Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Secret Mathematic - Chapter Sixteen


The Secret Mathematic is an original novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your covertly surveilled host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the sixteenth installment.

Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12|13|14|15|16|...

Multimedia: Listen to the The Secret Mathematic Overture in MP3 format, by Syntax Error.

Related reading: Stubborn Town, Three Face Flip, The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer, The Extra Cars

And now, the story continues:



SIXTEEN

In old Saint Medard they rent rooms by the hour. When the young become unruly its alleys choke with burning cars. It's a place to be mugged, to get stabbed, to make a deal. It's a place for running away, for hiding your shame, for feeling better about your lot when you eavesdrop on your neighbours.

The streets run with piss.

Drago trudges up the stairs from the metro, his crutch clicking on the pavement. He skirts a man swathed in newspapers grumbling in a wet corner, then steps carefully around a pile of vomit. Once on the sidewalk he takes a map out of his pocket and studies it, then looks up and squints at the tightly crowded building fronts, searching for numbers. A few of the passersby take notice.

It's a cloudy afternoon. Drago steps back from the curb as passing cars kick up spray from the puddles. A dented green Peugeot slows and the driver cranks down his window. "You want a rock, friend?" he asks.

Drago shakes his head and the Peugeot moves on. Drago wonders what sort of a person sells rocks out of his car. A freelance landscaper?

Someone touches his elbow. Drago turns. A boy about his age wearing a black leather coat says, "You look lost, mec."

Drago nods. "Yes, yes -- I am trying for to find this address," he explains, unfolding his map again and showing it to the youth.

The youth nods pensively. "I know where that is," he says. "I can give you directions. How much you got?"

"How much what?"

"It's going to cost you twenty francs. You got twenty?"

Drago withdraws his wallet and spreads the billfold, counting through the notes. He untucks a twenty and holds it out. The youth takes it and smiles. Drago smiles back, then frowns as he bumps into someone from behind. He looks to see two more youths flanking him. They're all smiling in a very friendly way. "You can give to me these directions?" he asks.

The youth nods. "Sure. We have to cut through this alley here. You just stick with me, mec."

"Okay," says Drago. "Thank you so much."

When Drago emerges from the alley again he's dabbing at his bleeding nose with the hem of his T-shirt. The pants pocket from which his wallet has been ripped is a loose flap hanging down from his bum. He still has his map, however, so he resumes walking slowly up the sidewalk while scanning the building fronts.

He stops in front of No. 21 and a half, a rickety iron staircase leading up to the second storey of a sad, sagging apartment house with papered-up windows and profane graffiti on the walls. Drago folds his map away, takes a shuddering breath, and then proceeds to climb the metal steps, his crutch clanging on every other riser.

The front door is unlocked. The hall is dank. He finds the flat and, after a brief but tense hesitation, knocks.

The knocking is very loud in the old apartment house.

He is about to knock again when he hears latches disengaging. A deadbolt bangs aside and then a narrow crack opens between the worn door and the filthy jamb. Drago sees something glisten from the shadows within, and guesses it might be an eyeball. It is accompanied by a quiet, dog-like snuffling sound. He clears his throat. "Hello?"

A harsh grumble: "What do you want?"

Drago straightens. "My name is Drago Tesla Zoranovic," he says, "and I'm looking for my father."

The eye opens wider. A man sniffs, then wheezes. "World, world," he whispers. "It's really you. After all these years now, it's finally you on my stoop. World, world -- my Drago...my boy."

Drago's breath catches in his throat. "F-Father?"

The next thing he knows he's been drawn into a tight, somewhat malodourous embrace. He's burned by stubble as he's kissed on each cheek, then pressed into another squeezing hug. "My boy," mumbles Ratko, "oh my boy, my boy."

The flat is squalid.

Drago is invited to sit on the bed. He blindly finds a place amid the stained bedclothes while he looks around the cramped room. As he does so his mouth slowly drops open until his jaw hangs agog. Ratko is watching him. He smirks. "Yes," he says. "It's you."

The flat is a shrine. The sloping walls are matted with papers: a faded purple mimeograph of Drago's WISC-R results; third generation photocopies of his every report card; out of date transit passes featuring Drago's dumbstruck flash photograph; ticket stubs; scrawled notes; blurry, yellowing Polaroids of a black-haired baby on a picnic cloth; an officially embossed Xerox of each of his degrees; a lock of hair tied with twine; inoculation records; shop receipts; and even a grainy blow-up of Dragana's sweet, succulent face behind glass.

"I have followed you your whole life," says Ratko. "I never really left you. I have always been there for you, in whatever small ways I was able."

