Napier's Bones

Napier's Bones

by Derryl Murphy


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What if, in a world where mathematics could be magic, the thing you desired most was also trying to kill you?

Dom is a numerate, someone able to see and control numbers and use them as a form of magic. While seeking a mathematical item of immense power that has only been whispered about, it all goes south for Dom, and he finds himself on the run across three countries on two continents, with two unlikely companions in tow and a numerate of unfathomable strength hot on his tail. Along the way are giant creatures of stone and earth, statues come alive, numerical wonders cast over hundreds of years, and the very real possibility that he won't make it out of this alive. And both of his companions have secrets so deep that even they aren't aware of them, and one of those secrets could make for a seismic shift in how Dom and all other numerates see and interact with the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781926851099
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Publication date: 03/29/2011
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 16 Years

About the Author

Derryl Murphy’s stories have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies over the years. He is also the author of the ecological science fiction collection Wasps at the Speed of Sound and, with co-author William Shunn, of the ghost story Cast a Cold Eye. He has been nominated three times for Canada’s Aurora Award, and anticipates that someday he’ll be nominated and lose again. He lives on the Canadian Prairies with his wife, two sons, and dog, and vaguely remembers the day when he thought this whole writing thing would be glamourous.

Read an Excerpt


Dom paused at the bottom of the hill, took a swig of warm water and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Above him the sun blasted down through the hard blue sky, harsh and yellow and hotter than anything he'd ever felt. Below him the desert sand and red rock told him nothing he needed to know, so he closed his eyes and rubbed the baseball in his pocket, muttering multiplication tables under his breath as he traced the stitching.

Fire streaked across the darkness inside his eyelids, slowly refining itself to a sequence of numbers and formulae. He opened his eyes and watched the direction they pointed, caught the path before they faded away in the angry, greedy light; up the hill, switching back and forth to handle the steep incline.

He climbed, cursing the heat, cursing his lack of preparedness, cursing the luck that had led his search to here in the Utah desert. Near the top he stopped and took another swallow of water, trying hard to conserve the tiny amount that remained in the bottle, wondering if he was going to be forced to turn back before he reached his target.

There was a rustling sound from overhead, and he looked up to see a series of logarithms flapping by like wiry bats, dipping and diving through the air before breaking up into their constituent numbers and, with nothing left to hold them together, quickly fading away. There were more sounds now, a distant clicking that quickly segued into a great ripping and grinding sound, like a giant's zipper that somehow controlled all seismic activity, and then all colour above Dom was washed away, formulae and numbers and sequences exploding across the dome of the sky, sure sign of backlash of some sort. Dom flashed his fingers, frantically counting primes in ascending order, using binary as a shorthand, hoping to hell that it would be enough to keep attention from being fixed on him.

It wasn't. A grey mass, pulsing with unclear integers, fuzzy and indistinct against the now-screaming numbers in the sky above, launched itself over the edge of the ridge, dropped through the air and pierced his body. Dom was flung backwards, blackness overtaking him, his last awareness of the rumbling and shrieking suddenly cutting off, and the pure Silence that for one sudden moment ruled the world around him.


New patterns slowly floated into focus, more numbers flying across his vision, except this time he was sure they were trying to tell him something. Dom made an effort to squint and make it out, but before he could define what they were saying everything faded away, the fire in his eyes drifting from red to orange to pale yellow before finally disappearing altogether; the blackness fading to grey, and finally jumping to brown. He stared at the brown, then started as his view broadened, saw that it was the hair on the back of someone's head. He was on a bus.

He gingerly turned his head and looked out the window, wincing at the now-apparent headache. He was in a large town or, more likely, a small city, seeing how this appeared to be a transit bus, not something like a Greyhound. Buildings drifted by, none taller than three or four floors; the streets were wide, and there was also that overwhelming sense of easy-going that he could see in all the pedestrians. Not too distant were some small mountains, their foliage mostly dried-up brown with small green punctuation marks.

So how the hell did he get here?

"And where the fuck am I?" he murmured to himself, loud enough that the guy in front of him turned around and fixed him with a quick glare.

Dom rang the bell and jumped off the bus at the next stop, crossed the street against the light and found himself a bench in a small park behind a restaurant, confused and scared. Where he'd been in the desert was a good long distance away from any city this size, a few hours in a car at least, and yet he had no recollection of making his way here. He felt inside his pocket, found the baseball still there, and pulled it out to toss it while he thought.

One toss in the air with it, though, and he froze, then stabbed out his hand and caught it at the last second. The ball was badly scorched along one seam, blackened enough to be pretty much worthless to him now, to say nothing of any collector. He flipped it around in his hand, rubbed it and looked for the numbers to shine, but they were few and very weak.

"Jesus Christ."

"Profanity seems to be your strong suit."

Dom dropped the ball to the ground and stood bolt upright, looking around for the owner of the voice. There was no one else in the park. "Who's there?"

