idol season ten | week 26 | 2030 words
The Goal Is Zero
Zero was a little hung over when he showed up to work on Monday. It'd been a rough weekend and he usually didn't party on Sunday nights, but at least the job was simple. Number-line demos were about as basic as you could get, nothing he hadn't done a thousand times before, right?
Line was at the coffee station, where Zero filled two cups instead of the usual one. "You're looking good," he told Line.
"Thanks!" Line said. "I've been moisturizing."
"Yeah," Zero nodded. He knew all about needing to look young in this business.
"Okay, let's go!" the manager called out. "Places, everyone!"
Zero went down to the end of the number line, and shook hands with the mark at his position. Everyone else rushed to their spots, and then—
All the marks and numbers slid down the line until they were crushed up against Zero. "Get off!" he yelled.
"Sorry," One said. "It's really slippery here today!"
"Guys, I can't breathe," Line gasped. "Sorry, I must have overdone it with the moisturizer."
"Geez," the manager said, "oil up on your own time! Okay everyone, we're quitting for the day so Line can go home and take a bath…"
Zero stood up and tried to shake out the kinks. He normally prided himself on his nice oval shape, but now he looked like a malformed bobby pin. Buncha clowns, he thought. He took the subway home, stopping at a bodega to pick up beer.
"In today's top story, there was a pile-up on the number line at the Arithmetic Academy," the corner television blared.
Zero rolled his eyes and left.
|----|----|----|----|---> 0 1 2 3 4
By Wednesday, Zero had plumped up again and he was ready for work. But when he got to the studio, he discovered everyone was working on a pie-chart presentation, one of the few times he was never needed.
"Geez, you coulda told me!" he said to the manager. "I had to take, like, three buses to get here!"
He stomped back outside and waited for the next bus to come along. Maybe he should spend the day at the movies, instead? Commablanca was playing over at the Majestic…
Some youngsters came walking by, a group of little dots (or maybe they were periods—who could tell?)
"Ooh, it's Mr. Zero!" one of them said. "Hi, Mr. Zero! I want to be just like you when I grow up!"
"Uhhh…" Zero replied. Where to even start with that one?
"Bye!" the little dot said.
"Bye, kiddo." That was a relief. Let someone else burst the little guy's bubble, he thought, I've had enough for one day.
A movie was sounding better and better, though not Commablanca. He wasn't in the mood for doomed romance. He decided he'd ride the bus to the theater and see what else was playing, maybe have something to eat if he was too early.
There was a good chance some other classic like Squarooticus or The Sum Also Rises was showing, or even both. The day wasn't over yet.
Friday, Zero got called in for a free-lance gig at a university. He had to take the subway out to the Lower East Side, and was lucky he didn't get lost. He made it to the classroom with two minutes to spare.
The job was for a math unit on basic logic, focusing on "set" theory. It was almost the opposite of the pie-chart situation. Students were asked to create definitions of sets similar to "People whose favorite color is diarrhea-brown" or "Women named Howard." Zero spent all day running from one null set to another, and at the end of the day, he was exhausted. Plus, those curly brackets tickled.
He slept restlessly that night, dreaming about wandering through swamps where curly brackets lay on their sides and lurked like crocodiles just waiting to snap him up.
Zero rested up over the weekend, pure luck on his part. Monday's job was Calculus, and that always tried his patience.
"Can you be smaller?" the director would say. "No, more than that—really small. Like, miniature."
Zero shrank and expanded and then shrank again, over and over. He jumped in and out of equations until he was dizzy. And then there was the other problem:
f = lim 1 x→0 x"Stop poking me!" Zero kept saying. "We've talked about this before."
"What?" The arrow would whine. "But I'm not, I swear!"
By the end of the day, Zero wanted to bend that arrow until it was no longer suitable for anything but a right-turn only sign.
A day that challenging inevitably got worse. On the way home, Zero was accosted on the street by some rube in an Ampersand Suit:
"Oh, hey, I love your work! Wait until I tell everyone I met Mr. O—they're gonna flip!"
Geez, not this again! "You're thinking of someone else. I'm Zero, not O."
"Are you sure? Because you look like the same person."
"We're not. He's the letter, I'm the number, and we look nothing alike. I'm svelte, and I look good in a hat—O doesn't. Plus, he has a serious weight problem!"
"All right already, I heard you…"
x→0 x→0 x→0
Zero decided to take a pass on Wednesday's job. He wasn't fond of graph-and-axis representations, where line slopes often sliced right through him. He let one of his stand-ins try her hand at it instead. She was young, maybe it wouldn't hurt her quite as much.
He spent a lot of the day hanging around in a sports bar instead, drinking whiskey and nibbling on pencil shavings and eraser flakes. The crowd was fairly negative, not by accident. Zero was ashamed to admit it, but he often felt better about himself when he was surrounded by negative numbers. They were lesser than he was, and he didn't have to impress them.
