The city was enveloped in plague and nobody seemed to care. The priests said it was God’s will, the punishment for a sinful world. The sages in their towers said that the plague didn’t exist; who was to say that the corpses weren’t illusions caused by some malevolent spirit? The alchemist-healers prescribed a tonic of arsenic and mercury to restore vitality; oddly enough, their patients died. The king and his nobles barricaded themselves in the castle but otherwise did nothing.
Ada swore. She was the daughter of a minor courtier and served as the geometry tutor to the slow-witted son of a prominent noble. Almost from the day of her birth she proved to be a thorn in the side of her governesses; she had an irksome tendency to escape from her caretakers and wander the castle. Once she was found at the astronomy tower looking at the stars. Her governess had reprimanded her: “Haven’t you ever heard that curiosity killed the cat? And strike me if that’s not Aquarius; that’s bad luck, I reckon.”
She oftentimes couldn’t shake the feeling that her civilization was inadequate. She knew she was immensely better off than the masses, but she held an unspeakable and unspoken thought in her mind: Life can be better than this. Had she been foolish enough to say so out loud, she would have been burned alive by the priests for heresy. Instead she kept quiet and studied and tutored the noble’s idiot son. When the plague struck, she could no longer contain her anger. She vowed to herself that she would end the plague before it ended her, and woe to anyone who attempted to stand in her way.
Ever since he was a child, Cephias knew he was holy. He heard voices that no one else heard and saw things that no one else saw. His brothers—of blood, not spirit—mocked him and tried to break his faith, but he knew he was called by God. When he was sixteen and determined to join the priesthood, a loose woman had been brought before him by two of his brothers. She cooed and offered herself to him, but Cephias was not one to be tempted by mortal flesh. He grabbed a fire iron and the seductress tried to run. “No sin goes unpunished,” said Cephias. The fire iron pierced her skin and she screamed.
Cephias smiled, for he knew he was holy.
By the time he was thirty, Cephias was the high priest and the spiritual adviser to the king. When the plague struck, he silently rejoiced. The city had recently enjoyed times of prosperity, and despite the priests’ dire warnings, the people had seemed more interested in mead than in giving alms to their spiritual benefactors. Now, surrounded by suffering, Cephias was in his element. A mother whose young son was dying from the plague had begged him to provide divine intercession; he lectured her on the virtue of humility. “One mustn’t attempt to bargain with God,” said Cephias. The boy died. Cephias pressed his thin lips together and moved on. There were many more sinners to tend to.
Ada sat and thought about how she would solve the problem of the plague. The priests’ way didn’t work, the sages’ way didn’t work, and the alchemists’ way didn’t work. I suppose I’ll have to invent my own way, she thought. But what to use as the basis? The answer suddenly came to her, blinding in its obviousness: geometry. Just as the theorems at which she was so proficient could be derived from simple axioms, so too a cure to the plague could be derived from simple axioms. She thought back to the laws of logic that the sages had pilfered from a faraway realm before the priests had issued their edict against foreign scrolls. A thing is itself; a thing cannot be the opposite of itself; there is either something or nothing.
The plague was itself, and it caused sickness, so maybe there was some sort of essence of plague, which could be repelled by the opposite of itself—some sort of vital force, an essence of life. Where would this essence of life come from? Perhaps it came from some elixir, or from some spirit, or maybe God—
Ada stopped herself. I’m making the same mistake the others did.
which meant reasoning solely from axioms didn’t seem to be working.
Well, this might be harder than I thought.
The plague ravaged the city and the castle felt like a morgue. Moonlight streamed through the windows and silence reigned in the halls. Alone at the top of the highest tower was a girl surrounded by reams of parchment. If an interloper were to examine the scrolls, their bewilderment would be inevitable—the girl had taken ordinary maps of the city, of the sort used by the taxation authorities for collection purposes, and strewn ink markings throughout. Inkblots by streets, water wells, and markets. Each inkblot marked an incidence of plague.
Ada surveyed her handiwork, the product of weeks and weeks of sleepless nights, of relentless gathering of data, of countless false starts and new beginnings, and came to a final conclusion. The plague wasn’t a collective delusion, or the work of demons, or a mystical essence.
It was in the water.
Ada and Cephias stood before the king. Her eyes blazed with clarity; Cephias’ showed no light at all.
Ada spoke first. “I have found the source of the plague. You can end the death and suffering with one command. If you value life, if you want to live on this earth, I urge you to do so.”
Cephias spoke next. “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it as the prophets did. The world gains much from their suffering. For fallible humans to end the plague is to go against God’s will. It is unnatural. The girl has sinned most grievously, and God calls for her to burn. If you seek salvation, if you embrace the sacred mysteries, I urge you to execute his divine will.”
The king looked from one to the other, and made his decision.
In a damp and dark monastery, Cephias spread his arms wide in beatific rapture as the flames began to consume his body. I am a holy martyr, he thought, finally free from this filthy world. My reward is in heaven, where I shall be among the righteous and see the sinners burn, burn, burn…
Suddenly the image of the girl with blazing eyes came to his mind. His contentment abruptly vanished. His voice turned shrill as it echoed off the cavernous walls. “You think I regret what I’ve done? I am judged by no man! Who are you to judge? Who are you to judge?”
The shrieking voice gradually ceased, until the only living presence in the room was an emaciated rat. The rat sniffed the corpse curiously.
It turned away in disgust.
Ada stood at the heights of the astronomy tower. She ignored the stars, which hung above in a barren void.
Instead she looked out at the city, at the world of man, and held a sacred and inviolable thought in her mind:
Life can be better than this—and I can make it better.