“By the Numbers” by Lynn Kilmore
Mel liked it that the new mathematics building on campus had three steps up to the main doors. She liked how it squatted rectangular under the thin dry air of New Mexico; its whitewashed adobe walls were stark against the pale blue sky of winter.
The mysterious alien object couldn’t be seen in the sky at the moment, but she knew it was there in orbit, just like everyone else did.
The object had arrived sixteen days ago at an 80 degree angle to the elliptical plane of the solar system, but as yet there had been no contact or signal or anything. It just waited, silent, a featureless octagonal prism (except for the engines upon one octagon face that had maneuvered the object into Earth orbit) that measured 5.12 kilometers on each side, circling the Earth three times a day.
She liked how 512 was equal to eight cubed. Maybe the aliens had built the object and chosen its behavior to deliberately reflect the number eight to humans.
She’d gone over to the physics department rooftop last night to watch the alien object cross the dark of the cloudless cold night sky with the other shivering professors and students, making sure not to stand too close to anyone, as everyone shared their mindcom data and calculations about what the alien object might or might not do.
For now, university president Dr. Lee had decided that spring semester would start at New Mexico Tech as usual. They were all trying to go on with their lives, to endure the not knowing. There would be an agonizing wait for the first emergency reconnaissance probe from Earth to be sent to the object.
Some of the precious data might be shared with civilians. She could only hope so.
The mathematics building recognized her signal from her mindcom, and opened the doors for her as she strode in to the comforting pattern of eleven classroom doors on the right side of the main hallway, and thirteen on the left.
She loved the number thirteen and the superstitions around it. It was up there with zero and three and nine as her favorite numbers.
One of her games was to look for the missing thirteen when she went on conference travel. It never ceased to amaze her how neurotypicals could lie to themselves about there not being a thirteenth floor if they just left the number off the elevator buttons.
Her eyevid screens shifted to completely letting in the dim light of the hallway. So much better than the sunglasses of her youth for filtering the bright outdoor sunlight, without turning everything a dark beige to look at.
She’d arrived early enough that the hallways were empty of students, instead of overwhelmingly crowded with the unbearable stenches of perfumes and sweat stink, and the maddening talk talk talk, and the horrible danger of being brushed against accidentally by some clumsy student (her skin flinched just thinking about it).
Her footsteps echoed as she headed for the main lecture hall, and she savored how quiet and empty the hallway was.
She preferred teaching as early in the morning as the university would allow her, so today her first class of the semester would be at 8:00 a.m., an hour that many of the students always whined about, but as far as she was concerned, if they wanted to sleep in late, they could take Calculus I with someone else.
Or quit for all she cared. This was a university of science and engineering, and she expected more from them than partying and lazy data retrieval of answers from their mindlibraries or junk websites.
She’d make them think.
Another message appeared in the corner of her right eyevid from Uncle Stan about his fundraiser for autism research, and in irritation she deleted it unread with the flick of a compchipped finger. Why should she support genetic breakthroughs that were well on their way to making autistics like her extinct? For over fifty-seven years her parents had accepted her as she was, autism and all, but her uncle – like many neurotypicals – seemed to think all autistics were broken and in need of fixing.
The lecture hall door opened for her, and on her right eyevid was displayed that it was currently 15.6 degrees Celsius in the lecture hall. She liked cold, the colder the better, but the students would not.
So now came her favorite ritual of starting a morning of teaching. She stood at the front of the dark lecture hall, outstretched her brown-skinned hands as if she were a conductor, and gestured that the orchestra should play louder.
Through the compchips implanted in her fingertips the signals were sent to the lecture hall to raise the lights and the temperature.
The lecture lights turned on and brightened.
But not too bright. Bright enough to see by, but not so bright that everyone would need to adjust their eyevid screens to block out some of the light.
Then she dug the two robotic jammers out of her tweed jacket’s pocket and flung them at the ceiling. They opened their wings and flew up like ladybugs to settle on the ceiling tiles of the lecture hall.
The jammers were to her own special requirements. They allowed her to mindlink with her students for the lecture, but would block their attempts to either access their mindlibraries or the worldnet.
With her they’d have to rely on their own wits and memory, just like she’d had to when she was a student.
It gave her satisfaction to see the alien-ship-tracker app she had running in a corner of her left eyevid disappear. Her connection with the outside world had been cut off. Then she tried to pull up her mindlibraries and was pleased to find that she couldn’t. She and her students would be flying solo in this class, and they’d have to be able to do the equations and think on their own with no mindcom crutch, no worldwide library to peek into for easy answers.
When the Calculus I students dribbled in, one or two at a time, some bleary and resentful, Mel was ready for them and watched them stumble to their seats to slump and grumble and whine to themselves about the terrible hour.
Intermixed with the grumblers were students who sat upright and looked around, alert. She flipped on the ID app on her eyevids to display the name of each student, and also flipped on the mindcom program she’d made that would associate each student with a file that would track his or her facial expressions and body language.
