Wednesday 27 February 2008

The Secret Mathematic - Chapter Thirteen

The Secret Mathematic is a science-fiction novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your recuperating host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the thirteenth installment.

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

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, our tale continues:


A navy blue Taxi Parisienne screeches to a halt outside of Hopital Saint-Lazare. Danica Zoran bursts from its back door and runs across the asphalt to the lobby, her face anguished as she squeezes roughly past a man in a wheelchair and his startled nurse.

"My son, my son!" she cries at the reception desk. "Where is my son?"

A plump, sour-faced matron looks up languidly. "One moment, madame," she mutters and then returns attention to her keyboard.

"He's been hurt in an accident! I must see him immediately!"

"If you insist on causing a disruption I will have to call security, madame."

Danica bites her lip but remains vibrating insistently at the counter. The matron's jar of pens jiggles in sympathy. The gen d'arme standing by the door crosses his arms and watches her, his long Gallic face coloured by disdain. Danica turns away from him, staring instead at the matron's fingers as they ply the keys. Her foot taps anxiously. The computer beeps. The matron looks up again. "Family name?"

Moments later Danica is rushing down a long, ill-smelling corridor of buzzing greenish fluorescent lights, her head swinging from side to side to read the numbers on each door as she passes. Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two...


He looks up. "Mama?"

She runs over to his bed with the intention of embracing him but hesitates at the sight of his attached IV, his gauze-wrapped crown, his legs in casts hoisted by an unwieldy contraption of pulleys and wire. She clutches at her face, stymied at his bedside. "Oh God, oh God -- you're ruined! What's happened, Drago? Oh God!"

He pushes aside a tray of lime Jell-o. "I'm fine, Mama. Everything's okay. Calm down."

"Your legs!"

"Mama, calm down."

She jams a fist into her own mouth and stares at him over her blanched knuckles, eyelids jittering. She takes a deep breath around her hand, the air whistling. Finally she sinks into a plastic chair and proceeds to fan herself with a scrap of paper bearing the hospital's address.

Drago smiles. It's nice to speak Serbian again, like slipping into water the same temperature as your body. "That's better," he says. "You see, it's only a small knock on the head. It's not even a concussion. I was awake the whole time."

"But what about your legs, Drago? Oh God! What's happened to them?"

"Oh," says Drago, looking down at his elevated casts. "Right, yes. My legs, they were broken a little bit. In six or seven places. I can never remember the exact number, but it's on my chart if you're very curious."

He points to the clipboard hanging on the end of his bed. Danica follows the indication with her wide eyes but makes no move. "Who did this to you?" she hisses.

"A taxi," says Drago carelessly. "It was just an accident. No one is really to blame, Mama."

"Which company?" she barks. "I'll call my lawyer this instant."

"You can't use your phone in the hospital, Mama. Besides, like I say, it's nobody's fault. It was just one of those things."

"One of what things?" she asks, suspicious.

Drago waves his hand dismissively. "Wrong place, wrong time. The poor driver feels terrible, yes. He came by yesterday and brought for me this tiny chess set. Isn't it marvelous? Let me show you: the pieces stick to the board with very small magnets..."

"I don't care, I don't care!" she cries, shaking her head. "Why were you riding a taxi?" she demands hotly. "Were you trying to find your father?"

"What?" blinks Drago, confused. "My father is living in Paris?"

Danica pales, stricken. She's said too much. She rushes ahead. "I asked you, Drago, what were you doing riding around in a taxicab like a millionaire?"

"I wasn't," he sighs. "I was just on the road."

"What were you doing on the road, Drago? Were you drunk?"

"I was doing maths, Mama."

"In the streets?"

He nods. "Dragana told me something I needed to write down before it was lost. I had no pencil, so I was scratching it into the sidewalk. I didn't look up until too late, and when the taxi lost control I was struck down." He grins. "But it's all turned out very well."

Danica is trembling, slowly shaking her head back and forth. "No," she says, "no, no, no, Drago. She's gone."

"She's mostly gone, yes, but not all the way, Mama."