On the dresser is a chess set, ready to play, covered in an inch of dust. Leaned against the wall is a hunting rifle with an odd, wire-hanger based contraption attached to the trigger. On the back of the door is a chalkboard of scrawls detailing Drago's regular comings and goings each week: class, cafe, laundromat, class, market, class, hardware store, class, home. Certain intersections, lecture halls and corners of the Bibliotheque Sorbonne are underscored, circled, or connected by arrows.

Drago looks to his father. He had always imagined him to be his mother's age, but he isn't. He's older. His face is like a thinner, sagging version of Drago's own -- more pallid, perhaps, and unshaven. Unrested. Tested, maybe. "I never knew," says Drago quietly. "I wasn't even sure you were alive."

"I swore to your mother," says Ratko simply. He gestures at a hot-plate. "You'll take coffee?"

"Yes please." He shifts on the bed. "I don't know why I found you. I don't...I'm not asking anything from you. I only wanted to meet you."

Ratko fusses with a can of instant coffee, his narrow shoulders hunched. As he peels back the lid Drago notices that he has six fingers on each hand, the diminutive extra pinky curled into habitual obscurity against the palm. With his back to his son Ratko says, "You may have nothing to ask, but I have something to tell you. You may not want to hear it -- at least, not all of it. But wants don't matter now, for either of us." He looks over his shoulder. His eyes are bloodshot but steady. "This meeting between us, Drago, is the culmination of a long fate. This isn't an accident. It is our moment." He pauses, then squints and wipes his eye. "These are tears of happiness. Don't worry. Today I get to serve my purpose in this world." He snuffles, then smiles. "I've never felt more whole."

Drago shakes his head. "I don't understand you."

Ratko crosses his wiry arms, nodding with his chin at the dusty chessboard on the dresser. "You still play chess?"

Drago gives him a solemn nod. "All the time," he says. "Even when I'm not, I am."

"I taught you!" croons Ratko with sudden vigour, startling his son. "Before you could speak, we played, you and me and your sister! We lived in chess, didn't we, my boy? I can see it in your eyes: you remember!" He does a little dance in place.

"Father?"

"And there," he continues, nodding over at the chessboard again, "is a game that has been waiting for you for twenty years. I knew one day you would find me, and we would play together again." He looks away and wipes at his nose. "I always kept it ready."

Drago smiles uncertainly. "Shall we play?"

"We shall," agrees Ratko. He holds up a single finger, quivering with tension. "But not now. The game is the last thing. The game is dessert. We have yet to tend to the meal, yes."

Drago straightens seriously. "You have something to tell me, father."

Ratko's eyes widen and he draws his gaunt face into a wide grin, lending him a distinctly maniacal air. "No, my son," he hisses between his teeth. "I have everything to tell you."

Before Drago can reply Ratko lurches over to a nearby shelf with a surprisingly rapid, springy jaunt. He begins prying books from the packed line, assembling them into a rude pile in his skinny arms. It is only as he leans aside to open a cupboard with his foot that Drago notices his father wears no shoes. His naked toes are almost as long as his strange fingers, and he uses them as such to pluck a ratty album from the cupboard which he then deftly tosses with his foot and catches on top of the pile. He glances over at his son. "Two hands are not enough for a busy man," he explains. "I am gifted with long toes, so why not use them?"

Drago is wide-eyed. "You could be in a circus."

"I have been, my boy, I have been. Let me say this: not nearly so exotic and exciting as a younger man might hope. World, world! Those were dark days, yes." He scampers over to the bed and gently lets the pile slide onto the floor beside it, then drops to his haunches. "Do you like mythology?" he asks, looking up at Drago.

Drago shrugs. "I don't study much in the humanities."

"A mistake," says Ratko seriously, stroking his somewhat pointed chin, fingers rasping on stubble. "The truth of science is illuminated by the lies of men." He climbs up on the bed with a discomfiting, insectile scuttle that takes equal advantage of all four of his limbs, sweeping up a book seemingly at random and spreading it open at a marked page: it is a journal, crowded with dense, crisply-drawn notes -- the language is Serbian, the hand the filigree tradition of yesteryear. He smooths out the page. "Tell me, my boy: what do you know of feathered snakes?"

Drago blinks. "Feathered snakes? Is there such an animal?"

Ratko smiles mischievously. "We're speaking of mythology -- no place for is there and isn't there here, my boy. We care only what is told. And much has been told about the feathered serpent, by peoples in every quarter of the world. Is it allegory? Yes, certainly. It is fancy? Perhaps, but not purely." He narrows his eyes, boring into Drago. "I have studied. I have seen the connections. There is too much to be coincidence."

"Studied?" echoes Drago vaguely. "You are with a university?"