Sometimes, when she couldn’t figure out how she’d messed up in communicating with a neurotypical again, she would run the file records and be able to figure it out. There were times she thought about the bad old days before eyevids and mindcoms, and wondered how she’d managed to stay sane while trying to figure out all those facial expressions and body postures and weird social language rules like sarcasm, without access to mindfile recordings to play over and over again to analyze.
It was 7:59:59 a.m. according to her eyevid. Time to get started.
She stepped forward and all heads turned to her. In the low lighting of the lecture hall, she could see how all their eyes had the soft glow of the eyevids. However, she could not look too directly at their faces, for their subtle muscle tics and twitches would make it impossible for her to focus, let alone talk.
She faked being able to look them straight in the eyes.
“Good morning,” she said. “I am Dr. Melaine Sharps, and this is Calculus I.” She would not let these student strangers call her “Mel.”
She sent out her mindcom signal for the jammers to go into full operational mode. “In my classes, we do things the old fashioned way. No looking the answers up to my questions during class.”
Loud groans from the students. One guy, with a buzz cut to show off his mindcom implants, raised his hand.
She ignored him. She knew what he was going to say.
“You are being jammed,” she continued, “as well as monitored, so I’ll know if you try to use your mindlibraries as well.”
The guy still had his hand up. She hated how the tendons in his thick neck tightened like sheets being twisted. He was really going to be a pain in the ass about this.
She said, “You must be able to understand Calculus without just repeating back to me looked-up answers.”
Now the guy stood up. “Ma’am – I mean Professor, I–”
“I didn’t give you permission to speak. Sit down.”
He sat, but then he said, “The newsfeeds on the alien–”
“Feeds are a distraction I won’t allow in my class, even for myself.” She could smell the mixture of sweat and aftershave and scented soap and perfumes from these students, and hated how the flavors could almost be tasted on her tongue. “What’s the numerical value of e to four decimal places?” She checked the buzz cut guy’s ID label on her eyevids. “Mr. Dawes, what’s the value? Quickly now.”
His neck muscles tightened and loosened, tightened and loosened, as he floundered to give her an answer without access to his mental library or the worldnet.
Freshman, she thought. Probably came from a lousy high school.
“I’m waiting, Mr. Dawes,” she said.
His face was getting flushed. “If you’ll just drop the jamm–”
From the way the students were reacting, she had sixty-one students who would be fine with the jammers running, and eleven who were going to have a bad attitude about it.
Mr. Dawes looked to be the worst of the bunch.
Her years of hard effort to memorize human expressions told her that the way his mouth muscles had scrunched up was the expression for “sullen.”
“Anyone know the answer without having to look it up?” she said.
Both answers were blurted out at the same time by two students in the front row of the lecture hall.
No surprise there.
“Let’s begin,” she said, and flipped on the mindlink between herself and the students. She brought into being the lightboard she would write upon with her fingers. It hung, seemingly in mid-air, behind her.
If they were all to take off their eyevids, they would see that there was nothing really there where the lightboard was.
“I make the same demands on myself I make on you,” she said. “I don’t use notes for my lectures. I do them by memory. If I can do it, you can do it, too. It just takes practice.”
When Mel sent the signal to turn off the jammers, the mindlink broke down between them all, so the students couldn’t see the numbers that wrote themselves across the lightboard screen: 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 –
Dawes gave an incoherent yell. His eyevids were bright with feed glows being scrolled through by him. “The aliens started talking while we were being jammed, and we missed out on it!”
She flinched at the noise. She hated yelling. Hated it.
An uproar of exclamations and excited squeals as the students linked back in to the worldnet to access the feeds, and she had to plug her ears to block out the distraction of the noises to try to think.
She counted primes in her head to calm down: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 –
Thirteen did the trick, her favorite number. She’d been counting since a girl whenever the sensory overload got to be too much to handle, and it was a rare situation where she had to count beyond thirteen.
On her lightboard, there were those Fibonacci numbers that had been sent.
Then she realized something else. Her mindcom messaging system had posts coming in, all the same, all with the eight Fibonacci numbers that had appeared on her lightboard.
She swallowed a couple of times. What exactly is going on here?
Her students had all sat back down, despite class being over, staring intently at their eyevids. She could see the flicker of long message queues scrolling by on their eyevid displays.
She unplugged her fingers from her ears, and flipped off her lightboard.
Her mouth felt so dry she couldn’t get the words out at first. “Is anyone else getting mathematical patterns in their messaging systems?”
A huge chorus of “Yes” from everyone in the lecture hall.
Her heart rate sped up. The alien object in orbit had to be the source.
Now that the uproar amongst the students had calmed down, she could hear the muffled clamor from the hallways. She and the Calculus I students weren’t the only ones getting messages through their mindcoms.
“Are any of you getting a series of numbers?” she finally got out. Hard to speak when it felt like a lump had permanently lodged itself into her throat.