"Don't say such things."

"But Mama, you must understand that Dragana --"

"Do not use her name!" shrieks Danica, clutching her head again. She moans, squeezing shut her eyes.

"Mama, Mama," coos Drago, reaching out and touching her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Mama. Don't cry, Mama."

A moment passes. Drago massages the hard cords of muscle in his mother's neck. She then stands up abruptly, turns her back to the bed, and takes a compact out of her purse. She looks at her reflection in the small round mirror critically, then dabs at her face with foundation. "Now you've made me look terrible," she says quietly.

"I'm sorry, Mama," says Drago again. "But I know a way to cheer you up. Here, let me show you something wonderful. Do you have a pen?"

She narrows her eyes dubiously while she rummages around in her purse. She offers him a disposable blue byro, stepping slightly closer. "...What is it, Drago?" she asks, sounding impatient.

He takes the pen and then slips out the paper placemat from under his Jell-o bowl and folds it double. He leans over the placemat, takes a meditative breath, and begins to carefully draw on it. He works slowly and cautiously, squinting with concentration while advancing the ink just millimeters at a time.

As he does he explains, "To put my legs back in order, the doctors made me sleep. It was a very funny sleep, not at all like real sleep -- darker and more solid, with all sense of time gone. Waking up was very slow and difficult, and my mind was slippery and loose like a baby's."

Danica watches him anxiously. His tongue intermittently sticks out of the corner of his mouth, as it did when he was a boy playing with blocks. On the placemat a complicated glyph of crisscrossing loops and swooping curves is taking shape, the lines so fine and close together they seem to scintillate in her vision. She looks to his face, instead, bent to the task. "Yes, Drago..." she prompts.

"I had an epiphany," he continues, focused on the drawing. "This is the right word, yes? An epiphany. I recognized that some complicated things that seemed to have nothing to do with one another were, in fact, just different faces of one very simple thing."

Danica sits down on the plastic chair again, furrowing her brow as she watches his labour. "What are you drawing, Drago?"

"Zero," he says, voice touched by reverence as he continues to define the strange, complex shape. "I've found zero, Mama."

"What do you mean?" she asks irritably. "When was zero lost?"

He shrugs, tongue sticking out. "I think this is new. I think this is something nobody has ever known before. And if somebody did know it before, I doubt they knew why it was so. Somebody might have known this by accident, but I think I might be the first person to ever know it on purpose."

"But, Drago, everyone knows about zero."

He allows himself a chuckle. "Not like this," he says seriously. "Not for real. It's too real to even bear thinking about; I need -- I need her -- to think about it for me, to keep my own mind safe from it."

Danica glances down at the waste basket beside the bed. It is filled with crumpled napkins and placemats half-covered by attempts at the same glyph he's drawing now. She frowns. "You're babbling, Drago. Something's wrong. I'm going to call the nurse."

"Don't. Hold on: I'm almost through. You'll see. This, Mama -- this is an actual zero...not a symbol, not a note, not a figure: instead it is a process, absolutely pure."


He looks up at her, eyes keen and glittering. "Do you want to see it?"

Danica nods mutely. The lights buzz and flicker. Drago pushes the folded placemat toward her.

She blinks.

"But...there's nothing there, Drago."

His face doesn't fall. His eyes don't flick down to check her word. He breaks into a wide grin that squeezes his eyes to happy slits. "Naturally, Mama," he says. "It's zero: how could it be anything but nothing?"

She stares at the blank paper, face tight. "But I saw you draw it." She looks at him in accusation: "It's a...magic trick?"

"No," he says lightly. "No trick. I despise magic. This is a real thing, Mama."

"It's cruel to mock your own mother," she says, "but I'm not stupid." She nods to herself as she decides, "It's disappearing ink!"

He shakes his head. "No, Mama. It's your pen, remember?" He holds it out for her inspection.

She doesn't take it. She rises out of the chair and then stumbles against it as she steps back away from the bed. She's shaking her head slowly back and forth again. "No," she whispers.