"Pah!" cries Ratko, shaking his head. "Universities are full of idiots. Not you, my boy, but others. I tried to make them see, yes, but instead they called me crazy."

Drago swallows. Looking into his father's wild eyes, this is not difficult to fathom. "Feathered snakes..." he prompts.

"You know the tale of Zmaj Gorynych, of course."

Drago can offer only a blank look. "No, father."

"No?" replies Ratko, raising his brow with indignation. "What kind of a Serb doesn't know Zmaj Gorynych?" He sags slightly, shaking his head. "It's a tale a mother should tell at the bedside, but you'll forgive me for forgetting who your mother is, my boy. Of course she wouldn't have you hear it."

"It was Dragana who tucked me into bed," says Drago quietly. "She told me stories of gingerbread people who lived in fear of being eaten by trolls."

Ratko nods, then blots his nose crudely on his stained sleeve. He turns the pages in his notebook, arriving at a high-contrast photocopy of a stained-glass window depicting a Solar eclipse where the moon's progress is represented as a horde of bats with forked tails. "The old country people still speak of ale, daemons of weather and ruin -- black things, riding on the wind, bringing hail in their wake while they struggle to fly up to the sky to devour the Sun." He taps the image of the eclipse, then turns the page to reveal a wood-carved print of peasant farmers fleeing a tempest, lightning forks igniting the fields behind them. "The ale are insatiable, gluttonous, unkillable, narcissistic. They use the form of men when it suits their wiles."

"Possession?"

Ratko considers this, mouth pinched. "Possession is a Catholic misunderstanding. The ale do not inhabit men, they imitate them. They grow penises from their brows and stab mortal women in their wombs, planting an unholy seed. These offspring are servants of the ale, indistinguishable from humanity except by a characteristic odour that can only be detected by zduhaci crop guardians."

Drago sits up. "That -- that is a story I know, yes! The zduhaci are born with the caul, with an invisible strand of umbilicus tied to the Ghost World. They have..." He trails off, eyes flicking down to his father's hands. "They have six fingers on each hand and each foot."

He looks up to meet his father's eye. Ratko nods solemnly. "Do not be afraid," he says.

"The zduhaci can smell evil," Drago concludes, his voice a whisper.

"Not evil," Ratko corrects, head cocked. "Disorder. Vandalism. Errors." He blinks, then slinks suddenly off the bed and returns with two cups of coffee. Drago accepts his wordlessly. Ratko picks up a new book, flipping through pages of photocopied text, heavily annotated.

"In legend," he says, eyes flitting back and forth, "the zduhaci were agents of Zmaj Gorynych, toiling alongside him in his battle to rescue the Sun from ala daemons and their foul queen, who would consume it and thereby unmake the world." He reaches out with his left foot and picks up another book, passing it to his hands to flip through the pages, nose twitching. He presents Drago with a colour photograph of a faded mural: a great, snake-headed beast rears up over the clouds, its tail dangling in the crops below, quill-like spines rising in a feathery halo. "Zmaj Gorynych himself," Ratko pronounces heavily; "Lord Dragon, feathered serpent and guardian of mankind, saviour to the Sun and cock of the stars."

Drago stares at the image, transfixed. One head rises above spike-plated shoulders from which erupt eight smaller heads on either side. Their fanged mouths hang open and they exhale fire. "A terrible creature," notes Drago.

Ratko raises his brow. "Oh no," he says quickly. "World, world -- not at all, my boy, no. Fierce? Yes. Strong? Yes. Clever? Oh yes, most certainly that. But more fleeting qualities aside, Zmaj Gorynych is above all else and beyond any other consideration, a force for good." He flips backward to another image: a chipped and washed out mosaic depicting armed ranks battling around a black, fire-wreathed Sun. A knight in armour lies below, stricken. A feathered snake at his feet rears up against an advancing line of wraiths.

Ratko taps the page urgently. "Zmaj Gorynych keeps the world's death at bay by preserving the Sun from ala appetites. Zmaj Gorynych is the hero of a war so old history has no coherent telling -- a war not between saints and sinners, but between being and unbeing."

"I don't understand. If this dragon is a guardian, why is it depicted as a monster?"

"Because his powers cannot be understood, and secret knowledge is frightening. And..." He pauses, looking at his son keenly again; "because the legend is written by his enemies."

"Then at the end the Sun is eaten and the world dies?"

Ratko sighs, his expression suddenly tired. "No," he whispers. "Not yet."

"But I thought you said this war was ancient. How can the end be unknown?"

Ratko's mouth tightens. He puts a long, six-fingered hand on Drago's thigh and squeezes it gently. "My boy, history is not a line," he says. "It is a knot." He closes his eyes, face grim. "It has convolutions and braids. It twists back upon itself -- yes, even intersecting. Time's flow is neither simple nor sensible, at least not to senses such as we have."