“Yes,” Dawes said. “I’ve got 1 … then 1, 1 … then 1, 2, 1 … then 1, 3, and then it ends.”
“Pascal’s triangle,” she said. Shivers of excitement ran up and down her spine.
“That’s not what I’ve got,” another student said from the front row. “I’ve got pi to seven decimal places in my messages.”
“What is this?” Dawes said. “Why is my messaging filling up with the same junk repeated?” His fingers moved around as if he were brushing away flies, but she knew he was deleting most of the messages to try to clear out his queue.
Her messaging system was filling up fast as well. All the posts were the same Fibonacci numbers, repeated over and over. At the rate the messages were pouring in, any message the university tried to send in an emergency through the mindcoms would be bounced….
Oh, crap. “Everyone,” she said, “get ready to go back to your dorm rooms or homes for the day. The messaging network may be going down for a few hours.”
Dawes took that moment to shout out, “They’re jamming our mindcom systems to invade!”
That turned her class into a squealing screaming mass of panicked students.
“QUIET!” she shouted. “SIT DOWN! You will all remain calm. That is an order.”
It worked, though she didn’t know if she could hold them in control if they panicked again.
Dawes opened his mouth–
“Shut up!” she shouted at him. “Or I’ll report you to Dr. Lee as the instigator of an unnecessary mass panic, and you’ll be held responsible for anyone who gets injured.” Softer, she said, “All of you, pack your things and line up. I’m escorting you back to the dorms.”
Her jammers. Would she even be able to send them a mindcom signal? She made sure not to stare at the two jammers (so that the students would not panic if she failed in retrieving them) as she sent the signal for them to return to her, and she wanted to shout in relief as they flew down to land on her outstretched wrist.
“Do you have more of those?” Dawes asked. “Those could be useful for blocking out the crap coming through right now.”
She double-checked her messaging queue – already it was more than two-thirds full. Not much time left then. “No, I only have these two.” She flipped them off and put them in her pants’ pockets where it would be hard for them to be stolen from her.
The students were all lined up as elementary school students would be. This was ridiculous.
However, she took a moment to flip on a newsvid feed to see what might be happening … but instead all she got was a changing visual display of the Mandelbrot set. A beautiful fractal show, but not the news.
Now her mouth tasted like she’d been sucking on her dad’s collection of old pennies and dimes.
She didn’t like the way Dawes kept looking around, as if aliens with lasers were going to pop out from behind the lecture hall seats in the far back.
If he panicked, he was likely to trigger a stampede by the entire class.
Well, first things first, she had to get these seventy-two students down the hallway and outside. She didn’t know if the maintenance systems for the mathematics building were stable with the overflow of signals going on, so her students would be safer outside if the building’s computer systems crashed.
The thin layer of morning frost on the grass and sidewalks had already evaporated as Mel led her students toward the large quads near the dorms. She noticed that many of the other professors had had the same realization she’d had, for they were also leading their students out of the buildings in fire drill fashion to the quads.
No winds today, and the air was already too warm for her to see her own breath. Desert sunlight would make it warm enough for the students to stay outside all day, if the computer systems for the buildings remained dangerously overloaded, but after dark the temperature would drop to just below freezing again.
She brought her students to a halt near Martinez Hall to wait. A few were crying, but most simply milled around her the way she’d seen sheep do. It felt like she was being constricted into a tight elevator with too many smelly warm bodies too close.
Dr. Alex Papadopolus from physics brought his long line of Physics II students to a halt near her and came over to join her. He opened up a circle around her by gently making her students – including Dawes – step back.
It felt like she could breathe again, and she gulped in the dry air. And it felt good to have Dawes no longer so close that it felt like he was looming over her shoulder.
“What do you think, Mel?” Alex said. “Base 10? It’s absurd.”
“I agree,” she said. “It ought to be Base 8. They did the conversion to our numerical system.”
Alex ran his hands across his scalp, making his gray hair stand straight up. He chewed at his cracked lips the way he always did when he was talking about research. “My queue’s filling up fast. I got the first eight primes. What did you get?” His breath smelled of link sausages and fried eggs.
“Eight Fibonacci numbers.”
They both looked around. The quads were filling up with students, but so far there was no sound of sirens anywhere on campus or from town, nor any smoke rising in the air.
Then he looked upward, and she did as well, and she knew both of them were adjusting their eyevids to the highest resolution possible to study the desert sky.
No sign of any alien probes descending. And it wasn’t time yet for the next pass above them of the alien object in orbit.
She ran a quick scan of her mindcom systems. Everything was up and running normally, except that her messaging systems were now crammed full with the Fibonacci posts, and her news vidfeeds were spewing out Mandelbrot set animations.
But she could link up with the campus buildings and her jammers.
“How’s your systems?” she asked Alex.
“Up, except for the newsfeeds and messaging.”
She grunted. “Same here.”