"It is a shape that cannot be written," he explains blithely, "because to write it is to unwrite it. Do you see, Mama? It cannot be, so as soon as I finish writing it, it isn't anymore." He grins again, pushing a hand through his bramble of black hair above the lines of gauze. "And in a hour, or maybe two hours, neither of us will know about this demonstration. It's true. We cannot remember what isn't, and so we must forget. If I didn't have -- didn't have her -- to keep it for me, I would not know I ever knew it myself." He grins again, eyes flashing. "I can create nothing, Mama, and it uncreates itself the moment it is done." He snaps his fingers, making her blink. "Zop!"

Danica bites her lip. She's trembling. She takes another step backward. "There is something sick in what you did there," she pronounces carefully. "This is something unholy, Drago."

"No, no, Mama. This is knowledge. There is nothing unholy about learning how the world works. This is how we all grow, by finding out. The world wants us to know. That is why we all have our brains."

"No," she says again, hands clutched at her heart. "This is wrong, Drago. You're colluding with black things. You're acting against God." She shudders. "This is not maths!"

"But it is!" he cries. "It's the new maths, Mama. It's the future." His face softens. "I know it's shocking, but don't be afraid. Here, let me show you once more --"

"No!" she screeches. "Never do it again, Drago!"

He startles her by laughing. "Mama, Mama," he says in a soothing tone as if she is now the child and he is the parent; "you don't understand: this is only the beginning. This is my life, for every hour for every day from now on. This isn't just maths -- it's me...and it's her." He swallows, eyes moist. "This is what we are for."

Danica is breathing hard. "'We'?" she echoes vaguely.

"Dragana and me," replies Drago, his voice low as he casts his gaze searchingly out the small window, expressions of pain flickering across his features. "We do it together, Mama."

A moment passes. It's starting to rain. Drops pitter against the pane. Outside in the corridor an intercom buzzes tinnily, paging a surgeon. Drago can also hear the squeaking wheels of the dish cart making its way up and down the corridor, destined to collect his empty Jell-o bowl.


He looks back. He is alone. His mother has gone.


Anonymous said...


How eerily gripping.

Since I can't think of anything else to say about this chapter, here's something else to discuss. I wonder if Felix ran into this...?

Orick of Toronto said...


Orick of Toronto said...

Glad I checked in today. Been too busy.

I hope my use of cap was justified. The choice of "zero" to reveal secret math is ingenious.

Ordering SOS off Amazon. Too bad about the cover art.

Sorry to hear about your car. Time to sell it and get an old Civic, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

I checked the website before I went to class three hours ago, and then I get home and hit refresh and there's an update!

Yay I'm so happy!

This chapter is really curious, because I'm not entirely sure what to think about Dragana.

Is she just a part of him that he locks away and considers a seperate person or some sort of split personality or what?

Anonymous said...

Heh... I just realized that Drago was in room 42.


Mandrill said...

I ordered mine from B&N, hope the lower price doesn't cut into your share Mr Brown.

Is the symbol drawn/not drawn by Drago the one in the header image? A kind of celtic endless knot style diagram would seem to fit, it is and yet it isn't. An intriguing episode, keep em coming.

BTW byro should be biro.

Simon said...

I had to smirk a bit at room 42. Therein lies the answer to life, the universe and everything. The Secret Math.

I was thrown a bit by "ungangly". Perhaps Drago looked "gangly", or his contraption looked "ungainly", but I don't think those two words should have an unholy offspring.

I adored Drago's description of the zero process as "absolutely pure." That threw me right back to the fortune teller's inappropriate use of the same term when describing Drago's love for Dragana. Here, then, he has come across something to which he can accurately apply that same description. I have to think that was an intentional tie-in, and I think it was wonderfully done.