Drago swallows, shifting on the bed. "It is a colourful myth, father."

Ratko opens his eyes, nods, indelicately snarfs the spine of the book and then places it aside. His foot brings him another, drawing it open to a marked spot. Drago obediently looks at the presented image: a crone in rags stands before a cabin raised upon living legs, clawed and reptilian. Drago looks over at Ratko. "It's the witch, Baba Yaga."

"Yes," confirms Ratko. "Queen of the ale, enemy of history, bitch-matron of the reaper."

"I know this fable. She builds a fence of skulls, and punishes curiosity."

"Yes," says Ratko again. "And she is the mortal enemy of Zmaj Gorynych, her every ambition doomed to frustration because he will not give up his treasure to her."

"Treasure?"

"Of course, my boy. Have you ever heard of a dragon without treasure?" Ratko tosses the book aside careless and it comes apart when it hits the floor. He brings another book up from the pile, rapidly flipping the pages until he comes to a reproduction of a three-panel frieze depicting a winged serpent lying guard over a hoard of coins. "Were Baba Yaga to capture his treasure, she would have command over all nature, and thus be armed to unwind the world and rebuild it anew with herself at the godhead."

Drago blinks, eyes lingering on the frieze. "Why can't she take the treasure? Is it cursed?"

"No," says Ratko. "It is hidden."

"And no one knows where?"

He shakes his head. "All players know its location, but that knowledge gains them nothing. The treasure of Zmaj Gorynych is clutched within the jaws of his sixteen lesser heads, clamped firmly shut, perfect and incorruptible guardians." He turns the page, which features a grainy blow-up of a painting: one of the smaller dragon heads, a wink of golden coins just barely visible behind the fume of its fiery breath.

"And so it must be Zmaj Gorynych himself who is hidden, in an impregnable lair."

Ratko shakes his head more emphatically. "All players know where he is. He lives openly. They watch him, and wait."

"What are they waiting for?"

Ratko closes the book and puts it aside. He turns to his son and takes his hands in his own, six long fingers wrapping firmly and tightly. "Zmaj Gorynych's treasure is hidden where no man can reach, even if they know its place perfectly. It is a cache that cannot be uncovered by any sleuth, nor any army, nor any weapon or force of coercion." He takes a deep breath, his long nose twitching, bloodshot eyes flashing dramatically. "Can you guess it?"

"No, tell me. Where is the dragon's treasure, Father?"

Ratko's face flexes with a sick passion, nostrils flaring. "It is hidden," he says, "in the future."

Drago blinks. "What?"

His father grins widely, exposing yellow teeth. "Legend holds that there will come a moment of opportunity for Baba Yaga -- a brief window of vulnerability during which Zmaj Gorynych's treasure will be naked before it can be enclosed behind protective jaws. And so she waits. Her minions wait. The envious wait. All players bide their time, so that they may range themselves around that moment and then, when it comes, be the first to seize upon it."

Drago whistles, hugging his own arms. "It is indeed a strange story, yes. A Serbian yarn, you say?"

Ratko snorts. "What I recount is a composite narrative, stitched from a hundred sources," he snaps. "I have seen the connections, and I cannot ignore them. If you look you'll see them, too -- in the Pentateuch, in the Bhagavad Gita, in recovered fragments of the Jamijama. It is peppered throughout lore, torn into fleeting pieces of nonsense but, with effort, it can be reconstructed and made whole again, leaving us free to put aside the veil of childish allegory and reveal the truth."

Drago feels heavy. He stares at the pile of books on the floor. "What truth?" he asks.

"There is no such thing as a dragon," says Ratko simply. "Zmaj Gorynych is a symbol."

"Of what?"

"Of you."

Drago looks up sharply, forehead creased. "What did you say?"

Ratko spreads his lank arms, six-fingered hands open. "Why do you think I named you and your sister as I did, my boy?" He nods to himself, then brings his hands together on Drago's shoulders. "Because I knew. Because I can smell it. Because it is fate." He sighs, his pink eyes watering again. "You, Drago -- you are Zmaj Gorynych. Lord Dragon, Itinerer of the Invisible Calendar."

Drago stares at his father. He is able to recognize dispassionately that the old man is mad. He understands why his mother wanted Ratko to stay away. A corner of Drago aches with pity: there is nobody to care enough about Ratko to push him into seeking psychiatric attention. "I...don't know what to say," he says lamely.

Ratko doesn't respond. Instead, he flies off the bed and scuttles across the floor on all fours, jamming his face at the base of the door to snuffle all along its edge. He looks back at Drago, face pinched, and declares, "We're running short on time. They're getting too confident."