Kelley from administration saw them as she walked down the sidewalk to speak with various professors on the quads, and came over to whisper, “Stay here. Stay calm. The building systems are looking stable and the voicelines still work. The problem seems to be only with mindcom communications and the newsfeeds.” Then even lower, “No word yet of invaders landing, but a state of emergency has been declared.”
Once Kelley was out of earshot, Mel said to Alex, “This supposed invasion is boring. Standing around all day on the quad is going to make our feet hurt.”
“It’s a trick,” Dawes said. “A way to distract us.”
Both Mel and Alex stepped away from Dawes. “I didn’t ask you for your ignorant opinions, Mr. Dawes,” she said. “Stop eavesdropping.” She pointed at the clusters of students that had formed on the quad lawn nearby to talk amongst themselves. “Go join your peers.”
Dawes flushed, but refrained from saying anything. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stomped off to the nearest group of students.
Irritated, she studied the Fibonacci message she’d just displayed on her eyevids. There was no hidden program in the message, nor any hidden pattern that she could discern. She twitched her fingers to trigger a reply form, and typed:
34 55 89 144 233 377 610 987 –
and sent those next eight Fibonacci numbers off.
Alex seized hold of her arm. “What did you just do?” He looked around for the biggest empty space and pulled her over to it to whisper in her ear, “That was incredibly dangerous. We don’t know what they are.”
Her messaging queue cleared. The constant resending of the Fibonacci post had stopped.
“Alex,” she said in as low a whisper as she could manage, “the messages have stopped.”
“Shit.” His breath came out in a nervous whistle that was a near wheeze.
She checked the newsfeeds. “Still got the Mandelbrot set patterns, though.”
New messages came in to start filling up her mindcom message queue: this time all of them listed the eight Pascal’s triangle numbers that Dawes had seen.
She whirled away from Alex as she typed out the eight numbers that would come next in the series for Pascal’s triangle, and was able to get it sent off before Alex got a tight enough grip on her fingertips to make it so she couldn’t move the compchips to type.
“Stop it.” His breath hissed between his teeth as he tried to keep a tight grip on her wriggling fingers. “This might be a Berserker probe to see if we’re intelligent enough to be a danger to them. If we pass the tests, we could be destroyed.”
She brayed a laugh and it felt like she wouldn’t be able to stop. The whole situation was becoming so clear to her. “They already know what we’re capable of, Alex, they hacked our mindcom systems. And if you think I’m the first person to have sent a message back, you’re wrong. Many others must have beaten me to it. The mindcom channels aren’t under human control right now, so any messages sent back to the alien object weren’t jammed.” She couldn’t stand the feel of his skin on hers and yanked her fingers out of his loosened grip.
She took advantage of the freedom of her fingers to type a query of her own to the alien messenger:
3 5 5 7 11 13 17 19 –
and ducked away as Alex attempted to seize hold of her fingers again before she could send the message off.
But he failed.
“Stop it!” he said. “Stop communicating with them.”
It reminded her of how as a kid she would politely ask a guest, “Can I talk to you about numbers?” and her older sister would shout out, “Say ‘No’! You don’t want to hear about the numbers!”
Her own breathing seemed too loud to her as she waited for a reply, and Alex sounded like he might have an asthma attack coming on.
“Have someone double-check your mindcom’s asthma management program,” she said to him. “That software is doing a lousy job of helping you breathe during severe stress.”
His eyes blinked too much. “Wh–”
“Twin primes!” The shout erupted from her throat before she could stop it as she read the reply to her message:
29 31 41 43 59 61 71 73 –
and everyone stared at her, puzzled, except for Alex, who had flushed pink, but whether from anger or excitement or an asthma attack she was not sure.
“They understand the concept of twin primes,” she said to Alex. She wanted to hop from foot to foot, clap her hands, and hum to herself. The aliens might be further along in primes research than humans were; she couldn’t wait to find out!
She now cleared her message queues so that there was only one copy of each message from the aliens, but then new messages poured in, all different, a data stream much much much longer than anything sent to her before.
Matrices of numbers.
Joyfully she focused in and out, on random parts of the data stream, and her heart beat hard and fast as the mathematical pattern began to make sense.
She knew what she needed to do if she wanted to confirm what she thought the numbers represented. “Alex, I need to go to the mathematics department office to check on an idea.” She did her best to control the modulation of her voice so that she would sound calm.
“Why?” He was upset, but not upset enough to grab her again, which was good, because she was going to punch him if he did.
“Just an idea I’ve had,” she said.
“As long as it keeps you from sending them any more messages,” Alex muttered to her. He turned to yell across the grass to the nearest prof (who happened to be Dr. McDonnell from the English department), “We’ve got to check on something important in the mathematics building. Watch the students?”
McDonnell gave a wave of agreement.
“Lead on, Mel,” Alex said, “but if I think you’re doing something dangerous, I will stop you this time.”
