Decimal Place was heaving. Shorn of fans, hangers-on, groupies, and professors of pure mathematics, the numbers had gathered at the family home to put to bed one seemingly simple question: “Who’s the greatest?”
No one could remember who’d first formulated the question, but once asked, suggestions had stirred souls, swelled hearts, and swept through heads like a fire filling a forest.
Number Nine stood on the mansion’s front doorstep. Her hand thumped the hard oak of Decimal Place’s front door. She’d tried the bell, but it hadn’t rung. Bells’ Law, she thought. If there’s a doorbell, it won’t be working. Her short, jet-black hair was damp from the rain; she fingered the base of her neck as if her throat was sore.
After a long pause, the mansion door creaked open on its old hinges, and Number Five stuck out his pointy-shaped head. “Last as usual,” he said. “What’s taken you? Hurry up, we’ve already started.”
Shaking her head with annoyance, Nine followed Five through the giant hallway, high-heels clip-clip-clipping the tiled floor, all the way through to the lounge.
Am I really, always last? she wondered. Yes, of course, by cold convention, nine came after the rest. She was the youngest, but did that mean that despite her best efforts she was destined to lag behind in everything else?
What’s it all about?
Perusing Five with a worried look, she hoped her insecurity wouldn’t show. He wore jeans and a Ralph Lauren polo-shirt, and that meant she was—probably—hideously overdressed…
Oh, thank the odds! she thought when she stepped into the lounge and saw the others all clustered around the dining table. The other boys, One, Two and Three were in dinner jackets, whilst the other girls, Four, Six, Seven and Eight were elegance personified.
She stared, a little starry-eyed, at Number Six. Hadn’t she seen that exact little black number on the Duchess of Exeter recently? Yes, she was certain of it; although, Number Six would say that the Duchess had stolen the idea from her.
Shuffling past Five as he took his seat, she slid into hers. She glanced back at him once more as she settled. I suppose he gets away with his iconoclasm, she thought, by dint of being an odd number.
“Right,” said Number One, standing to address the room with his usual pompous voice. His shape was in-tune with his integer: tall, upright, moustachioed—a rake. “Now that we’re all here… finally… we can start.”
“I thought we were going to discuss this after we ate?” said Number Eight. “I’m famished.”
“No. We’re going to do this now,” said One. “Then we can eat. It won’t take long. The way I see it, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion anyway.”
“Really?” snapped Three, running a hand through a shock of silvery hair. He had a deep tan and a louche-looking smirk suggestive of sin. “’Cos, I think we need to have a proper discussion, and it’ll take more than a few secs to try to cotton on to everyone’s angle on this.”
“No. It’s very easy,” said One. “Look. I’m the most important number. I’m Number One. Right? Being ‘number one’, means being the most important… it’s a truth universally acknowledged.”
“Listen to Jane Austen, folks,” said Three.
“I’m the start of all things, and the end of many!”
“You’re not the end. There is no end!” said Three.
“There is!” said Number Four excitedly, “It’s infinity!”
“Oh, dear me, Four, where were you when the rest of us were at school,” chimed in Eight. “Infinity’s not a number!”
“Don’t talk to me like that, you bloated bitch!” said Four. “One! Tell her not to talk to me like that! Can’t we feed her ahead of the rest? If Eight ate, maybe she’d hate less?”
“Okay, okay! People, let’s be nice, or we’ll not get anywhere fast!” Number One sighed and waited for the others to succumb to silence before speaking. “What I meant to say was, that sometimes I am the end. At the end of a race, or a competition, that’s when the ‘number one’ position gets decided. The winner takes my name. Again, a sign of my importance. I am the number signifying uniqueness and I alone constitute every other number. I am your DNA. Your flesh and bones. You can’t get from one number to the next without me. That’s why I am the greatest of them all.” He sat down, flashed a haughty look at all the others, and ran his middle fingers along each side of his moustache.
“Balderdash!” spat Two, jumping to his feet.
