The Last Number
Would It Not Be Better?
Here is my conversation with I-330, which took place in the Ancient House yesterday in the midst of loud noise, among colors which stifled the logical course of my thoughts, red, green, bronze, saffron yellow, orange colors . . . and all the while under the motionless, marble smile of that snub-nosed ancient poet.
I shall reproduce the conversation word for word, for it seems to me that it may have an enormous and decisive importance for the fate of the United State — more than that, for the fate of the universe. Besides, in reading it, you, my unknown readers, may ﬁnd some justiﬁcation for me. I-330, without preliminaries, at once brought everything down upon my head.
“I know that the day after tomorrow the ﬁrst trial trip of the Integral is to take place. On that day we shall take possession of it.”
“What! Day after tomorrow?”
“Yes. Sit down and don’t be upset. We cannot afford to lose a minute. Among the hundreds who were arrested yesterday there are twenty Mephis. To let two or three days pass means that they will perish.”
I was silent.
“As observers on the trial trip they will send electricians, mechanics, physicians, meteorologists, etc. . . . At twelve sharp — you must remember this — when the bell rings for dinner, we shall remain in the passage; lock them all up in the dining hall, and the Integral will be ours. You realize that it is essential, happen what may! The Integral in our hands will be a tool that will help to put an end to everything at once without pain. . . . Their aeros? . . . Bah! They would be insigniﬁcant mosquitoes against a buzzard. And then, if it proves inevitable, we may direct the tubes of the motors downward, and by their work alone. . .”
I jumped up.
“It is inconceivable! It is absurd! Is it not clear to you that what you are planning is a revolution? Absurd, because a revolution is impossible! Because our — I speak for myself and for you — our revolution was the last one. No other revolutions may occur. Everybody knows that.”
A mocking, sharp triangle of brows.
“My dear, you are a mathematician, are you not? More than that, a philosopher-mathematician? Well, then, name the last number.”
“What is . . . I . . . I cannot understand, which last?”
“The last one, the highest, the largest.”
“But I-330, that’s absurd! Since the number of numbers is inﬁnite, how can there be a last one?”
“And why then do you think there is a last revolution . . . their number is inﬁnite. . . . The ‘last one’ is a child’s story. Children are afraid of the inﬁnite, and it is necessary that children should not be frightened, so that they may sleep through the night.”
“But what is the use, what is the use of it all? For the sake of the Well-Doer! What is the use since all of us are happy already?”
“All right! Even suppose that is so. And then what?”
“How funny! A purely childish question. You tell a story to children, come to the very end, and they will invariably ask you, ‘and then what’? and ‘what for’? And then nothing! Period. In the whole world, evenly, everywhere, there is distributed . . .”
‘Ah, ‘evenly’! ‘Everywhere!’ That is the point, entropy! Psychological entropy. Don’t you as a mathematician know that only differences — only differences — in temperature, only thermic contrasts make for life? And if all over the world there are evenly warm or evenly cold bodies, they must be pushed off! . . . in order to get ﬂame, explosions! And we shall push! . . .”
“But I-330, please realize that our ancestors during the Two Hundred Years’ War did exactly that!”
“Oh, they were right! A thousand times right! But they did one thing wrong: later they began to believe that they were the last number, a number that does not exist in nature. Their mistake was the mistake of Galileo; he was right in that the earth revolves around the sun, but he did not know that our whole solar system revolves around some other center, he did not know that the real, not relative, orbit of the earth is not a naive circle.”
“And you, the Mephi?”
“We? For the time being we know that there is no last number. We may forget that, someday. Of course, we shall certainly forget it when we grow old, as everything inevitably grows old. Then we shall inevitably fall like autumn leaves from the trees, like you the day after tomorrow. . . . No, no, dear, not you personally. You are with us, aren’t you? You are with us?” ‘
Flaming, stormy, sparkling! I never before had seen her in such a state. She embraced me with her whole self, and my self disappeared.
Her last word, looking steadily, deeply into my eyes:
“Then, do not forget: at twelve o’clock sharp.”
And I answered:
“Yes, I remember.”
She left. I was alone amidst a rebellious, multivoiced commotion of blue, red, green, saffron-yellow, and orange. . . .
Yes, at twelve! . . . Suddenly a feeling of something foreign on my face, of something implanted, that could not be brushed off. Suddenly, yesterday morning, and U- and all she had shouted into the face of I-330! Why, how absurd!
I hastened to get cut of the house and home, home! Somewhere behind me I heard the chattering of the birds beyond the Wall. And ahead of me in the setting sun the balls of cupolas made of red, crystallized ﬁre, enormous ﬂaming cubes — houses — and the sharp point of the Accumulating Tower high in the sky like a paralyzed streak of lightning. And all this, all this impeccable, most geometric beauty, shall I, I myself, with my own hands . . . ? Is there no way out? No path? No trail?
I passed by an auditorium (I do not recall its number). Inside, the benches were stacked along the walls. In the middle, tables covered with snow-white glass sheets, with pink stains of sunny blood on the white. . . . There was foreshadowed in all that some unknown and therefore alarming tomorrow. It is unnatural for a thinking and seeing human being to live among irregularities, unknowns, X’s. If suddenly your eyes were covered with a bandage and you were left to feel around, to stumble, ever aware that somewhere very close to you there was a border line, and one step only and nothing but a compressed, smothered piece of ﬂesh would be left of you. . . . I now feel somewhat like that.
. . . And what if, without waiting for anything, I should . . . just head down. . . . Would it not be the only correct thing to do? To disentangle everything at once?