As soon as Alex saw that she was going to be using the 3D printer in the mathematics department office on the second floor, he said, “That’s what we came back in here for?”
She’d already cleaned up the data stream matrices sent by the aliens, and had everything ready for a download from her mindcom to the 3D printer. The only uncertain factor was the true scale of the image that’d been sent to her, but there was no point in fretting about it since she had to stick to a size that the printer could handle. “Yeah. I told you it wasn’t anything dangerous.”
It’s what I’m going to do after I use the 3D scanner that will upset you, Alex.
The office was currently empty, so at least she was spared questions from the secretary and the department chair about why she was using the 3D printer during a national state of emergency.
With the flick of a finger, she triggered the download, and the 3D printer began to extrude the first layer of the object that would be made per the datafile’s instructions. She’d chosen blue for the plastic color since it was a soothing color.
There was the welcome scent of melting plastic as the printer fired up into high-speed output.
It was soothing to peer through the view window as the printer built the second layer of the 3D object, and–
–the department door crashed open at emergency speed, to show a campus police officer with her firearm drawn, and Dawes and McDonnell lurking in the hallway behind her.
“That’s her!” Dawes shouted. “Stop Dr. Sharps before it’s too late!”
The officer’s name came back to Mel as Officer Otero lowered her gun at the sight of Mel and Alex standing by the 3D printer. Mel knew it had to be too mundane a sight for Otero to find it threatening in any way.
“You said the aliens were here, on campus property,” Otero snapped at Dawes as she put away her weapon.
McDonnell was out-of-breath and sweaty from what looked to have been a fast run across campus and up the mathematics building stairs. He and Otero shared a scowl, then both turned their bodies so that they confronted Dawes.
“So, kid,” Otero said, “this is your definition of ‘Dr. Sharps is helping the aliens invade the campus.'”
“She is,” Dawes said while pointing at Mel. “She was talking to the aliens through her messaging systems.”
“I think,” Mel said, “that it is a hundred percent certain that I’m not the only one on campus trying to get the flood of messages to stop by experimentation. My experiments involved generating math messages in reply to the ones I’d received. Nothing else.” She pointed at the 3D printer. “Now I’m printing a 3D geometrical model out of plastic. No wiring or electronics, nor any mobility functionality. Just solid extrusion layers. Want to watch?”
From the way Officer Otero’s eyes flicked from Dawes … back to Mel … to Dawes, the officer had a lingering doubt about the safety of the situation.
The eye-flicking behind Otero’s eyevids got to Mel, and she had to fake being able to stare at Otero’s face.
“The worst that Dr. Sharps will be able to do with the finished plastic model,” Alex said in the dry voice that Mel recognized as sarcasm, “is throw it at Dawes for being a jerk. He got pissed off with Dr. Sharps when she caught him eavesdropping on us and told him to go join the other students, and so he stirred up trouble out of spite.”
Otero made a gesture of disgust at her time being wasted, and left.
Mel kept her relief hidden.
The others clearly hadn’t realized, yet, a certain experiment that she could try. She’d have to be fast when the time came, because Alex – unlike the other two – was tech savvy enough to be able to stop her.
She didn’t want to wait until later in the day to do the experiment, even though then it would be easy to find a chance to be alone. She wanted to take a shot at being first; she was very unlikely to be the first in the world, but surely she had an excellent shot at being the first on campus.
McDonnell took a step in Mel’s direction, his nose twitching like a rabbit’s that had smelled a carrot, but Dawes grabbed on to his arm.
“It’s a trick,” Dawes said.
She shoved her hands into her pants’ pockets to keep from hand-flapping; it’d been her frustration as a kid that her parents could always tell when she was plotting trouble by watching her for that tic.
McDonnell shook Dawes’s grip off. “It’s a cheap 3D printer,” McDonnell said. “All that’s going to come out of it is a large lump of plastic.” He came over to peer through the window with them at the object being made, and Dawes reluctantly trailed after him.
“Oh, my,” McDonnell added. “That’s fascinating.”
They all peered in at the object that was about one-fourth of the way to being done.
“3D octagonal shapes,” Alex muttered to himself. “No real surprise there.”
It pleased her that she had been right in what she had visualized while sampling the matrices as the data stream downloaded into her mindcom. It made her confident that she would be right in her analysis of what to do next.
The plastic object being made reminded her of clusters of soap bubbles on the surface of water. Only instead of bubbles for the shapes, the 3D printer was making 3D octagons of various sizes that all huddled together.
I think it’s a self-portrait, she thought.
“What is that supposed to be?” McDonnell asked.
“All kinds of things it could be referring to,” Alex said. He used his fingers to tick off options. “Engineering, material science, geology, et cetera…. For all we know, it’s a replica of a sculpture by their most famous artist.” He snapped his fingers. “Aha! It’s probably another mathematics puzzle. That’s why Mel wanted to print it out.”