Drago stares at him. Ratko springs back over to the bookshelf and pulls down two fat albums, presenting them reverently to his son.

"What are these?"

"Guide books," grunts Ratko. "They'll tell you who your friends are, how to recognize those who plot against you, what signs to mark your progress by. Hold them dear, yes. I've spent years preparing them. They represent the culmination of all my studies, and they contain everything you'll need to know to survive."

"To survive?" echoes Drago, clutching the albums numbly.

"You don't understand the stakes, my boy. World, world -- bless your innocence! But that luxury is no longer yours. The moment of fruition is coming closer every day. Listen!" He scoops up another book from the pile and cracks it open. Ratko clears his throat. "Quote, And new days shall come, in which the objects in a man's purse and the elements of his hall shall have eyes to hear and voices to speak; and the whole world shall quiver as a living thing so that the very stones sing songs and chariots will remember their every journey. Hark, for close draws the undoing of Babel's curse; pay heed, for the dragon will lay his golden egg on the morrow. Unquote."

Drago blinks. "What should that mean to me?"

Ratko leans in close. His breath smells like hazel nuts and wine. "Open your eyes, my boy. Let yourself see the signs: this passage -- more than two thousand years old -- describes our modern life. This is the age of the awakened world, Drago. This is the age in which the treasure comes to be. You have its seeds within you already, whether you know it or not...and I see from your look, you do know it." He pauses, his sneer unfolding into a smile. "You know it already."

Drago says nothing, eyes locked on his father's.

"Your instinct to stay mum is apt," Ratko whispers quietly, backing off. "After today, you are well-served to be miserly with your candour, yes. This is a curse I lay on your shoulders with every regret a father can have for making his son's life worse: you can never trust again."

Drago frowns. "Because weather daemons from peasant fables stalk me?"

Ratko snorts again, waving dismissively. "I can already hear the defensive doubt in your voice, urging you to swallow an easier lie -- that your life will be normal and that I am insane. Forget it now. It gains you nothing, though your mother would approve of that cowardice."

Drago rises suddenly from the bed, eyes hard. "You will not speak against my mother."

"Your mother called me a fool. She called my father a fool -- my father, who was a friend to Einstein -- a fool!" He sneers, rubbing his nose aggressively. "She is myopic. She is ignorant. She is afraid and stupid, always holding back my efforts --"

"Stop!" cries Drago. "Stop saying these horrible things!"

"How I wish the gods of old had conspired to strike her down instead of our dear Dragana --"

Ratko stumbles back from Drago's punch. He topples over the pile of books and hits the floor awkwardly, six-toed feet in the air. A few droplets of blood freed from his lip seem to hang in the air suspended for a moment before giving in to gravity and sprinkling down: pit, pat, pit. Ratko groans. Drago is frozen in place, his fist extended, breathless.

He gasps. "Father -- Father, I'm sorry!"

Ratko wheezes, then coughs, then snickers. He gets to his feet slowly, rubbing a banged elbow. He looks up. He's grinning, his lower lip split. "That was a nice hit, my boy," he says, flexing his mouth experimentally. "You're a natural boxer, yes."

"I've never hit anybody before," murmurs Drago, still frozen. He looks at his upraised arm and drops it, furrowing his brow. "My hand hurts."

Ratko snickers again. "My face, too." He takes out a filthy handkerchief and dabs at his mouth. "All I can smell is blood. We're as good as naked. You have to leave."

Drago feels suddenly panicked. "What? No, Father -- I can stay awhile. We still haven't played our game. Why don't we go out for supper together?"

Ratko shakes his head. "No, no, no. I cannot smell them. They could be getting too close -- close enough to make out what we say. It's too dangerous."

"Who, Father? Who is getting too close?"

"The players. Those who would seize the treasure. Those who would rape time for their glory."

"They're coming here? How can you be sure?"

Ratko rushes up into his son's face, index finger wagging insistently, spittle flying from his lips. "Because they follow you, my boy. They are always with you. You haven't noticed them, because you didn't even know you were supposed to be looking. But you'll notice them now. More every day: the apparent strangers who are never more than a few paces behind you in the market, never more than a few doors away in any apartment you let, their breath and clicks intruding on your telephone conservations and the crumbs of their sandwiches in the folds of your mail."

Despite his growing certainty that Ratko is delusional, Drago feels afraid. "What do they want from me?" he asks, mouth dry.

"They want to protect you and preserve you, so that you will finish your work. And then, on the day it is complete, they will slaughter you and wield your science to bring about their own greatness."

"How can I get away?"

