"Are these really... equals signs?" asked the old-timer, Teddy.
Seal Team i had been roughly dragged, blindfolded and boxed in in parentheses, to some sort of headquarters. Their spacesuits had been left on, converting random atoms into oxygen via microfusion, because there was no air here, wherever here was. All of Jimmy's equipment -- all of all of their equipment -- had been removed, or destroyed, or rendered useless by interference.
Outside of their cells, two large Xs stood guard and down the hall, chained to the wall, was an M and a C. The animals of the number world, Jimmy thought as he nodded at Teddy, then gave a little motion with his hand, the Seal Team sign language for quiet.
The cells were equal signs, that much was clear, and it made sense, in an abstract way: equal signs kept people, things, concepts, on one side or the other of an equation. While theoretically indicating an equivalent, they actually made sure that what happened on one side stayed there.
Theoretically. Jimmy was working on that and didn't want Teddy interrupting him. The problem was trying to think about math without thinking about numbers because, as he'd realized too late, thinking about numbers simply made more of them.
Most people's creative abilities are poorly-controlled, at best, and minimally developed. Almost everyone can think of something, can remember things, and can come up with crude stories or half-drawn sketches. Jimmy suspected that those ideas, if they existed anywhere at all, quickly died out. The half-formed, half-desired thoughts, he'd long ago decided, didn't have the necessary spark to spring into life, no matter how many multiverses there were. Even now, in the combined universe, such ideas, daydreams and the like, might pop into being but they were not long-lived.
There was the risk that some people, people who spent a lot of time and energy thinking about such things could actively create those things, and that was a risk Seal Team i had long ago devised, taking steps to capture such people if they were determined to have used their abilities for malign purposes. Even before the catastrophic unification, such people -- like Rusty -- were too dangerous to let free, because their creations did not necessarily appear in a multiverse far removed from this one, and in any even would threaten those people in that other multiverse.
But the real problem was, Jimmy knew, the abstract notions that we develop -- numbers being the second most powerful among them. Numbers were something everyone had drilled into them, over and over, beginning as soon as they could talk. one, two, three, he thought, carefully thinking of the words, but his mind drifted a little and he could feel that somewhere, probably close, a 3 had come into being and was howling with rage even as its magical qualities were being assessed and harnessed by the leader of this peculiar tribe.
So everyone can create numbers, Jimmy knew -- and the numbers turned out to be evil evil evil, something Seal Team i had always feared, and for that reason no ventures had ever been made to locate the Numbers Universe.
There is a reason, Jimmy thought now, as he stared at his equal-signs prison and at the Xs and Ms and Cs that barred an escape he couldn't even think of, that everyone hates math, and that reason was because of the inherent evil of numbers -- an evil that was only compounded by the hatred they could feel from humans.
And now they are here, sharing our universe with us.
"It's the worst possible thing that could happen!" the Undersecretary for Just Missing The Point had wailed back at the cabinet meeting.
"Not the worst," Jimmy had assured him. "There's something even worse than that."
He had a thought, then, and looked around at Seal Team i, all of them good trained men and women who were watching him carefully.
He gave a gesture that meant follow my lead.
He thought to himself transitive property. He stared carefully at the X in front of him, and slowly edged forward until he was touching the equals sign directly in front of him.
"Hey X," he said.
There was a ruffled snarl. This thing couldn't even talk, it was so crude. He taunted it again. "X? X? Not much of a number, are you?"
Around him, the other Seals edged forward and pressed gingerly against equals signs themselves.
"X ... is for Xylophone," Jimmy said, and as the X lunged forward, he quickly spreadeagled himself, arms up and legs down all at an angle, trying to resemble an X himself, and braced himself...
...a flash, and he was on the other side. As were all the Seal Team members. Inside the cells, Xs and Ms and Cs raged and snarled and barked and roared. Jimmy wordlessly gestured directions, and the team spread out in the hallway. There were no weapons, nothing they could use anywhere. And his own suit was nearly powerless, just enough juice to make air.
He pointed. They started down the hallway, as quietly as possible, only 8 of them left on this mission...
They were surrounded by 8s, division signs pointed at them, ready to split them in two or three or however many it took.
The team all raised their hands, and Jimmy cursed himself even as he realized it wasn't his fault, really -- it was ingrained in us, to think of numbers.
Then 5 walked in and for the first time in his long, long life, Jimmy Earwig felt real fear.
"What is that?" one of the guards asked Rusty, who was still drawing furiously. There was a stack of paper on his desk, nearly an inch tall, and many of the charcoal pencils and other utensils had been worn down.
"See for yourself," Rusty said, and stood up. He walked over to the corner, but the guard squinted.
"Hold it up closer," he said. "The light is terrible down here."
"Oh, sorry," Rusty said. "I'm really proud of this one." He braced himself, breathing deeply. He held the picture up a little higher, deliberately angling it so that the guard had to lean his head a little to the right to see it in the glow of the Reality Stabilizer.
As the guard did so, Rusty told himself be awesomer and reached right through the force shields that kept his reality on this side and real reality on the other, and grabbed the guard's head and pulled him in, so that the guard was staring right at the picture, wide-eyed.
"What're you! Let go!" Other guards immediately began firing but they couldn't pierce the reality shield around him, and Rusty let go.
"What the! I'll shoot you dead!" the guard he'd grabbed yelled, and Rusty taunted him:
"Go ahead! Drop the stabilization and shoot me. But work fast! And watch out for that!" he pointed.
The guards stopped firing and looked where he pointed.
There was nothing.
"Nice trick," one said.
"Give it a second," he told them all, and to the guard whose head he'd pulled, said "Did you like my picture?"
"No, I didn't, and you shut up," the guard said, but he was cut off by a loud clanging sound as a giant demon in black armor with long claws came charging down from the spot where they'd been looking, a giant demon that perfectly matched the drawing Rusty still held in his hands. As Rusty smiled gleefully, the demon ran towards the Seal Team members, who, true to their training, did not flinch at all. They began firing at the thing, hitting it with enough firepower to destroy a starship, missiles and lasers and rays whanging around in the tiny space. The monster struggled, getting to one team member and throwing him, but the Seal simply activated his force shield and bounced harmlessly twice before taking a bazooka and hitting the thing dead center, blowing it into pieces.
"Nice try," the man said, lifting his battle screen up off his face to smirk at Rusty.
Rusty was gone. One corner of the Reality Cell had been bent, slightly, and Rusty had leapt up over it, taking his drawings with him.
"Oh, man, we are screwed," the guard said.
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