Her heart gave a hard thud in her chest from the excitement. She’d always loved math tests. The aliens are probably octagonal in shape. I don’t know though if what we’re seeing is one creature’s shape, or a whole bunch of them huddled up together.
“You’re wrong,” Dawes said. “I think it’s a model of a building.”
Alex scrunched up his mouth, the way he always did when someone disagreed with him. He intensely studied the 3D plastic object taking shape.
Looking for evidence to disprove Dawes’s architecture suggestion.
Her fingers brushed against the smooth metal of the two jammers in her pockets.
An idea burst upon her on how to slow Alex and the others down so that they couldn’t stop her next experiment.
As Mel stood in the mathematics department office watching Alex, McDonnell, and Dawes argue about the meaning of the plastic model being made, she stealthily curled her fingers around the warm metal of the jammer in her left pocket. She created a connection to it by touching her compchips to its polished surface, instead of the usual connection by broadcasting signals from her mindcom.
Alex gave an appreciative sniff. “Ahh, nothing like the smell of melted plastic in the morning.”
There was a real possibility that Alex had set his mindcom to monitor hers for suspicious signal activity.
She used eye movements, instead of finger-typing, to write the commands for the jammer on her eyevid command screen … and set the countdown trigger for nine seconds, instead of ten.
Nine was less predictable.
Also, nine and its patterns had fascinated her as a kid, such as how mental magic tricks could be done with it, and how it could be used to check one’s answers to math problems.
Nine was one of those numbers that she could talk about for days – no matter how bored or enraged people got at her – when she felt driven to do so. Her mouth could run on and on and on about it.
She’d once heard Mom say, “Melaine gets stuck on thoughts the way others get poison ivy rashes. She just has to scratch those thoughts by running her mouth, no matter the consequences.”
Well, this was one time she would keep her mouth shut, no matter how excited she got.
The jammer was ready. She slipped her sweaty hands out of her pockets, and checked on the plastic model. Only a couple more layers needed to be extruded.
“All this math is bunk,” Dawes said, and Mel wanted to slap him upside the head for that stupid comment. He added, “The aliens just picked using numbers as an easy way to overwhelm our communications and distract us.”
Bullshit. She said, “Then explain to me why the voicelines are still up.”
Dawes’s annoying neck tic began again.
“Radio communications are up,” Alex said. He lightly touched the skin above his mindcom implant. “I’ve been scanning the channels. Only the newsvid feeds are showing the Mandelbrot patterns … the major problem right now is that everyone’s messaging queues keep filling up with math queries.”
The way Dawes stared made her think of a life-size plastic model. She was tired of his regurgitation of the invasion meme.
“They aren’t here to invade,” she said. A tingling sense of anticipation was in her fingertips around the compchip implants. “They’re here to talk mathematics with us.”
Alex grinned at her. “The invasion of the math spammers?”
She leaned back slightly from his egg-breath. Why hadn’t he bothered to brush his teeth before his morning teaching started?
“I wouldn’t call them spammers,” she said, breathing through her mouth so she wouldn’t have to smell his breath. “They’re not trying to sell us anything or run a scam. They’re not invaders.” Her stomach muscles clenched at childhood memories of bewilderment when someone would go into a rage as she talked about numbers. “They simply don’t know how to ask us in exactly the right way for what they want, yet.”
She watched Alex make a sad face at McDonnell. “Guess the English department will need a budget line item for psychiatric services, since you’ll all be under tremendous strain from having to deal with math spam.”
For a half-second, she wondered if Alex was serious about the English professors having nervous breakdowns from too much math.
McDonnell poked Alex in the shoulder with a finger. “Your mockery of my discipline is clearly jealousy, Alex.”
A grin broke across Alex’s face.
Good, it had been one of Alex’s jokes. Even McDonnell and Dawes now smiled.
The 3D printer light in the mathematics department office went from yellow to green. The 3D model was done.
Before Alex, Dawes, or McDonnell could react, Mel plucked the 3D object out. She clasped the warm plastic model tight in her fingers as she studied it. The model was about the size and shape of a boomerang … if a boomerang had been made out of various-sized octagons glued together. She said, “I want to do a quick scan of a human body in relation to it.” She headed straight for the 3D scanner tucked away in the far corner of the department office.
Alex said, “The actual length–”
“I know, I know,” she said. “The scale of this model could be way off from reality.” She flicked a finger to send the signal for the scanner to turn on.
The 3D scanner was little more than a rubber platform with an open-air 3D circular metal frame upon it. The hoop-shaped scanner rod could travel up and down the circular frame to do a 3D scan of an object placed onto the platform. The department chair had forbidden its usage for scanning people, but Alex didn’t know that.
Mel shrugged off her jacket, and squeezed through a gap in the flimsy frame to stand on the platform.
She fit, if barely, and held the model in her hands far away enough from her body that it wouldn’t be scanned in as part of her torso.