"You can't. They would follow you to the moon. Your only hope lies in theatre: in misdirection and subterfuge, in manipulation and distraction. They will always be watching, which gives you the power to decide what they see. Your every action is an act, from today on, designed to sow confusion so that their image of your progress is never undistorted." He sighs, closing his eyes. "This is how I have lived every day of every year of every decade."

"Because they follow you, too?"

Ratko's eyes snap open. "Oh yes," he says, smirking. "But not for very much longer, no. They know you're here now, and they'll be burning to know what's been said. They will never find out, however. They won't risk exposing themselves to you, so it's me they'll go after -- and they'll learn nothing from me. I've made arrangements to ensure it."

"What arrangements?"

Ratko shakes his head and waves it off. "Never let the guide books out of your sight. Promise me." He then grins, claps his hands together, and nods with his chin at the chessboard on the dresser once more. "Will you take white or black, my boy?"

"We're going to play now?"

Ratko's eyes twinkle. "I've been looking forward to this for a very long time. In some ways it feels unreal that it has finally come to pass. World, world! I feel like I'm dreaming."

"Me too," admits Drago. He nods. "We'll take white."

Ratko rises and carefully picks up the board, motes tumbling from its edges in puffs and streamers. "Of course you will. And now we play, and we will say nothing more." He blows a void in the dust before his face, then sniffs at the air. "I'm still clouded by iron -- even whispers aren't safe."

Drago swallows. His hands shake. He blushes, and looks down and then up. "Father," he offers, "I love you."

Ratko lays the board gingerly on the bed between them. His gaze is downcast. His shoulders tremble. He sniffs again, his Adam's apple bobbing. "Make your move, Drago," he says hoarsely. He stares at the board, waiting.

Drago obeys.

When he steps out of the apartment house the sky is twilit. The street is busy. He carries his crutch, two thick albums, and enough loose change to buy a fare home. Through gaps in the parade of pedestrians he catches glimpses of the glowing metro sign, the stairway ringed by beggars. He shivers, then begins picking his way down the metal risers to the sidewalk. Clang, shuffle, clang.

His nerves buzz. He doesn't know what to feel, so he disappears inside a pocket of chess.

So absorbed, he doesn't even notice when the passersby are collectively startled by a loud bang sounding out from the old apartment house he's just left. He descends oblivious down the stairs to the subway tunnels while others spot ribbons of smoke curling into the burnished sky and pull out their telephones to call for firefighters. While he loiters on the platform sirens warble up above, drowned out as the train arrives. Warm tunnel-breath, flying grit and dissociated newspaper folds whoosh over him in a wave.

The doors part. Drago steps in and is whisked away.


34 comments:

Dan said...

I enjoyed the imagery and the smells. Always wonderfully descriptive. I think you meant Ratko landed on his haunches not launches.
As always I wanted the chapter to go on about 500 pages longer. I would have liked to witness the chess game, though.

THE Danimal

CodeWright said...

Wow, straight up awesome. I loved the threads of mythology in this chapter.

Drago's father was a tremendously cool character.

Simon said...

What is it about chapters with fathers? This was just as engaging as Mr. Miss's last time with his own dad. Emotional meetings with fathers in CBB stories don't bode well for the paternal parties, that's for sure!

Some typos:
"...leading up to the second story of a sad,..."

"She me told stories of gingerbread people..."

I had the rifle pegged for a suicide attempt as soon as it was described, but I thought at first it may have been a previous botched attempt or a setup that just wasn't followed through. But as soon as Ratko mentioned that he'd "made arrangements" to ensure that 'they' learn nothing from him, I knew how it was going to end.

As the chess game was about to begin, I loved how Drago said, "We'll take white." Even then he was subconsciously playing with his sister. He can't untangle the two. Nor would he ever want to.

When Ratko mentioned the two guidebooks to Drago, and how he would ever after have to make a spectacle of his actions to keep his pursuers guessing about his motives and such, I immediately thought of Life and Taxes and how so much of Drago's odd behaviour could be explained by his subtle intent. "I was just masturbating!"

The Mad Serb is mostly an act. And I can't wait to see what Event Zero is going to be now.

Eric said...

"There is no such thing as a dragon," says Ratko simply. "Zmaj Gorynych is a symbol."

"Of what?"

"Of you."


I visibly jumped when I read this part.

fooburger said...

Good chapter... leaves me wondering about the organization of the 'unmakers'.
Hard to visualize bad guys whose intentions and actions are pretty much "outside of time".

Teddy said...

I was on to what was going on as soon as they mentioned the sun being destroyed. I wonder if the Long funded the project that Tim worked on any?

Wonderful chapter, lots of exposition. And yeah, it does explain some of his eccentricities, but even if they're calculated, he's still supremely cool.