A short chapter, but very engaging; and of course I'm left to wonder what that sort of zero concept actually looks like. This story's title graphic now takes on a new meaning, eh?! Of course, when CBB drew it, he must have left a couple of ends unlinked somewhere, you know, just so we could catch a glimpse of what actual zero actually looks like.


gl. said...

yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! i'm squealing so highly pitched you can't actually hear it. so many great things in this chapter, especially "I despise magic" and the paragraph that begins, "A moment passes. It's starting to rain..."

also, i've been on morphine before and yes, that's how it feels. wish i could have gotten some secret math out of that state, though. :)

but "Danica pales, stricken. She's said too much." seems a little too melodramatic. if you cut it, the sentence still works and the dropped hint will still be fascinating without the accompanying "bum bum BUM!" organ chords. :)

Teddy said...

An interesting concept. Applicable here, mebbe. I heard somewhere that the ancient phoenicians didn't have a number for zero, but it's necessary for current cultures to have the concept for stuff like computer programming a molecular work.

Yep, definitely the beginning of TSM. This concept of a natural zero, a nothingness that you can't even remember, reminds me of the null set.


Anonymous said...

I was amused when Drago asked for a pen, like maybe it was going to turn out that he basically viewed Danica as a histrionic source of pens.

I hadn't realized she cared enough about him to travel to Paris...

Mark said...

I forgot to mention following an earlier chapter that my wife has a step-cousing named Danica, and her family came to the United States from the Ukraine. So, Drago's mother's name rang true.

Also, and I'm sure someone has mentioned this, but again I'm late to the comment area, I imagine you must have spent quite a long time composing this chapter. If not, then it is a very, very strong draft. The dialogue and the narrative were believable and suspenseful.

As usual, looking forward to the next installment.

Also, I placed my order for SOS on 2/14, from Ephemera Bound's site, and I saw it on my bank statement as going through on 2/19. Still no sign of the book at my house. Not your fault, I know, but dang.

Teddy said...

I echo Mark here, still no sign of the book having ordered it directly from the publisher. What worried me more is that there is no confirmation email from the company, no tracking number was delivered to me, all standard things that I really do expect when I order something online. Even if it does take three or four weeks, and frankly ESPECIALLY if it takes a while, I shouldn't have to dig through my paypal records and bank statements to assure that the transaction went through and I didn't screw up the ordering process on my end.

Again, CBB, not your department, but maybe you could say something to them? I'm sure one of their authors carries more weight than one of their customers. After all, their goal is to sell books, and if they're dealing with a direct customer base every once in a while then they do need to focus on customer service.

Know what? I've still got that sticker. I think I'll head down there on Monday and have a chat with them.


Eric said...

I haven't gotten my book from Ephemera Bound yet either Mark. I called the number from the confirmation email yesterday, but I was only able to leave a message. It's kind of a bummer because I ordered a copy as a gift for somebody.

Anyway, I'm probably a bit too eager here, but I wonder if the discovery of "zero" could be the Ground Event Zero that Mr. Miss is tracking down. If it is, then it happened without much fanfare, but then again, it is the first known realization and use of the perfect math by a person.

Very well written chapter CBB. Definitely leaves the reader hungry for more.

Simon said...


I'd wager that the actual Event Zero is more portentious than Drago's discovery of Actual Zero. Plus, I'm not sure, but speaking chronologically, I think he's a bunch older at Event Zero than the 20-something kid he is in this chapter.

It will, no doubt, somehow involve the Secret Mathematic (the title of this story TOTALLY gives that salient bit of info away for free), and I think it'll also be something we don't quite expect. I've gotten quite accustomed to that.

Speaking ephemerally, my own copy of SoS has been unwontedly silent while I sit here and assume it is en route to my home. Impressed by the customer service aspect of Ephemera Bound, I'm not, regardless of how witty their name may seem.

Good thing hope springs eternal.

Mark said...

Hey!! My SoS from Ephemera Bound has shipped! Here is the e-mail I finally got back after two other e-mails and two phone messages:

Hi, Mark! Your order was shipped on 2/25 via US Mail; you should recieve it within a couple days. Thanks much!

So, hold onto hope, friends.

al said...

Simon of Space Hardcover. Wow who fucked up the cover on this thing?? What is that thing supposed to be? the Alpha or the Beta?? I much preferred the bot persona of Jeremaiah.