She triggered the scan, and breathed as lightly as she could as the scanner hoop passed downward. When the hoop had reached the level of her knees, she felt it safe to speak without risking a blurring of the scan. She said, “Once I’m done, Alex, I think the model should be taken outside to be shared with the rest of the faculty.”
Alex gnawed at his peeling lower lip.
The scan finished, and she held out the model to him.
Dawes darted from behind Alex to snatch the model away from her.
“Hey!” Alex bellowed. “I get to look at it next.” He gave Mel a quick glance. “I see no reason why we have to give everyone else the scoop on this, yet. We could put an abstract together, quick, to post, and then take it out to the others.”
“If you think so….” She shrugged, and triggered the upload from the scanner into her mindcom of the 3D mapping of herself holding the model.
Dawes turned the model over and over in his hands, as if expecting to find a hidden feature. He licked his lips.
Publish or perish, she thought. The hunger for a publication credit had just infected Dawes.
Alex grabbed hold of the nearest edge of the model, and yanked, but Dawes refused to let go.
“Now, now.” McDonnell raised his hands in preparation to part the two men. “Young man, give the model to Professor Papadopolus.”
“I’m not done yet,” Dawes said. “I think I’ve got an insight that could go into the abstract.”
The datafile of the scan was ready for her to send to the aliens. She stepped off the scanner platform and squeezed her way around the three men.
Alex tugged so hard on the model that Dawes nearly lost his balance.
She touched with her compchips the jammer in her left pocket, awakening it. The countdown would start as soon as the direct link by touch with the jammer was broken. She slipped the jammer out of her pocket.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Alex said to Dawes. This time he yanked so hard that Dawes would’ve fallen if he hadn’t let go of the model, and Alex staggered backward. He protectively tucked the model between his arm and chest.
Dawes lowered his head, as if preparing to charge.
She squeezed the jammer tight in her fist.
“Enough,” McDonnell said. He slipped between Alex and Dawes. “Enough!”
The air had a metallic tang to it now. Stress.
“You,” Alex shouted at Dawes, “are a goddamn impertinent–”
She blocked out Alex’s enraged rant at Dawes to focus on the more important task of escape. As she passed by the secretary’s chair, she let the jammer fall onto the seat’s gray fabric.
–as she strode–
–for the department door–
–the door opened–
–at her mindcom signal–
–”Mel?” Alex said–
–Too late, Alex–
–She passed through–
She triggered the department door’s emergency protocols, and it slammed shut, locking itself.
As Mel fled down the chilled hallway for the mathematics building stairs, she sent off her messages to the aliens that contained the 3D scan data of herself holding the plastic model.
She could hear the pounding on the math department’s door. By now, Alex, McDonnell, and Dawes had discovered that not only were their mindcoms being jammed, the communications in and out of the department office were as well.
Alex would soon discover that catching her jammer was like trying to catch a fly due to its evasive maneuvers.
She had probably bought herself, at best, only a fifteen-minute head start before they were able to physically break out of that office to alert others to her suspicious flight, so she needed to make good use of the time to find a place to hide.
The longer she remained free, the longer she could swap math messages with the aliens.
She’d just reached the stairs’ first floor landing when a flood of data slammed into her mindcom with a speed it could barely process.
She kept a palm pressed to the pitted wall of the stairwell to feel her way forward to the stairs’ door as her eyevids shifted into a 3D green grid display triggered by the data stream pouring in.
The grid lines began to map out into crude 3D octagonal shadows.
Someone – or something – wanted to do a real time 3D feed right now.
Bad timing on the aliens’ part. Really, really bad timing.
Dammit, she would’ve preferred a couple of hours to get set up properly, but that wasn’t going to happen. Whoever or whatever she’d sent the 3D scanned image to had decided to hone in on her for a live data swap.
Even though she was certain of the result, she went ahead and tried to break off the connection between herself and the aliens, and was unsurprised to find that she could not.
The data for the 3D feed continued to pour in.
All she could do now was find a place to hunker down in to ride the data storm out.
The main lecture hall, she thought. My mindcom and eyevids are already synced to the 3D projection equipment, and I can transfer the 3D feed over as it comes in so my mindcom doesn’t get overloaded and burn out. We’ll be able to communicate until someone figures out what is going on and cuts me off from the campus network.
By the time Mel got the 3D projection equipment in the main lecture hall running, her mindcom was nearly fried despite her desperate code hacks to keep the data feed from the aliens from overwhelming it.
Tremors and tics wracked her sweat-covered body from the mindcom strain.
She’d trashed the wiring for the lecture hall’s door as best she could, so that a system administrator would have to break in to get to her. Sooner or later, someone in the IT department would notice the data flooding into campus and where it was going. They’d have someone sent over to the mathematics building to investigate … if Alex didn’t escape from the office first to alert them to cut her off.
With a sigh of relief, she let the projection equipment take over dealing with the 3D data streaming in, and through her eyevids she watched as the glowing green gridlines of the projection morphed into green boomerang-shaped ghosts that seemed to float above the lecture hall seats.