TRH

SaintPeter said...

Firstly - Yay! A Drago Chapter!

Secondly -
The scope of this chapter is breathtaking. On it's own, it's simply a rather odd story, but in the context of the Burgerverse, it's a joy.

I do wonder if the "unmakers" are the "something wicked" that Jeremiah found. Could they have met their match in the Secret Mathmatic, yet been able to send agents back in time to stop it? (Shades of Terminator here).

It is clear that the "Treasure" is TSM. It also appears that, as others have mentioned, the Mad Serb is just an act to fool his enemies.

I too was certain that the gun/coat-hanger was an indication of Ratko's impending demise.

Random Thought: The sestaci could be future descendants of the apes, sent back to guard/create Draco?

*shivers with delight*
Like a sweet sweet candy.

SaintPeter said...

Oh, I also missed the part about the Sun.

In the Burgerverse, time is so very clearly a knot.

Anonymous said...

^ Dude. WTF?


OMG SANDY = JEREMIAH!!!!! SIMON = LALLO!!!!111 LOLOLOLOLOL

fooburger said...

Heh.. I'm amazed I didn't catch the Tim/sun connection either... It's just so obvious. But I guess that story was long ago in the time line of this reader. :)

I'm wondering whether TSM is a constant of the universe, ie something that is discovered, versus something that is either man-made or becomes available at a point time.

I wonder if the extinct civilization Felix discovered was err.r. retroactively 'extinctified' by humanity, but managed to program their mechanical explorers to take out humanity just in the nick of... errr... time?

Somehow, I get the feeling that this is some sort of shadow war between the Secret and the Equivalence.

Tolomea said...


He shakes his head. "All players know its location, but that knowledge gains them nothing. The treasure of Zmaj Gorynych is clutched within the jaws of his sixteen lesser heads, clamped firmly shut, perfect and incorruptible guardians."


The Executives?


"They want to protect you and preserve you, so that you will finish your work. And then, on the day it is complete, they will slaughter you and wield your science to bring about their own greatness."


The subject of the Shah's moral fiber seems to be coming down on the evil side.

mandrill said...

Ooh some nice food for speculation here. I will be pondering this chapter for a while, trying to figure out where things match up.

SaintPeter said...

Fooburger said:
I'm wondering whether TSM is a constant of the universe, ie something that is discovered, versus something that is either man-made or becomes available at a point time.

I tend to lean towards the "Constant of the Universe" idea. The way it has been presented it is akin to the idea of "True Names" IE: that if you can call a thing by its true name you can control/change that thing.

TSM is a method of describing and, thus, controlling the nature of the universe. In a prior chapter we saw Drago draw the essence of Zero or Nothing - his description became the thing (or lack of thing...)

The question may be, is Drago the only one who has the capacity to explain/discover TSM? Historically there have been some concepts that took a conceptual leap to intitially understand, but once explained become the basis for whole new lines of thought.

As I was thinking about an example, I thought of Calculus. Would you say that Calculus "existed" prior to (circa) 1684? Clearly, calculus works and us useful to describe many events in nature, but is Calculus a fundamental part of the universe it describes and therefore "discovered", or was it invented by Newton/Leibniz?

Dan said...

Let's not forget Drago was known as the "mad serb" way back in school (see chapter 7). His comment about masterbation in L&T would hardly seem out of the norm for him especailly when reflecting on Ch 7. I believe there will be for more that he will do to throw off the followers. After all HE IS DRAGO!!

THE Danimal

Big t said...

Well worth the wait, CBB. This will give us quite a bit to speculate on for a while.

Is the Mythology CBB's or is it based off real Mythology, either way the way it works really blew me away (no pun Ratko). We all saw Ratko's demise from a mile away(if he really did shoot himself).

I want to know who won the Chess match, and was secret informaton givin in the game, becouse that is a thought process that Drago thinks in.

Mad Serb, circus freak, I hope we get another chapter or short story with him later.

Mark said...

Seeing all the things people read into this is like watching my classmates in creative writing class put ideas into my head after reading my work.

This must be a blast for you, CBB.

You certainly are making it fun for us. Another great chapter. Part of me wants to wait and read all of this in one chunk; it would do the material justice (in my fleeting memory, anyway).

Anonymous said...

It took me...let's see...about 20 paragraphs to get over Drago being dewalletized.

"World, world" seemed odd.

I hope it turns out that Ratko was at least half loony. I wonder whether there's mythological or Burgerverse allusion (I don't know the SoS era) to his Ratlike ways.

