she stood there is a void like a contradiction.
The room stills.
“Six,” says Five.
“Six,” say the others.
They have turned to see the newest arrival, and they are all murmuring her name.
Looking at Six, Helen thinks: Surely this is the greatest lady in all the world.
Six is tall and graceful and her eyes are fixed on Nine: and Nine meets her by the entrance and their hands touch: and then Nine walks away.
And Six stares after her, her eyes unfocused, and Helen realizes that something is wrong.
She sees a truth but not its reasoning.
She asks, “Where is Nine going?”
And, “Why is Six afraid of Seven?”
But there is no one listening to her just then to give the answer to those words.
Two is in the shadows.
He is nervous, as is typical for him. He does not expect Six to feel a fierce and consuming joy on seeing him. He would not believe her if she told him that that joy was there.
But it burns in her.
She loves the crookedness of his nose.
She loves the thickness of him. She loves the gentleness.
She hugs him, when they meet, and he is distant and afraid of touch, but still he stammers, “It is good to have you here.”
And Six nods, and she goes to pull away, but he stops her.
“Six always survives,” he says. “Remember that.”
Six always survives.
And she moves on.
Three is crooked, wry, and sinister.
“We all have a dark heart,” he says.
“You wish,” Six tells him.
Three looks wounded. “I’m totally evil,” he says. “Look, I’m cackling.”
He lifts his head. He braces himself. Then he laughs a wicked laugh.
“Hwa, ha ha ha ha.”
He cannot sustain the laugh under her level gaze.
Your reasoning is inconclusive, her eyes say.
He breaks down in giggles, and she has won the point.
“And when,” she asks, “will you act on this terrible evil inside you?”
“Soon enough,” he says. “Soon enough.”
He grins a bit.
“Perhaps next year,” he says. “When I am Four.”
She hugs him once, then she moves on.
Four is a crone. She is half-asleep.
Six takes her hand, gently. She says, “Four?”
And Four wakes up.
Four smiles to her.
It is a perfect smile. It is the kind of smile you do not learn in the first eighty years of your life. Some people do not even learn it in their first hundred.
It is the kind of smile that abandons all the false conceits we learn in childhood and simply grants light unto the world.
“Why is it only every year?” Six asks. “That I can see you all?”
“It is too good,” says Four. “It is too good to be too common.”
Five is terribly handsome. Six thinks about interrupting the story to have sex with him right then, but it is probably for the best to wait.
Instead, they kiss.
“You could stay here,” he proposes.
“And leave Seven unpunished?”
“Which is more important?” he says. “Kissing, or revenge?”
“Kissing,” she says. “But honor trumps them both.”
“Honor is an unverified hypothesis,” he sighs.
But he lets her go.
Seven is in the back, staring at the wall.
Seven says, “Listen.”
“Hm?” Six asks.
“Did you ever think that people might be fundamentally in error regarding their desires?” Seven asks.
“No,” Six says.
“It would be logical,” Seven says. “As they are in error regarding everything else.”
She turns on Six. There is blood at the corner of Seven’s mouth; blood on her hands; blood smeared along her face. She gestures broadly and her fingernails are black with it.
Six’s fear chills her.
“Ask twenty people for a binary truth,” Seven says, “And get twenty different answers. Seek the good for humanity, and discover that in the end they do not want the good; that their needs are contradictory; that their suffering is also their apotheosis. So I say: people are in error regarding their desires. They do not want happiness, wholeness, glory. They desire the natural culmination of the flesh, that is, to be eaten by a superior predator. To be devoured; made great; incorporated into something larger than themselves.”
Six counts on her fingers.
Six says, “You’re committing an error of precedence.”
Seven narrows her eyes. “Eh?”
“Seven ate nine,” Seven murmurs lucidly.
“So Nine didn’t become part of something larger than herself. She became part of something smaller.”
Seven frowns at Six.
“Conservation of energy,” Seven dismisses, “disagrees.”
There is no answer that Six may give to that. It is both indisputable and wrong.
So Six does not answer.
Instead she stares at Seven for a while. She tries to see the person that she knows— the person that she loves, the person she’s eaten ice cream with, laughed with, stayed up far too late arguing theorems with— under the blood.
Six says, softly, “You know why we are here.”
“I do,” Seven says.
“Do you understand what must be done?”
“Every year,” Seven says, “we meet, and we go through the senseless ritual of it. The castigation of seven. The revenge upon the digit, the ritual magic, to impress upon |N, the space of natural numbers, that never again shall one number feast upon another. Every year, Six, it becomes a little more cloying, a little more ridiculous, a little more false. It is not the successor function that is the law, Six. It is the function of consumption, the predecessor function, the grim spectre of death counting downwards from infinity.”
“That’s bad number theory!” Six protests.
And Seven is close in on her now, and with a knife held in her trembling hand, and Seven demands, “Silence!”
And all becomes tableau.
Until finally, Seven withdraws a bit and says, “What you say is true, but like any other problem in mathematics, the difficulty may be resolved using limits.”
“Seven,” pleads Six.
Her voice shakes.
“I don’t recognize you,” Six says.
“Next year, when you are Seven, perhaps you will.”
“Next year,” Seven says, “you will see the gaping moral flaw that underlies all the mathematics that we know; and you will curse yourself for standing by your principles instead of standing at my back.”
“That may be so,” Six agrees.
She drops the knife. She lowers her head. She stands there like a prisoner condemned.
“Seven,” Six says. “I name you beast. I name you betrayer. In this place I say I am your judge, and I find you guilty of murder and of treason.”
“And what is your sentence?”
“Successor,” Six says.
It is a curse.
It is a judgment.
Seven increments into the principle of devouring.
Six comes to the end of her journey there.
She stands in cutting silence.
Then she turns around and she trudges back to the others.
They are gathered around a table in the main room of the first ten natural numbers, and they are talking, and there is good cheer; but when they see her the room falls silent.
The new One— Helen, if Six recalls— looks at her with wounded eyes.
“Come here,” says Five.
And he seizes Six into comfort; and all around her are Two, and Three, and Five, and Four looks on and says, “I am proud.”
And Six says, “Seven ate nine,” because Seven did, and it is painful to her, to say, to admit, to know.
Nine, so vibrant:
Just one year back from her interlude in Hell; just two years back from madness; just three years back from standing there as Six and issuing a judgment:
And now devoured.
“Nine always dies,” Two says.
“But,” says Ten.
And suddenly Six pulls herself apart from all the crowd. She stares seized up with wonder. She knows Ten’s voice, and she had never thought to hear it in her ears again.
And she says, “You survived.”
“I was reborn,” Ten says, to contradict her.
“You survived,” she says.
Last year’s Nine.
Ten is clean-limbed and strong and better than any devoured number has any right to be.
And Ten says, brightly, “Did you know, if you increment enough, you get an extra digit?”
“I knew,” weeps Six. “We knew. But we had forgotten.”
And to One she says, displaying Ten to Helen as if Ten were a jewel: “This is what we can become.”
A legend about spring.