Imaginary Numbers

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Under a bean field in Metaponto

At the bottom of the well, they were met by a trio of men with turbans and togas. They were playing music on pipes, a harp, and a lute. The tones echoed off the stone walls, enveloping them in pleasant vibrations. Behind the trio was a large, wooden door, flanked by Corinthian pilasters carved out of the rock, and directly in front of them was a large dish containing a white, smokeless flame, that illuminated the entire small chamber brightly.

“Welcome.” A man with a beard stepped forward, both arms held wide, gripping a duel piped, diaulos in his left hand. “We have been expecting you.”

The two other musicians kept playing.

“Before you enter the Sanctum, you must be purified. The first step is music, the second is the natural spring. You will wash yourselves thoroughly and leave behind your regrets. Consider them deeply, but enter the Sanctum only when you feel at peace.” The professor noticed that there was vapour billowing from under the heavy door. “Oh, I should mention, that it is hot. Take care.”

The two musicians handed them each a pile of towels, and pulled open the doors. A wall of steam flooded out of the room, enveloping the white flame in a veil of warm fog. The professor’s glasses clouded over and when he folded them to place them in his inside pocket, he saw a screen dividing the doorway in two. In front of him was a dark cavern, half filled with hot water; steam obscured the surface of the black liquid.

The musicians positioned each of them on one side of the screen, then closed the door. On each side was a weak candle, giving them just enough light to see the reed baskets provided, into which they placed the articles of clothing they removed. The professor folded his suit neatly, removed his socks, shoes and underwear, and entered the water slowly. It was hot, but quickly became comfortable. It was almost pitch black, but he could feel by the ripples of the surface, that Vivienne had entered the hot spring.

“William,” she said, “do you know who these people are?”

“Not a clue, my dear. Not the foggiest idea at all.”

“They seem nice, though.” She splashed some water in his direction, and giggled. “Did I get you? I’m sorry.” She splashed him again.

“Hey!” He yelled and his voice echoed. After a few minutes, he could make out the contours of her face in the low light. Her black hair reflected the water. She was sleek—all but submerged, she was all angles and collar bones. Beautiful.

Suddenly, it occurred to him that he had not been this close to a naked women in a long time. He saw her smile. She’s a perfect human, he thought. How could you not fall in love with her? She was lovely. A reed basket floated between them. He peeked in and see her underwear on top of her t-shirt and jeans, haphazardly thrown in. Then he pushed the basket across to the opposite side to gauge how wide the room was. Crouched over weightlessly, like balanced fetuses in the hot water, both of them within arms length of each other, they studied each other’s faces.

“So they told us to be thorough,” she said, “I suppose I’ll start.” She pulled a small white towel from beneath the water and placed it on her head. “Brought this one in with me.” She closed her eyes, as the water cascaded over her features, as she squeezed the towel. “It feels wonderful.” She grabbed at another floating basket and peeked inside. “Ooooh,” she said, “I found it!” She winked at him. “Jackpot!” Then she floated to one side. “Check the baskets, professor.” He found a bar of soap, a towel, a toothbrush, and a container of shampoo. When he looked up, he noticed Vivienne. He saw her naked back, her hips, and legs curled over the hard reed basket, which she’d inverted to use as a stool. She was sitting on the edge of the room, where the cave floor breached the surface of the water in a haze, under a torrent of steamy water running down a stalactite. She washed her hair. He was completely entranced. Inside the misty cavern, her skin was radiant, pearlescent, and shining forth such grace, that without a doubt, Dr. Borgiac declared the sight the most beautiful thing he had ever seen: a naked girl washing her hair under a misty waterfall in near-complete darkness.

He heard her humming the tune the musicians were playing, and as he started cleaning himself, he joined her in whistling the flute part. He washed himself in great detail: under his arms, his upper-body, his back, his head—including a detailed scrub of each feature of his face—his legs, penis and testicles, and ends with his toes and the nooks between them. He stood up, covered in lather, and stepped under the torrent. In a matter of seconds, he was simply a naked man standing in a cave, washed clean of his worries.

“Nice derrière!” she laughed. “Get back in, it’s so nice.”

He hesitated, turning his head over his shoulder trying in vain to find her in the dark. He turned around and slid into the water.

“It does feel good.” He was surrounded by mist, when he considered the second part to this purification ritual: confronting your regrets. A meter in front of him, he heard Vivienne splashing, and the only regret that came to him is one that seemed to be declared invalid as soon as it crossed his mind. He considered Isabelle and his failed marriage. Something he worked so hard at initially, but could only truly value in the aftermath of its destruction. He loved Isabelle, and still thought of her often when he was alone, but today that would stop. He just knew it. He knew that he would no longer lust for her in his life, sensing her absence on the other side of his bed. He was happy for her, perhaps forever remaining a mother for the French public. A face that told them the news, a woman with all the most important information. He realised this, and then it disappeared into the mist.