It's interesting to see how the other readers are so interested in speculating about the Long every week. I didn't care about Lallo in the story of his history, and I disliked him in the one with Uncle and the chained book. I could just read Mr Miss and Drago and Tim doing their thing every week. And the effects of TSM reaching back to save Dragana, though admittedly saving a soft-porn girl is a bit of an anticlimax compared with the saving of a solar system which seems to be the actual direction of things...

Orick of Toronto said...

beautifully written, CBB. I especially like visualizing the last few paragraphs, or the last line.

Calculus existed always like the wheel existed always. Egyptians discovered it as early as 1800 BC.

All the mythologies can be found on wikipedia. I spent a fine hour reading. :)

Smiley K said...

Why are the enemies referred to as "players" and why does Drago senior insist on playing chess?

I'm starting to think everyone on the CBB universe has been somehow corrupted.

fooburger said...

I don't think there's anything precluding TSM from only becoming available via Drago. I'm guessing that might be the case because there are already people in history with knowledge of TSM, and once the knowledge of its existence is out there, finding/discovering it becomes a whole lot easier.
There must be a reason these evil beings are waiting for Drago to discover/create TSM, and other options I've thought of are even more distant stretches.

Maybe the burgerverse has some sort of time-lock on it, much like described by the tale, where only at a certain time does TSM become available for use.
Do Jeremiah or Tim use TSM in their adventure back in biblical times? Could Lalo have been 'longed' without using TSM? Seems likely.

... just more speculation....

Eric said...

I wonder if Drago's dad is actually dead. We didn't read about a dead body, and faking his own death would fit in nicely with his advice about confusing the enemy with false moves.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Curse this job that forces me to wait days before reading the latest from one of my favorite authors.

As soon as I read about the sixteen heads, I thought "wow, CBB has REALLY done some legwork on the backstory". The connection became more certain as Ratko raved on.

I am reminded of something Gloria Foster said in The Matrix:

"Ohh, what's really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything?"

Though in that case, the sixteen would have been planned from the start instead of the number of happenstance.

I wonder if Lallo ever met up with the Shah again, considering his newfound mission...?

Dan said...

The sixteen weren't planned. There were originally 20. Three died, 1 went bad....

THE Danimal

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Dan: That was my point. They weren't planned, so it couldn't have been Drago subconsciously following his father's storyline.

There were actually many more than 20 in the beginning; it's just that only twenty actually made it into physical form.

Teddy said...

When I saw the number sixteen, I immediately thought of the number of Pawns in play at the beginning of a game of chess.

I have a dillemma. I recently purchased a eurail pass for France, Switzerland and Italy and a round-trip airline ticket to Paris, giving me two weeks in which to wander Europe this May. Thing is, I am a foolish american who knows nothing of the ways of the world. I am also 21 years old.

Where are the hottest night-life spots in: Paris, Venice, Rome, Marseilles, Zurich, Geneva and Milan? Anybody know? Names of bars I should go to, nooks and crannies that aren't published in any tourist guide, any amount of inside information would be amazingly helpful. I do not want to have an average vacation, but I also don't want to get the living tar beat out of me - if necessary, I'll be wearing a Canadian-flag t-shirt (no offense to anybody).

All answers appreciated!

TRH

al said...

I got you covered in Z├╝rich. PurPur, Mascotte, Kaufleuten, Barflyz.

Also. Buy something black to wear when you go out. I would recommend head to toe nice black shirt, pants, belt, shoes, socks.

Teddy said...

Okay, good. I have to ask - why all the black? I know a guy from Norway, and that's exactly how he dresses, but I thought that was just him.

Whatup?

Also, anybody been to any of the other cities I listed, or got stuff to point out that I missed?

TRH

fooburger said...

Been to them, but I don't really have much in the way of advice for ya. The hostels are often horrible, but they're good ways to meet people to hang out with.

Don't just pee everywhere...

"I'm from Canada and I'm wasted!"
- slacker peeing on street, Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo

Dan said...

We have not heard from him in a week. I hope the burgermeister and family is okay. And curse his employer if his silence is caused by his workload.

THE Danimal

Eric said...

Maybe he's just so busy writing the next chapter that he doesn't have time for anything else.

/wishfulthinking

Simon said...

If it's any consolation, Dan and Eric, his most recent Facebook status (about an hour ago, and it's now 11:07 AM MST) was "Chester Burton Brown is writing."

So there. My lamest CBB comment ever.

Eric said...

I noticed that too, but it seemed "stalkerish"/"obsessive fanboyish" to mention it.

Tolomea said...

I'm positive there was a chapter 17 this morning, I read it when I should have been doing work, I also liked it, and commented on it. I hope it wasn't some form of April fools joke.

Tolomea said...

see... http://cheeseburgerbrown.com/stories/The_Secret_Mathematic/Chapter_17.html I'm not crazy