As the resolution of the moving images improved, she could see that the boomerangs were made up of the clusters of different-sized octagons she’d seen with the plastic model. Each octagon seemed to quiver next to its fellows.
She still couldn’t tell if a boomerang-shaped ghost was made up of one alien or many.
Even though they couldn’t see her, she reached out with compchipped fingers to lightly touch a ghostly flat octagonal facet of the nearest boomerang.
“Hello,” she whispered. “It’s nice to meet you.”
She called up the lecture hall’s lightboard display, hooking it into a feed that she could send out in messages to the same address she’d sent her previous replies. She used her compchips to write on the lightboard the first eight digits of pi … then below that drew a circle and proceeded to do the formula to calculate pi’s value from the circumference of the circle.
She waited for a response, the taste of pennies back in her mouth.
Just seconds later, the ghostly projection images abruptly disappeared from the main lecture hall.
Someone in IT had cut the feed. They had to know Mel was in here.
She felt no surprise to discover that her mindcom no longer had any connection to the campus network. She’d been kicked off.
Next, Alex would be coming after her.
She hid in the ninth row of lecture seats, hunching down in the gap between the two rows of cushioned seats so that she could not be seen from the lecture hall doorway.
Heart pounding, she heard the lecture hall door rattle in its frame. Someone was now trying to get in.
A polite rapping of three knocks … followed by a fist being slammed against the door four times.
“MEL!” she heard Alex shout. “Mel, open up!”
How strange to be hiding out in the room she taught Calculus in, as if she were a criminal. All in the weak hope that the aliens might be able to re-establish contact so that she could interact with them some more before she got found.
WHAM! …. WHAM!
Alex was using something to break down the door.
She heard muffled curses of frustration, and grumbles. Others were helping him.
So she stayed put.
With a crack, she heard the door burst inward.
“Mel?” Alex said, sounding scared. “Mel, it’s just me. I’m coming in to help you.”
“What are you doing down there?!” Alex said. “Are you all right? Why did you freak out like that and run off? The math spam to everyone has stopped, at least for the moment, as well as the Mandelbrot shows on the newsvids.”
She sighed, and stood up, brushing her slacks off. “I was doing quite fine until you interrupted us!”
Alex glanced in the direction of the lightboard display. “Pi. You ran away so you could calculate pi.”
Dawes sidled into the lecture hall, and then McDonnell slipped in as well.
Suddenly, she saw endless digits scroll across all three men’s eyevid displays.
She recognized those numerical patterns.
“Pi,” she said. “They’ve figured out you all are closest to my last known location when I got cut off, and are passing along their answer to me through you.” Excitement made her hands flap for a few seconds.
“What the hell?” Alex fumbled at his eyevids due to the annoying endless display scrolling by, but did not take them out. “Please tell me that you haven’t been messaging about math to those aliens.”
She couldn’t keep the pride out of her voice. “I have.”
“Shit!” Alex said.
The 3D projection feed flipped back on, the green boomerang ghosts again floating around the lecture hall.
The eyevids of the three men cleared of digits, and they gaped at the projections.
Mel said, “I think the model I printed out was a self-portrait.”
“Wait a moment,” Alex said, sounding alarmed. “If they’ve hacked their way back into the hall, that means they’ll–”
Her eyevid screens filled with pi digits, then it slowed, then stopped. She hurried over to the lightboard, and touched it with a compchipped finger to switch it into 3D mode.
This time, she drew a 3-dimensional octagon within the lightboard’s interior space, and sent the message off while humming to herself.
She saw McDonnell and Dawes poke tentative fingers through the boomerang projection closest to them. They looked dazed.
The 3D scanned image of herself holding the model appeared within the lightboard … followed by a display of 3D polygons in a column: an equilateral triangle, a square, a pentagon, a hexagon, a heptagon, and an octagon.
“Damn,” Alex said, “why do I get the feeling they’re annoyingly obsessed with the one particular subject you’ve got a Ph.D. in, Mel?”
“That’s going to get boring,” Dawes said. “Nothing but math messages back and forth.”
“Mathematics is everything,” Mel said. “It’s the foundation of the universe.” Her mouth stretched into a grin as she watched a boomerang float close by. She couldn’t resist asking it (even though it could not hear her), “Can we talk about numbers?”
Yes, oh yes. There were blissful times ahead.
About the Author
Lynn Kilmore writes fantasy, suspense, and science fiction tales that have appeared in publications such as Albuquerque The Magazine. Longer works include the gothic suspense novel Soul Cages (YA finalist, New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards), as well as the fantasy novel Cubicles, Blood, and Magic and the fantasy short story collection Tales from the Threshold. Visit lynnkilmore.com for more stories and news on upcoming releases.
Lynn wishes to thank those on the autism spectrum who generously gave of their time and trust to explain to her how it feels to be autistic.