“William,” Vivienne’s chirpy voice said, “I can’t find a regret.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure that request can’t possible apply to an amnesiac, my dear.”

“How about you, professor?”

“Funny. It feels as if I’ve made peace already.”

“That was fast,” she laughed.

“Well, some things take years and years to think through and only a moment to release.”

“I want to stay here for a bit longer.” They made eye contact, a deep earthshaking eye contact that moved the continents of his heart, crumpled the tectonic plates of his regrets, and forced a secret desire within him to erupt. He breathed deeply, and exhaled, considering the incorrect belief that a sexual action consists of two slippery things touching. In her eye, he saw every part of her. He witnessed the core of the girl, and knew that every missing piece was be filled in by goodness, by altruism and empathy. This empty girl, he realised, had with her unspoiled actions, already proven who she was with the deepest fibre of her being.

“It really is pleasant in here, isn’t it?” he asked, breaking a long silence.

A door in the far wall opened and another robed man entered the cavern.

“Excuse my interruption,” he said and bowed low. “I hope you find these garments to your liking. Please make use of them as you see fit.” He left two baskets in front of the door, one on each side of a screen, just like before. “Take your time. The hot spring washes away your weariness. It is the best way to prepare you for your meeting with the Master.”

The professor moved towards the man, but he bowed and disappears into the next room quickly. At a loss, Dr. Borgiac stood up and waded to one side of the screen, where he examined the bizarre assortment of robes. Vivienne stood up behind him, and proceeded to the other side of the screen. Separated by a thin hanging screen, he watched her silhouette balance on one leg, drying herself. Her lithe form attempted to make sense of the long bolts of cloth.

“Professor?” she asked and peeked around the end of the screen. He startled and covered himself quickly with the fabric. “Oh, sorry.” She disappeared to her side. “I just don’t know how to wear this thing.”

“My dear, I am just as confused as you.”

“Could you tell me if this is okay?” He stuck his head around and saw her drabbed in an array of fabrics. One large sheet was wrapped and tied around her waist. She was a body tangled in the bedsheets of a long awaited tryst. She spun around, shaking her hips, and hummed the tune they heard before. Dr. Borgiac couldn’t help but laugh.

“Vivienne, I’m sure there is some sort of order to all this, but I doubt very much that you’ve found it.” He wrapped himself in a towel and stepped to her side. “May I?”

“Of course.” He tugged at the crude sleeves she had made and draped the long bolt over her shoulder so that it forms a sort of toga. He was emulating the form of the robes he saw on the musicians. When he tucked the loose edge into her makeshift skirt, his fingers slid into the crevice made by the hollow of her tailbone. She looked at him and smiled.

“Can I help you, professor? Or do you want some privacy?”

In the candlelight, he blushed furtively, and retreated to his side of the screen without offering a reply. He peeled off the towel, and wrapped his hips to form a skirt, but before he could get any further, Vivienne, standing robed in a few inches of steaming water, lifted the long bolt of fabric onto his shoulders. She reached her slender arms around his waist, passing the rolled cloth from hand to hand, and tucked the loose end into the wrap around his hips.

“There you go! All done.” He turned around, face to face, and wished that he had enough confidence to kiss the girl in front of him. He summons all his courage, and imagines how his life would change with her by his side.

Behind them the door ground open, and they were suddenly awash in bright light. She grabbed onto him, her hands above his elbows. She was illuminated, reflecting the light blindingly, squinting her eyes into the source—pupils like pinpricks. He turned his head over his shoulder, and saw the man who brought them the togas, extending his hand.

“Please. This way,” the man said, and grasped Dr. Borgiac’s forearm. Vivienne, who has adjusted to the light, released him and stepped forward, vanishing into the brightness.

It took a second for his eyes to dilate, as he was led onwards by the man, into a grand chamber of white marble, where a delegation in yellow robes waited for them.

“Καλώς ήρθατε στο σπίτι της κόρης.” The leader, a woman with long dark hair tied with ribbons all the way down below her waist, was in her early thirties, dignified and poised. She held out both arms wide and bowed low to the ground. The others in the room all followed her lead, until the professor and the girl felt like they are a drift in a sea of yellow and white.

“What did she say?” the professor whispered.

“She said welcome home.” When they rose, the woman embraced her, and looked deep into her eyes. “What do we call you?” she asked in English.

“Well, I was hoping you could tell me.”

“Don’t you have a name? By now, I would have thought you might have gathered one in your travels.”

“Call me Vivienne then,” she said. The woman nodded, looked at the professor, embraced him too, and said, “Il dottore! Charles William Borgiac, welcome, sir. It is an honor to have a visiting scholar such as yourself in our humble society.”

He frowned and looked at Vivienne, then the woman.

