fiction / Spirals / Apocrypha /

A very special number

a short story by Lexi Summer Hale

“Do you think there’s any information in the universe dangerous enough to kill over?”

Maranqura blinked. “Sorry, what?”

“Oh!” I waved away the screen full of text obscuring my vision. “Sorry, it’s this story I’ve been reviewing. It’s such pulp; lots of evil alien empires and ancient precursors.”

“That sounds awful.”

“It’s strangely charming,” I said. “Anyway there’s this government that’s trying to kill the protagonist because se knows something se isn’t supposed to and it just made me wonder.”

“If there’s anything like that in the real world?”


“What about... the software for a bootstrapping metaconstructor?” suggested Maran.

I laughed. “Nah, everyone knows those are impossible.”

“Of course,” said Maran, nodding. “Completely impossible. I don’t know why I said that.” She stared out the window into space.

We felt a slight twinge as the hyperdrive finished the jump calculations it had been working on for 30 riaqa now, spun up, and the distant point of light in the window blinked closer. Hanaqeshra stirred in ser sleep, and I ran my hand through ser hair fondly.

“Well,” said Maran, “I can think of one thing.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Yeah?”

“This goes back a ways.” Maran nestled back into her cushions like she always does when she’s about to tell a story. “A thousand years back, actually. I was only about ten at the time.”

I whistled. “That is a ways.”

“So there was this mathematician. She wasn’t a big name, but she was from Derodesha too so we heard from her from time to time. Most of her papers were too abstract to make any sense to ordinary people -- she worked on hyperspace math with some task force or other.”

“The stuff that it takes centuries to get even the most rudimentary understanding of?”

“Exactly that. But there was this one little paper. I don’t think she really took it very seriously, either because she didn’t grasp the implications or just thought it was fanciful nonsense. It was about certain... patterns she found in a statistical analysis of a huge corpus of jump calculations.”


“Like the signature of an algorithm. Now, this wasn’t a proof of any sort - we still don’t have enough computing power in the galaxy to even try and validate the sort of proof it would take, and maybe that’s why it didn’t get much attention. But she postulated the existence of a certain very special number.”

“What sort of number?”

“A sort of very large, very complex cryptographic signature.”

I blinked. “Cryptographic...?” Gears started turning in my mind, and my eyes opened wide. “You can’t mean-!”

“Now, the number in question would have been enormous,” Maran continued, unperturbed. “Millions of trits. Or bits, back on the computers we used then. But applied in the right way to the right set of data, it could, in theory, provide a shortcut to jump calculations. With that key on modern computers, you could calculate any possible jump in the space of heartbeats, to any resolution you wanted.”

“That’s insane!” I gasped, reeling at the implications. “You could have practical teleporters - personal teleporters - you could bring the whole galaxy together - low-latency faster-than-light communication - nobody would ever get headaches from hyperjumps again -”

“And nowhere in the accessible galaxy would be safe from a power with the key,” said Maran. “You could pluck a person off a planet on the other side of inhabited space and into a simulation without them even noticing. You could drop planets into suns, if you had enough energy.”

I shivered. “You’re always such a downer.”

“Someone’s gotta be.” Maran smiled distantly.

“Do you think that key exists?” I asked, and couldn’t keep a quaver out of my voice.

“It’s actually what got me interested in math in the first place,” said Maran. “Back when I was young and foolish.”

“Kinda hard to imagine you being young,” muttered Hana, blinking sleepily at us.

“Hush, you.” I poked sim. “—You thought you were going to find the key?”

“I’d be the most famous mathematician of all time,” said Maran, with an amused crease in her brows. “That sort of childish nonsense. Of course, I forgot about it soon enough, had a real education in math. Focused on real problems instead of fanciful fairy tales.”

“You didn’t answer ser question,” Hana pointed out. “D’you think that key thing exists or not?”

Maran smiled mischeviously at her. “Name a planet,” she said.

“What? Why?”

“Humor me.”

“I don’t know. Moqanrida I guess?”

Maran winked. The viewport blinked.

And without the slightest twinge of head pain, we were orbiting Moqanrida.