James Andrix said...


I second orick's comment about zero being the perfect thing to start exploring new math from. It's obvious in hindsight, but brilliant.

And the axiom of 'Zero cannot be.' deals with questions of existence nicely.

James Andrix said...

Oh, and I would like to Opt-in please!!

Mark said...

My SoS hardback from Ephemera Bound arrived today (2008/2/29)!

What better way to celebrate a Leap Year?

Teddy said...

Mine arrived today! Hardcover...very nice...needs a signature, to be collected in the future. Pity I loaned my Lulu copy to my sister in the cities, she still has it and I want to read them side-by-side, find out what was edited to be different.


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

Hey, I'm glad you got your books. Me, I haven't seen hide nor hair of my own copies, yet, which sucks because I'm trying to work out a deal with the Bakka science-fiction bookstore here in Toronto but they won't budge until they have a physical copy in their grubby little hands to pore over.

Maybe my mail is broke: I also haven't received the trophy my short film Space Attack! won in LA a few weeks ago. My bills and threatening letters from my creditors seem to reach me alright, though. H'mm.

It's been a busy week for me. I'm trying to arrange to visit a train-yard with an actual train engineer for research on THE IMPOSSIBLE RAILROAD, which is very exciting. (My son is excited, too, because he's of the opinion that the only thing in this world cooler than a big truck is a train.)

Also, I'm hellbent on developing a premise for an animated television show, as I've been offered an opportunity to pitch directly to Cartoon Network. All I need is to come up with a series bible, some drawings, and a ticket to Los Angeles. I'm working hard on all three fronts. (Cartoon Network did read Simon of Space by the way, and they really liked it -- but they felt it would be too unwieldly and complex to adapt to a cartoon format).

Thanks for all the well wishing on my birthday, everyone. That was nice. I'm now 33.

My boy turned 2, and today is the second anniversary at my full-time job-type thing. How time fries.

Anyway, I just wanted to pop in to say hello. I've got a couple of hours clear now so I'm switching windows to focus back on TSM until my boss gets back.

Cheeseburger Brown

Simon said...

You know you're excited about a story when you come right to the blog site thinking, "Well, maybe there's a new chapter posted and it just hasn't reached my RSS reader yet. I'll go check!"

Yeah, that's me.

As for the SoS hard cover, it's probably that goddamn border. I've regularly had bad luck receiving anything in a timely manner. It gets here all right, but gets transferred to a geriatric dog sled team past the 49th parallel. (Good thing it's snowing here today - might arrive sooner.)

Congrats on the Space Attack! trophy, CBB. Any and all lauds are well-deserved. And your boy's right: trains ARE cool.

Happy belated birthday!

SaintPeter said...

I've been 33 for a while now and I personally find it to be overrated. :)

I recieved my copy of SoS from Barnes and Nobles. I was shocked to find that the dust cover was bent incorrectly (offest). This is the first time I can recall that I have ever seen a manufacturing defect in a hardcover. That's not encouraging. What kind of fly-by-night outfit is EB anyway? I hope you got your money up front.

gl. said...

i haven't gotten my copy of sos yet, and i bought it from eb before you announced it here. ergh!

congrats on your "space attack!" award! disheartening, though fascinating, news about the google ad/royalty ratio. i'm clicking some google ads on this site right now, but they are strangely hard to find. are you starting a fund for your trip to l.a.?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear gl.,

Well, no one's supposed to click on the ads just for the heck of it. Google gets very uppity if they catch on (like a surplus of clicks from a specific batch of returning visitors), and tend to terminate accounts.

So, for the record, everybody should remember only to click on ads for products or services they are genuinely interested in.

The devaluation of the SOS pages was triggered by the comparatively sudden change in content on the old SOS blog (over a period of weeks I truncated the entries and added a note about EB's hardcover edition). The PageRank value went from a robust 6 to a mediocre 4. This makes the site less attractive to advertisers, so the ads you see start coming from cheaper campaigns which pay less for each click.