“Dr. Borgiac, please do not fret. We are collectors of information, it is our duty to know every detail, especially concerning the arrival of our most important asset, the daughter of our Master.”

“Your master?”

“Yes, yes! Soon you both shall meet him. All in due time.” She curtsied again and said, “In our society we are not fond of given names, but you may call me Astraia, if you please.”

“What is this place?” the professor asked, surveying the grand circular chamber with tall columns reaching high into the darkness of the cave above. On the ground, everything was well lit by the same white flames. “And what are you burning?”

“Both are apt questions, dottore! Allow me to give you a tour of our Sanctum.” She led on, up a set of wide, low stairs, past the encircling colonnade to a vaulted hallway. There she paused, and handed them each a lantern.

“Inside this lamp is a lump of magnesium, which we refine from the sea. It burns bright and clean. Most of the lights are in a closed system, from which we re-isolate the residual magnesium from the vapors. It’s a near perfect system.” She tapped a glass tube embedded in the wall with her nails; it was brighter than a fluorescent bulb. Then she proceeded down a long vaulted archway. It was dark in the tunnel, except for the same phosphorescent fungus that glowed in the corner where the walls met the floor. “This facility is the last vestige of a once great society of scholars, scientists, and philosophers. We call it the Sanctum, because almost two-thousand years ago, the survivors of our order fled here, and hid under the temple of Minerva. Our persecutors finally burned the temple, and our leader drew them away, running to the edge of the bean field. There he stopped and allowed the villains to slay him. In this way, he put an end to the hunt for the rest of our brothers, who had started carving this facility from the system of caves below Metapontum.”

“So your leader is a martyr, then?”

“Not quite. The Master can cheat death. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to say more. He may enlighten you, if you are keen to learn.”

They exited the tunnel into a natural cavern. The only light was from a series of candles placed on an altar, and a narrow crack in the ceiling that shed a curtain of sunlight onto the floor in the middle of the room. “This is the Chamber of the Stars,” the woman explained. “It is used for meditation and quiet reflection on the nature of life and the universe.” The room itself seemed to be vibrating, or thrumming with a low oscillating sound. When Vivienne looked up, she saw tiny beads of water clinging to stalactites, forming vast and varied constellations that inhabit the spiral arms of the Milky Way.

“The heavens are torn,” Vivienne remarked.

“Perceptive, my sister.” As they walked into the middle of the chamber, it became clear that around the periphery of the room, sitting monks were humming the strange rhythm. “It is a reminder that beyond the ordered chaos of our mathematical universe there is a realm that even the most finely-tuned mind cannot comprehend. That crack in our universe is where the laws of physics cannot be applied. The silent students, the akousmatikoi, consider the universe in the absence of scientific laws.” She pointed to the people in the white robes. “They observe a strict code of silence for three years, contemplating each day the boundless, the aperion, that which our mathematikoi cannot measure.”

“What are they humming?”

“It is the harmony of the spheres.”

“Why does it oscillate like that?” the professor asked. “I know of the harmony of the spheres, but I was under the impression that it is simply the pentatonic scale.”

“In fact, it follows the tonal ratio between celestial bodies, and since their orbits are not spherical, but elliptical, they make a ululating sound. It is supposed to represent the celestial resonance of life on Earth.” She smiled at her audience. “However, none of us actually believe it. It is simply a tool to foster deep thinking. Much like a repetitive chant creates a second heaven on earth.”

Farther on, there was an immense door with the same tessellating triangle carved into it. The woman gracefully tapped a pattern, which unbolted the door. It opened slowly, swinging through long veils of silk obscuring the next room, which was again much brighter than the one they were leaving. The professor wondered if the binary of light and dark rooms also specifies something.

“Most akousmatikoi never make it past this door. Some contemplate the riddle of the tetractys on the door until they die, never setting foot into the Encyclopaedium beyond.”

“Why are we allowed in so easily?” Vivienne asked. “It doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“You, my sister, are synthemorphos, and daughter of the Master himself. You are a creature of the highest degree, and none shall stop your entry anywhere you go.”

Past the hanging drapes of silk, they saw a room with concentric tiers, heading down into the depths. There was a flurry of activity, with people in white robes monitoring computer screens, reading books, and typing furiously. This was the most high-tech room they had seen yet.

“What are they doing?” the professor asked curiously.

“They are collecting data. This is the highest function of the akousmatikoi. They are listeners, gatherers. It is with their information that our society has flourished. Some of them live above ground for years, studying social habits and the perpetual transformation of the world. They are brave to leave such a peaceful place as this.”

She proceeded down some metal stairs. “In this room, using traffic cameras, we tracked you to Beloeuie, where the Master finally managed to send you a message.”

“You are referring to the clay girl?” the professor asked.

“All shall be explained soon enough, but first we eat.”

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