Maybe that was how One felt about him? He and One liked to pal around a lot, mainly because they worked together so often and got along well. Computer code was their specialty, where they were the stars of the binary show. They moved constantly in response to the intended sequences, jumping into the next position or maneuvering around each other to trade places. It was almost like a dance, and one hell of a workout!
Zero and One probably would've been dating by now if either of them swung that way, but they didn't. At least Zero had one solid friend. Sometimes, that was everything.
Zero wasn't that great at making friends, which wasn't uncommon for numbers. Some of the fractions came nosing around from time to time, but fractions were a neurotic bunch, and he never felt comfortable with them.
He didn't have family either, though he supposed NULL was probably a distant cousin on the "word" branch of his relatives. NULL was a dark sort of character who always wore black, caught up in that Goth or emo mentality, or whatever they called it these days. Zero stayed far away from him—the guy was just too depressing to be around.
Though he wasn't an anxious person, Zero sometimes had nightmares where he'd turned into a decimal number—one of those scattered creatures just trying to hang on and keep from flying off the edges of the world.
"That is never going to happen," One would tell him. "You'll always be Zero."
But everyone had secrets, and there were things about him One didn't know.
For all of his work in mathematical displays and equations, Zero was rarely used in probabilities and odds. As a result, they were murky to him. Too often, he let optimism sway him.
When it came to gambling and "can't-lose" propositions, he was hopelessly naïve.
One had tried to caution Zero about horse races and betting pools, but he had no idea how bad things really were. Zero was prey for every bookie up and down the coast, and he was in deep to the worst kind of loan sharks.
On a cruel September night, the threats of retribution finally became real.
Zero was walking home from the bus stop when he got jumped. A group of pound signs dragged him into an alley and went to work, while a dollar sign called the shots.
"You better pay what you owe, or we'll come back and turn you into ellipses, understand?" the dollar sign said.
"Should we crush him, boss? Huh? Huh?" a # asked.
"Nah, if we do that, he can't make a living. And he's gotta work to settle up, so just make him hurt so he don't forget."
A red # pummeled Zero just short of real damage, and the blue # and black # pulled on him from both ends, stretching him out slowly and painfully.
A police siren blipped out on the street. "The cops! Everybody scram!" the dollar sign said.
A !, one of the boys in blue, rushed into the alley, but he was too late. Only Zero remained.
And he wasn't a zero anymore.
Zero woke up in a hospital bed, aching all over. He felt strange, and it was more than just pain, but he didn't know why.
When he looked down and saw his bottom half flipped around so that he was staring at his own butt, he almost screamed.
"Hey," said a voice over to his right. It was One. "How're you feeling?"
"I'm—oh my god, what have they done to me?"
"Well," One said, "looks to me like you've maybe, uh, mutated a little? Or something. But you'll be okay."
"Okay?" Zero said. "What the hell am I now? Am I a letter?"
"Heck, no!" One said. "You're a symbol. An infinity sign."
"Oh," Zero said. Ohhhhhhhhh...
He was going to have to think about that for a bit.
"Couple of days in here, and you'll be ready to go home," One said. "They say you got off lucky…"
Zero was home by the end of the week, and spent the weekend on the sofa watching TV and trying to wrap his head around the new situation. As long as he held this shape, he was immortal.
On the other hand, if he didn't get his debts squared away and put a lid on his gambling, those loan sharks would make him wish he was dead.
On Sunday, One came over to watch a game. "They got meetings for this kind of thing," he said. "You don't have to do this alone."
It was a different class of work, being an infinity sign. Lots of calculus equations, but while they were harder to understand, his role was a lot simpler.
Mostly, he stayed in one place, and he rarely got tired. All of his work was done lying down:
f = lim 1 x→∞ x
Sometimes he was on the other side of the equal sign, but most of his work was right there in that expression, "the limit as x approaches infinity." Calculus work paid a hell of a lot better than number line gigs, too.
The arrow didn't even bother him anymore—instead of feeling poked, it was more like having his head scratched. And x approaching infinity, well… who would've thought a dame would be the one to make the first move? Yes sir, he liked that a lot. And though he'd always had a thing for the curvier numbers, like the threes and the nines, there was something about that graceful symmetry and those slanting lines that really caught his eye.
He could make a fool of himself for that x. Maybe he already had.
A lot of the other numbers were in awe of him now, but he didn't let that change him. He remembered how things had been.
On weekends or at the end of the day, you could still find him with One, just the two of them hanging around together and having fun. When he'd really needed him, One had been more than just a pal. He'd been a true friend.
That was like winning the lottery, a million times over.
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