"Are you sure you want to know?"

Dom grabbed the ball and sat back down on the bench, shocked. His own lips had moved, the voice had issued from his mouth, but it hadn't been his voice, in tone or accent.

"I've read about you," he finally said. "Or your type, anyway."

"Indeed. We had sensed you earlier that day," said the voice. "You were tracking the same treasure we were."

"You were out there as well?" Dom raised an eyebrow at this news. He'd been sure he was the only one who'd been onto it. But if he'd stumbled onto a duel, obviously someone else had to have put it all together as well.

"For six years now." The voice stopped for a moment as a young woman with four children in tow walked by. Dom smiled politely at her, sure that he looked a wreck. She smiled back, although the effort to override a frown was obvious on her face, and then hurried her kids along.

Once she was out of range, he continued. "You were saying?"

"You were numerate, it was obvious to us early on. And even though we could tell you were still quite raw, you did an admirable job damping down your own numbers. It was only because we had the same target that we were able to see you coming."

"If you could see me coming, how come the guy you went up against couldn't?" He didn't know this, not for certain, but the fact that he had gone unmolested before the duel made him feel pretty sure.

"We saw you because you were using the same search numbers we were. The problem is, your numbers weren't as close to the ground as our own; he would have eventually been able to spot you, but found us first. Bad luck. I guess he must have thought we were the ones kicking up those numbers."

Dom rubbed his eyes and then ran his hand through his hair, which was feeling somewhat greasy despite its short length. "You weren't able to handle him head-to-head, were you?"

"I said he, but in fact it was a she. Sort of. We expected to be able to take her by surprise, as you likely did." There was a pause. "We didn't. A duel was the last thing we wanted; her numbers and formulae were far beyond anything my host had ever seen before."

"So what happened?" asked Dom, afraid he already knew the answer.

"My host was killed, while our foe was seemingly incapacitated. My host's last act," here the voice broke, "was to cut me loose. I had not quite a twenty-three second window before I would have fractioned, and I knew where you were."

"So you came to me."

"I did. I've invested generations of myself in this search, and I'm not about to go to fraction when I'm so close." Dom's stomach rumbled. He stood and pulled his wallet out.

"You had enough money to take us on the bus to this city."

"Which is?" Indeed, there were no more bills.

"Logan, Utah. The transit system here is free, so I was riding you around, waiting for you to awaken after the co-option shock."

Next Dom pulled out his credit cards. It looked as if a scratch-and-win lottery fanatic had taken a coin to all the magstripes, and the raised numbers on all of them had been reduced to blackened smears. "Backwash from the duel," said the voice. "I already checked. Everything you had with numbers has been zeroed; I hope this wasn't all your worldly mojo."

Dom shook his head. "I have safe deposit boxes all over the place, things I've been caching ever since I became a part of the sequence. Nothing else in Utah, though." He crossed the park, heading for the street. There was a bank just a block away.

"You've never carried an adjunct, have you?"

Dom shook his head. "Nope. Read about it, but that's all. Never expected I'd ever find someone to co-opt; never even thought about looking." There were several people on the sidewalk, so he stopped talking for the moment, waited for the light to change so he could cross the street.

When it did change and cars and trucks started up, he took advantage of the momentary roar to mutter, "Who the hell are you, anyway?"

"I don't know." There was a pause. "The numbers failed somehow along the way. I've been travelling in this form for decades, maybe longer. My hosts have all called me Billy."

Dom looked at the numbers coming from his mouth as the name was spoken, saw that they added up. "I'd say that's your name, all right. No other clues?"

"We'll discuss it later," said Billy. "First do what you must, and then we'll find somewhere private to talk."

Dom nodded and opened the door, walked into the air-conditioned coolness of the bank. There was no ATM, so he turned to a younger woman sitting behind a desk and asked for one.

"We have a drive-through banking machine behind the building," she said, gesturing over her shoulder.

Dom thanked her and walked out, cursing under his breath. A quick walk around the corner showed that the machines were indeed out in the open on the pavement. He dashed across the street and kept walking, looking for a store that might have a privately owned ATM, something easier to deal with.

The first machine he came across was in a gas station, but there was an overhead security camera inside. He stood to the side of the ATM for a few seconds, letting an older man go ahead of him, while he collected his thoughts and tried to decide the best way to circumvent everything. He had a standard routine whenever he needed to plunder a bank machine, but the incidental damage he'd taken from the duel had for the moment left him less sure of his abilities.

Finally he just bore down and concentrated, watched the numbers as they swarmed the air above the ATM, looked for a pattern he could use. It wouldn't be the old man's, that was for sure; his account balance fluttered up for the briefest of moments before sinking through the floor, barely enough to give the guy a week of mac and cheese.