Nine watched, spellbound, at how Two’s clothes clung to his muscled torso, rippling with each movement. There was something, so, so visually appealing about him, something so magnetic. She imagined…
“Firstly,” continued Number Two, interrupting Nine’s increasingly pornographic thoughts, “how could someone as lonely as you be important? Face it, One; only the lonely go in ones. You’re the number of the solipsistic, introverted, narcissistic navel-gazing—”
“—One ring to rule them all!” interrupted One, slamming his hands on the desk. “ONE ring.”
“Well, that just proves my point, Lord Sauron! Now, where was I?…
“Navel gazing, monomaniacal, egotists everywhere go in one’s! Whereas I, I am the number of the lover. You know what they say… two’s company? It takes two to tango?”
“Threesome,” said Number Three with a wink, before adding, “Two can play at that game!”
“No they can’t… three’s a crowd!” said Two. “You may like to think you’re like a two, but to be honest you’re one-too-many!”
“Boys, boys, boys,” said Number Six, “Mind if a girl gets a word in edgeways and evens up the score?”
“Why’s it all about scoring with you?” asked Number Four.
“Hush, baby-doll,” said Six. “The big girls are playing.”
“If you’re talking big, then Eight’s the winner,” said Four. “And the only thing she plays is the pie-eating contest.”
Number Nine shook her head. She could see how Number Four seemed to be begging for attention; her look-at-me-look-at-me attitude was going to start rubbing off wrongly on all the others.
Six stood slowly. Her gold Gucci dress shimmered; the gossamer fabric clung to her voluptuous curves, and when her pouting Cupid-bow lips parted, her voice was like the offspring of a husky Siren and a sweet-singing Seraphim. “You can all speculate till it’s late, but I’ve already been told by some that I’m the greatest they’ve ever been with. That’s a fact. So, I don’t know what you use to measure greatness, but I know that where it counts, I’ve got your measure.”
Everyone watched with rapt attention as Six finished speaking and sat down.
“Thank you, Sex,” said Number One, before realising and correcting his Freudian Slip. “I mean Six! Six! Six!”
“Six-Six-Six indeed. If she’d been born triplets,” murmured Four, leaning over and whispering—ineffectively—into Five’s ear, “she’d be the devil.”
“Oh, but in the right circumstances, I AM THE DEVIL,” smirked Six. “And baby?… it’s divine!”
Number Nine squirmed in her seat. Uncertain what to do with her hands, she opted to clasp them together on top of the table where she could see them. The numbers were having a strange effect on her. Then, before anyone else could stand up to speak, there was a loud RAP! RAP! RAP!
“Well, who the hell is that?” said Four.
“Maybe it’s Lady Luck,” said Seven, swiping her raven tresses back over her shoulder and standing up. “I’ll go and check.”
Nine watched Seven glide effortlessly out of the room, an Amazon overflowing with grace. No wonder they call the waters of the world The Seven Seas, she thought.
They all waited, listening. Off in the distance came the sound of Seven speaking. “Who?… What?… No!… This is a closed party; no additions are allowed!” Then a scream.
Two and Three stood up.
“Hang on for one second,” cautioned One, placing the flats of his hands on the table.
Footsteps fell along the corridor floor, and three strange looking figures barged into the room to stand at the centre. They stared wordlessly at the numbers.
Two were pale men dressed in black leather biking gear, their thick winter hats and gloves suggesting that even the spring climate was too intemperate for their dispositions. As they shuffled on the spot, a little uncomfortably, their companion—a goateed man in chinos and plain white T-shirt—wandered, circling the edges of room and squawking to himself.
“The lucky bastards barged right past me!” swore Seven, running in, hot on the heels of the strangers.
Number One stood and pointed at the men. “What the hell are you doing here? This is a private party.”
“The more the merrier,” said Three. “Did one of us order an orgy?”
“Aren’t you knackered, old man?” said Four, looking at Three.
“No, Miss, I’m in my prime,” Three smiled.
“PiPi…” recited the man with the goatee.
