JOHN QUADRATIQUATION arrives to consult the ORACLE
The Vehicle’s duplex, early afternoon. The Vehicle is counting up the cash she has left over from her anonymous benefactor when there is a scuffling sound outside, and the sound of dogs barking, and she goes to the sliding-glass patio doors and peeks through the blinds to see a grappling hook, which blasts high into the sky behind her privacy fence, and then crashes to earth just inches on her side. And then because there’s nothing for the hook to attach itself to, not even a decorative border on top, the hook, when reeled in, scrapes along the inside of the fence, leaving marks.
The Vehicle sighs heavily, and puts the money back in her copy of The Vagina Monologues, which is maybe kind of an obvious place for her to keep the money but what else is she going to do with it, and goes outside. She unlatches her fence and walks around to her backside neighbors’ lawn, which her backside neighbor is a sort of unfriendly old lady by the name of Bernardine Gale, known as ‘D-Cup’ by the area high school students, for what should be all the obvious reasons. BERNARDINE ‘D-CUP’ GALE has been relatively quiet about the Vehicle taking up residence in her neighborhood, but the Vehicle has overheard some loud phone conversations following the ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER incident, wherein Gale called her all sorts of unpleasant things and hoped that, quote-unquote, “the police throw the book at” her.
JOHN QUADRATIQUATION, one of EVIE SINGLASS’s friends from World Z, is extremely tall and thin and sort of stifled-looking, like David Lynch after being whacked repeatedly with a Courtney Cox mallet. He is pretty well demolishing Bernardine’s roses, which the Vehicle just knows she’s going to catch shit for this sooner or later.
QUADRATIQUATION: Oh. Geez. I didn’t. I seem to have maybe miscalculated. This privacy fence is eighty feet tall, right.
ORACLE: Closer to eight.
QUADRATIQUATION: No way. I’m pretty sure. I worked it out from the angle of the sun and the length of the shadow it cast.
ORACLE: Perhaps a decimal error?
QUADRATIQUATION: [blinks] Well no. I mean, that’s hardly possible. I hold the title of the Supreme Accountant of World Z. I could hardly be tripped up by something as silly as a decimal error. Numbers obey me. They line up and sing, and dance, and I often have sex with the digit 8. 4 if I’m feeling kinky, which I feel kinky 12.63-bar percent of the time. I arrived here on the positive side of the equation y=1/x, which I could only get on in World Z. My personality is reducible to four distinct equations, and since one is ornamental it’s really more like pi, three-and-change. Which by the way pi is sort of misunderstood here.
ORACLE: My math isn’t that great, really. But I feel like I have to ask in what way it is misunderstood.
QUADRATIQUATION: Indeed you do. Did. Whatever. You here – I’m not going to say the name of your world, it’s too icky – treat pi like it’s a constant, when in actuality it’s the most marvelous story. Also you think it never ends, which is untrue, but I’m not going to tell you how it turns out.
ORACLE: Is it a happy ending, or a sad ending? Can you at least say that much?
QUADRATIQUATION: It’s happier than the story of the square root of two. I actually cry when I see a unit square divided along the diagonal. But pi is not as happy as the story of e. Beyond that I can say no more.
ORACLE: Fair enough.
QUADRATIQUATION: But you’re wondering, I’m sure, what brings me here.
ORACLE: I know, but I don’t want to deny you the joy of the explanation.
QUADRATIQUATION: Much obliged. In fact, obliged to the amount of one hundred sixteen. I came here because my sources, particularly i, report that numbers here are being . . . well I really hate to say the word, but tortured, here. And as I am not only the Supreme Accountant, but also the chief Numbers’ Rights Activist on World Z, I felt I was compelled to come here and put a stop to it. Which when I arrived and explained my mission, everyone to whom I spoke directed me to you. Said you would know what to do, that you knew all the relevant leaders of this world and could help me to present my case.
ORACLE: What sorts of tortures?
QUADRATIQUATION: Well the chief one, of course, is [shudders] rounding.
ORACLE: Rounding hurts the numbers?
QUADRATIQUATION: Oh very much so. It actually alters their personalities, it changes them into someone else. And then they have identity crises, and nervous breakdowns. You see a 3.6 limping along on the street somewhere, weeping uncontrollably, and you go up to it and you say, why, 3.6, what’s the matter? What’s happened? And she’ll tell you oh, I was rounded, it was horrible, I don’t know who I am anymore, I don’t know where I fit in, I just know that I used to belong somewhere between 3.62 and 3.63, but I could look forever and never find my place again. And also my moods are blunted: I used to go from zero to nine, and now I only go from three to six.