Also, rather naturally, the traffic for the old blog dropped once one couldn't go there to read the whole story. This further eroded the site's value for advertisers.

Lastly, since PageRank has a "trickle down" effect, other SOS pages on my main site also dropped a few degrees in score. My front page dropped from 5 to 4, and the internal SOS page from 4 to 3.

To be fair, some of that may also be due to the aging of the Darth Side blog, whose PageRank has been slowly dropped from its height of 7 down to a current score of 5.

Turn, turn, turn.

Obviously it's time for another hit. I'll see what I can do about that.

Cheeseburger Brown

Unknown said...

I got my copies of SOS in the mail yesterday.

I am happy.

Bridget said...

Yes, the dead-tree publishing biz is not kind, and for the most part has not yet caught up to the on-line medium. My only available point of comparison is academia: if your article isn't published in a peer-reviewed, dead-tree journal, it doesn't count for much. And as a scholar looking for a job, if you don't have articles - preferably many - in such prestigious publications, you're not hirable. Journals do not pay royalties. At least, certainly not any journal I would be publishing in - but journal subscriptions do cost money. Sometimes quite a lot.

It's not that scholars don't see the potential of the internet as the best medium for disseminating research for free - it should, in theory, be possible to have a peer-reviewed, prestigious journal that doesn't publish in paper - but here is an interesting article about why it seems to be taking so long for academia to get there (it's a response to an article I haven't read yet).

For me, the big issue is the archival one. Permanence. In paper, you have a version of a work that cannot be changed, altered or removed in the future, even if the author changes his mind. This is crucial for comparison to future research. In electronic form, writing is more... ephemeral (with a nod to your publisher, CBB). There always seems to be the possibility that a work could suddenly disappear, or be altered (however unethical that might be in academia. But there aren't any unethical academics, right? :))

Okay, that was a digression. But for non-academic publishing, it's still the same. For better or worse, there is prestige attached to a publication that has gone through an editorial process and review, been accepted for publication, and appeared in hardcopy form. But it really sucks for the author who is unlikely to make a lot from it.

My SoS hardcover arrived at my parents' (in the States) from last week. I'll get it next month when I see them. As for the publicity, that's unfortunate. Out of curiosity, I checked Preditors and Editors (they put up positive as well as negative recommendations) to see if Ephemera Bound had an entry there, but nope.

I do hope you can get SoS into Bakkaand get them to review it. Honestly, at least 2-3 times a year I go there and buy a book blind, by an author I don't know, based on their index-card reviews. (Sometimes it's a hit, sometimes it's a miss.) I can't be the only one in this town. Not that that's going to dramatically increase your sales, but still.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

Chapter 14 is on track for a Wednesday delivery. Standby.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

Man, I had no idea... happy late birthday, CBB! Welcome to the ranks of those who are currently 33 (though in my case only for another month or so).

As for the suckage of EB... yeah, a look at their website seems to indicate you won't get much satisfaction out of them (unless it's *THAT* kind, on which I have no information).

Hopefully the day job is still bearable; myself, I'm just about to be in search mode again, and my side projects are still suffering.

Woohoo for Wednesday! Don't kill yourself over it; we'll still be here Thursday.

Simon said...

Suddenly I feel pressed to chime in and join those few others who also are 33 at this moment in space-time.

I feel strong, smart, in a good family way, a little jaded about my career (though my company pays for all my vehicular costs), I have enough leisure time to stave off any seriously criminal thoughts, daylight savings time is just around the corner, it's above freezing here for the rest of the week, and I'm happy to boast a healthy emotional and sexual relationship with my wife.

Plus, we'll probably get chapter 14 later today. 33 is a good year.

al said...

Cartoons. I always imagined the Burgerverse as an epic Anime series with season the one story arc being simon of space. Then you could flash back during that 21 - 23 episode story arc to a bit of the history to prime viewers for the second season which would be a series of short story arcs covering the shorter stories which would prime the viewers for Season 3, The Secret Mathmatic. Much like the blog did for us readers.