“What did he say?” asked One.
“I believe he said pee-pee,” said Six. “Could someone show him the toilet? That stuff is really not my kink.”
“No,” said one of the men. “He didn’t say that.”
“Then what did he say?” asked One.
“He said ‘Pi’, again and again.”
“Pi?” said Four. “Why, that’s a really recurringly irrational thing to say. Unless you’re Eight, who can think of nothing else but pie.”
“He’s an irrational number,” stated the man.
“Holy crap! One of those!” exclaimed Four.
Nine watched as the other numbers recoiled from the strangers with looks of disgust. As if being in their vicinity for too long or getting up too close to them would somehow taint them. As if they were somehow… untouchable.
Only Four carried on, as if thrilled by this discovery. “So, does he just keep going on and on like this?”
“Yes… on and on, without stopping… forever. At least, we don’t think he ever comes to an end.”
“And that circle crap he’s doing on the carpet?” said Four, watching the goateed-man spinning circles on the spot like a Whirling Dervish.
“Yeah, that too. He’s obsessed with circles. Once fractured his radius and a few digits while spinning on a wall.”
“So,” said One, “You creeps decided to barge into a rational-numbers gathering with an irrational in tow? Did you think there’d be no consequences? That’s like bringing antimatter to a matter party.”
“Oh, stop being so hyperbolic!” said Two. “I’m sure they’ve a rational explanation for their presence.”
“Well then, we’d better hear it,” said One. “Right now, or I’m calling for help.”
“Woah, woah, hold on, hold on for just a few fractions of a second. We don’t need you calling up anyone else. Let’s sort this out ourselves!” Number Two stepped out from behind the table. Manoeuvring past Pi—who was still spinning on the spot—he went and stood face to face with the two men in black.
“Who are you? Why are you here? Answer fast.”
The stranger, who till now had remained silent, spoke up. “We heard the numbers were gathering to decide who was the greatest and we thought it would be unfair if those like us were not represented too.”
Seven snorted. “By others, you mean an irrational like Pi?”
“And so, who are you?” said Two.
“I am i.”
“I am i? Oh great! Fantastic. This one’s got a major case of a God-complex.”
“What?” said i.
“I am I,” said Two. “That’s like God saying to Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ Listen, no one’s that great!”
“No. I mean my name is ‘i’. Small case. The square root of negative one.”
“Holy crap!” laughed Four. “This is getting better exponentially every second. Now we’ve got a frickin’ imaginary number!”
One shook his head. “This just won’t do.” He turned to face the other man. “And what are you? A logarithm?”
“Close,” said the man, sliding his arms across each other like an Egyptian ruler of old. “I’m e.”
“eee! I think I’m going to vomit,” said Seven.
“It’s okay,” said One. “Let them say what they came to say and then they can be on their way.”
“I want a fair hearing,” said i. “I won’t go without one; e won’t either.”
“What? You calculated that you pretend numbers could march in here and tell us what the hell we could and couldn’t do?” said Seven. Her voice rumbled like thunder and the atmosphere in the room turned frosty.
“Someone shut him up!” snapped Seven.
“Shut up, Pi,” said e, then added, “Could we turn off the AC before we continue? It’s getting chilly in here.”
Before One could say “We haven’t got the AC turned on,” a book—Fermat’s Last Theorem—flew across the room to smack Pi on the head, sending him staggering across the entire diameter of the room.
“Pi!… Pi!… Pi!” groaned Pi.
“Hey!” i cried.
Another book—Newton’s Principia—seemed to defy gravity when it swooped up from a ground-level shelf and boxed i on the ears. i cried out and shrank towards the door.
“Get out!” cried a ghostly voice. “Get out!” As it spoke, a copy of Chopping Logs: The Napierian Way rattled violently from another shelf. e ran up to Pi and yanked him back by the collar.
“Please, please keep your poltergeist away from us!” said i. “We’re leaving!”
As they ran out of the house, Three turned to One. “Guess they knew nothing about Zero, huh?”