ORACLE: So it’s mainly an identity thing?
QUADRATIQUATION: Worse than that, actually, because so many of the numbers to which this happens used to be irrationals. Imagine how horrifying it would be for people in this world to force the unconstrained human being, the asymptotic, the never-ending, the tellers of stories, into these tiny rational boxes of restricted behavior against their will. Why, people would be outraged, yes?
QUADRATIQUATION: But there are other grievances. I am puzzled at the way you report numbers, in your media. For example, I saw on your channel CNN that the war between the U.S. and Iraq has cost the U.S. $127 billion dollars. Then I saw on another channel, ABC I think it was, that the war has cost $130 billion dollars. And I thought to myself, I thought, Johnny old boy, where do you suppose that $3,000,000,000.00 went?
ORACLE: Halliburton would be a safe guess.
QUADRATIQUATION: Well I was being rhetorical. My point was simply, surely the amount matters? Surely one cannot just create and destroy three billion dollars merely by clicking buttons on a remote control? But it gets worse, because then I saw that the cost was actually $127,251,709,011. And I wondered to myself, well this is a difference of millions of dollars. What is the right amount? The actual amount.
ORACLE: Well it’s more of a graphical thing, actually. Amount on the y axis, time on the x.
QUADRATIQUATION: And the slope of the line? The y-intercept?
ORACLE: Couldn’t say. We know the slope is very steep. Approximately a thousand dollars per second. No data on the y-intercept.
QUADRATIQUATION: Perhaps I misunderstand. Whose money is this?
ORACLE: Oh, it’s ours. There’s this thing – you’d love it, actually, there are always lots of very complicated numbers – called taxation, where we give money to the government and then the government buys goods and services for us with the money. Though sometimes the numbers get rounded, I’m sad to say. Maybe you would find it depressing.
QUADRATIQUATION: So you’re saying that everyone in the country voluntarily gives a portion of their money to the government and then is no longer concerned with how it is spent, or how much of it there is, that numbers and dollars appear and disappear and this is acceptable to everyone?
ORACLE: Pretty much. In fact, sometimes people pay, receive their services, and then enter the media to try to convince others not to provide services for anyone else.
QUADRATIQUATION: But surely other people follow them into the media and point out that these agitators have received government services?
QUADRATIQUATION: I see.
ORACLE: And also, I meant to correct you on this before – it’s not that people voluntarily give their money to the government. Taxation is enforced. People who refuse to pay can be put in jail, or have property seized, or all sorts of other things.
QUADRATIQUATION: These would be the people who never have occasion to use government-provided services, who deal exclusively with private companies?
ORACLE: Ummmmmm, no.
QUADRATIQUATION: So people will refuse to pay for services they are getting, and then the money will be taken from them anyway, but nobody ever pays any attention to where the money is going or what it’s paying for, whether they’ve done taxation or not, and, furthermore, billions of dollars can be created or destroyed just by saying it’s been created or destroyed. And nobody cares.
ORACLE: That’s about the size of it.
QUADRATIQUATION: [turns white. Eyes widen.]
QUADRATIQUATION: [deep breath] Okay. Well, but maybe you are just, I don’t know, more enlightened about money than some worlds. That would be okay. I mean, money is such an arbitrary, if necessary, concept. What matters are relationships, and people, and the natural world. So everyone knows, I’m sure, how many people are on the planet, and how much fresh water there is, and how many species there are besides your own, and how well you all know, say, mathematics, and how many countries have powerful weapons, and where these weapons are, and how much food you produce, and that sort of thing.
ORACLE: [sound of an ORACLE smiling weakly]
QUADRATIQUATION (rapidly): I’ll just tell them I tried but I couldn’t do anything. It was lovely to meet you.
Quadratiquation pulls the equation y=x2 for x≤6 out of his backpack, pulls himself on at x=6, and slides down, launching himself high into the air and out of the Real World and back into World Z.
GALE [standing just inside screen door at the back of her house]: You’re going to pay for every single one of those roses he ruined! I know exactly how many there are, and how much those bushes cost, and how much fertilizer I put on them, and you believe me, you’re going to hear from my lawyer if you don’t pay the bill I’m going to send! And I’m going to charge you for the stamp I have to put on the envelope to mail it to you too! And the envelope!
The Vehicle turns around, her face unreadable, and goes back in her duplex.
(Story continues at BOB DOLE.)