Prison of Stars

“Prime numbers are what keep us safe, what stands between us and them, they are the only thing in place that stops . . .” Marcus trailed off, probably seeing the look of pity and disbelief written across my face. We were in a small cafe in a seedy part of town, sitting over coffee that smelled like it had been brewed from recycled coffee grounds in a pot that was never washed. It wasn’t the sort of place I had expected to meet with him.
Marcus had been a brilliant student in high school, his understanding of physics and mathematics rivaling that of his magnet program teachers. His ego, combined a lack of interest in anything any other high school aged kid cared about made him unpopular. I had been his friend, if only in passing, maybe I was one of his only friends. Maybe that’s why he was reaching out to me now. His e-mail had been cryptic at best.

James, I need help, I need someone to listen before they come back. I
have enclosed a plane ticket (round trip) and paid for a hotel. Please
come and see me, I need to talk to you.

I was intrigued and had the time off, but now I wondered if coming had been the right thing to do. It was obvious that Marcus did indeed need help, but not the kind I would be able to provide. He looked like he hadn’t bathed or shaved in weeks, his hair was stringy and unkempt. His eyes, which I remembered to be sharp and contemptuous were now sunken and haunted. All in all, I felt he needed a doctor, and his nonsensical babbling wasn’t helping me change my mind.

“Do you know how many stars there are?” Marcus asked suddenly.

“What? No, what are you talking about? Marcus, I came here because you said you needed help, not because you wanted to talk about stars and numbers. ”Of course, I was concerned for him, but I was also irritated, I had used my vacation time for this, left on a moment’s notice and now nothing he was saying was making sense.

“There are two to the fifty-seven million, eight hundred and eighty-five thousand one and sixty-one power, minus less one stars. James, look at me.” I was having trouble meeting his eyes, mental illness made me uncomfortable. “Look, that’s what banished them, that’s what is keeping them prisoner. Whatever wants to protect us locked them behind those stars and we, as a species are unraveling it.”

He pushed a napkin towards me, on it were scrawled mathematical formulae, not that I would have been able to discern anything from them. “Imaginary numbers, James. Non-Euclidean geometry, we are bending the rules of what mathematics is and does and we are crafting a key, and when the stars come into alignment they will use that key, forged of our own hubris to break free. I have studied the signs, James, I have read the passages of Das Buch der Kinder and cross-referenced numerology, this is coming!” He was nearly frothing now, his eyes wide and bloodshot, urging me to believe him, though, given my own ineptitude with mathematics, I wouldn’t have been able to make sense of even a sane argument. I simply shook my head.

“Marcus!” Slowly he sat back down, cognizant of the myriad of eyes that had turned to him during his outburst. I left then, no longer able to stomach what my brilliant friend had become, I thought maybe drugs had fried his brain and that what little was left of the man I knew was long since hidden behind what I had seen.

Marcus is dead now, that very night. I went to go see him one last time and found him. All around his home, he or someone had carved numbers and mathematical formulae. But something was very wrong, the formulae were things that spoke to me, they seemed to connect on some deep level with how I, as an individual saw reality. Someone had called the police, and when they arrived, they found me, babbling about stars and imaginary numbers and wrong angles. But I am not insane, I am not some confused individual, I will fight them. Count the words in this confession, I can’t be sure anymore, of anything. But I think Marcus was right, and I think so long as I can follow certain rules, I can hide from them.

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