“If they knew nothing about Zero,” piped up Seven, “they’d know something about Zero.”
Five rose to gather the books from the floor. “A good job Zero knows he isn’t really a proper number or we’d have a fight on our hands.”
“Well, I’m the one who’d have a fight on my hands,” said One. “And then it’d come to a binary decision. Zero or One.”
“This isn’t a binary decision,” snapped Three.
“Correct. I’m really the only option when you think about it.”
They all started bickering and talking over each other. Then:
Heads turned to look at who was speaking…
“I said, ‘enough!’” repeated Number Nine, watching as the others turned to face her. “It’s time you realised, improbable as it sounds, that none of you are that great. In fact, you’re pretty ordinary. I’d say that your Set is just like any other big, squabbling Union with its petty little divisions. There are those who are far, far greater.”
“Nine, what’s eating you? Why aren’t you your usual sweet self?” said Eight.
Nine clasped the bottom of her throat and tugged.
At first, they thought she might be choking, and Two drew closer to help. They all gasped, collectively, as a rent was revealed at the base of her neck. Then, as she tugged, the rent became the ragged edge of a mimetic mask.
Kkkhhhh! With a tearing sound, off came the disguise, and underneath flashed the face of a grinning girl with a pink crew-cut.
“—hell have you done with Number Nine,” ended Eight.
“Don’t worry, she’s safe. I left her asleep in my flat,” said the girl. “I seduced her and took her home with me last night.”
“Mmm, lucky things,” murmured Three absentmindedly.
“Why?” said the girl. “So I could crash your party and show you all your shortcomings.”
“Oh really, bitch? And what are these shortcomings?” challenged Four.
“Well, firstly,” said the girl, “you’re ossified and rigid and not open to outsiders.”
“I’m always open,” purred Six.
“I don’t think she means that,” said Two.
“A shame,” smirked Three.
“Anyway. You’re good, but just not great. Now me? I’m great. I just mimicked one of you. Took her place, integrated myself into your little unit and my calculus was correct: not one of you could differentiate me from her. That’s because I’m as good as, and better. I’m not just great. I’m The Greatest.”
“Why, this is preposterous!” roared One.
“Pathetic,” added Seven.
“Just get her the hell out of here,” said Five.
“Yes. Tout de suite. So we can eat,” said Eight.
A dictionary began to shudder from high up on a corner shelf. It took flight and flung itself like a dart towards the girl… who promptly vanished into thin air. The book landed with a thud.
“Damn! I missed!” said Zero.
“What?” asked One.
The others stood, staring from one number to the other.
Suddenly, the girl’s voice whispered ethereally “See? This is why I’m the greatest. I have now become nothing, like Zero. I can mimic, not just some, but all of you. Become any of you.”
“W-who are you?” queried One, his lip starting to tremble as it began to dawn on him that he was in the presence of something truly awe-inspiring.
“Haven’t you worked it out yet?” trilled the girl. “I am the greatest number, and yet not a number. I’m a letter. I am X. That which can not only equal any of you, but also be greater than any of you.”
There was a pause as some of the numbers stared at the girl with fear in their hearts. She looked like a Roman Numeral, but she was much more than that.
“Ha!” said Eight, breaking the silence. She wiped a crumb from her lips and jabbed a fat finger at X. “That’s great, truly, but how many pork pies can you eat in one sitting?”
X > 1
Munib is a paediatrician, medical editor, and author who grew up close to Bronte territory.
An avid ultra-marathoner, his writing is inspired by running along heaths, cliff edges and other heights from where he can breathe in the fresh Yorkshire Eyre.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “I’ve Got Your Number”:
Let’s face it: This piece is clever to the nth power. While you don’t need a lot of mathematical knowledge to appreciate this, if you’re a bit more math savvy, you’ll appreciate all the humor in author Munib Haroon’s piece to its fullest.
In any case, we found it a delightful out-of-the box story, precisely the kind of submission we love to receive and read.