|The beautiful servant of an even more beautiful courtesan leaves the palace in an ancient city and finds a beggar proudly shouting "I have nothing" in many different languages. Yet, this beggar seems able to make startling predictions, for example, about the price of silk. Eventually, she comes to learn that he actually proclaiming is that he has the concept of "zero", although nobody other than her understands this. Together they discuss the power of mathematics and the decimal notation for numbers, although the discussion is quite cryptic and so I don't think a naive person reading it would be able to learn anything from it. They also discuss the concept of infinity as it arises in the problem of dividing a positive number by zero.
The actual history of zero is a bit muddled. (See this review at the AMS's website.) But, it is most certainly true that the concept of zero is both more recent than many people would think, and also an important piece of the development of mathematics. This story may exaggerate this importance a bit, but not too much.
So, this would just be a nice little story about the importance of symbolic computation, if it didn't take a suddenly dark and violent turn. Although no "magic" occurs in the story (at least none beyond the magic of mathematics ; ) it invokes the Fantasy genre when the servant turns out not only to be beautiful and also a decent mathematician, but also a warrior capable of single handedly defeating a roomful of palace guards. For me, this was a disappointing way to end the story. However, it does offer one strange twist that I find somewhat entertaining in an evil sort of way. Not only does the character spend the rest of her life teaching mathematics, she also apparently kills those who do not have enough respect for it. A sort of mathematical terrorist? Only in fiction, I hope.
The story was published in
Interzone #205 / July-August 2006