There, near the ceiling in one corner, hovered some numbers that were interconnected, from a recent customer with a big enough balance that Dom's conscience wouldn't take too hard a hit, and the string was easy enough to lay out in proper order with a few simple equations. Dom pulled his bank card from his wallet and fed it into the slot, watched the numbers slide in after it, all the while muttering more primes to keep the camera from being able to focus on him. He held his hand above the PIN pad and pretended to use it, listened as the numbers beeped and the machine clunked and clicked.

The money slot opened but nothing came out.

"Sonofabitch," he whispered. Sweat was beading up on his forehead and there were now three people lined up behind him. He thought for a few seconds more, then typed a sequence a girlfriend who'd been a teller at a bank had taught him.

"Tricky," muttered Billy, as the money slot opened and closed several times, eventually putting three thousand dollars in twenties into Dom's hands. "I've never seen those particular numbers before."

He pocketed the money and his card, now reconstituted with new numbers and a fresh magstripe, and shoved his way past a fat woman wearing powder blue sweats and a stained white t-shirt who held her hand up to her breast and said "Oh my heck!" in a stern fashion. He ignored her and crossed the parking lot for the grocery store, at the same time eyeing the motel across the street, wanting to fill his empty stomach and then sleep and wash up.

"I'll grab a few things and then get a room," he said. "We can talk then."

"Good idea," replied Billy.

He picked up a BBQ chicken and fries meal from the deli in the grocery store, as well as a cold six-pack of Bud and apples and bananas.

As he paid with two of the bills, he rubbed at their serial numbers and silently muttered primes as he did so, ignoring the look the cashier, a sweet young blonde with glasses, gave him. For a brief second as he did so he seemed to jump outside of his body, looking at himself from the viewpoint of the cashier, but he blinked and was back in his own body; the girl gave him a strange look as she gave him his change, and he hurried away.

He paid the same way at the motel, rubbing away the numbers. Little things like that made it harder to track him down, and now that Dom was carrying an adjunct, just after Billy had fled his host on the losing side of a duel, the winner of that fight might be hunting for either one of them. After he staggered up to his room, he ran the bath, stripping down and taking a long piss before climbing into the steaming water. The first thing he did once in the tub was take a deep breath and dip his head underwater. It was too hot to open his eyes, but he could do this sort of thing by feel, no problem. With his right index finger he inscribed a little curlicue followed by 1049 on the underside of the water, then slid back up, gasping for air and relishing the coolness on his face.

Surface tension kept the numbers in place, and when he sat back up they'd slid to the opposite end of the tub, upside down, bumping up against each other as they counted down, the amount of seconds a good prime number to add to his cover. When they reached zero the water would quickly chill, chasing him out before he became viewable from a distance. This sort of thing was needed when he wasn't wearing his clothes, loaded as they normally were with all sorts of numeric talismans — his mojo — to keep him invisible to numerate eyes prying from a distance.

"God, this feels good." He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, let the heat just open his pores and flush the dirt and crap from days on the road from his body.

"You should eat before you fall asleep," said Billy.

"Well, I won't be falling asleep in here." Dom sat up and leaned forward, looked at his indistinct reflection in the tall mirror that was fogging up on the inside of the door. "Anything special I'm going to need to know? Seeing this is the first time I've ever carried an adjunct."

He watched as his head shook, an action that was definitely not under his own control. "Well, with practice we might be able to communicate just by thinking at each other, although I've only had two hosts who were able to do that."

Dom blinked. Even through the condensation on the mirror, watching his mouth move and hearing the words come out in a different voice with an English accent of sorts was more than strange. "Maybe it's something we can work on," he finally said. "This talking to myself is likely to attract more attention than I want."

"Patrick ..." There was a pause. "My last host, the two of us would often use a note pad, write down our thoughts in a kind of shorthand. I could teach it to you if you like."

"Maybe so." Dom grabbed the little shampoo bottle and lathered up his hair, then dipped his head back underwater for a moment. When he came back up, he said, "But I think I'd rather be able to talk as quickly as possible." He rubbed water from his eyes and then grabbed the soap and started scrubbing. "I didn't come looking for you. Did this Patrick?"

Billy nodded his head for him. "My previous host had found him, taught him everything he could, because he was dying. He prepared himself to be an adjunct as well, but his numbers must have been bad; the addition never happened, and Patrick ended up carrying only me."

"So Patrick was ready for you, knew how to deal with you and everything else he needed to know." He nodded at himself. "Me, I only know what little I've heard and the few hints I've managed to find in dusty old books I've peeked at in libraries." Dom took a breath and dipped under the water one more time, then waited for the time to count down. As the last digit faded away the water went from still hot to ice cold, and with a childlike squeak and a shudder he stood and jumped onto the towel on the floor, testicles shrivelling and goose bumps rising everywhere.

He towelled down and then quickly pulled on his shirt and ran straight to the bed, climbed under the covers and shivered uncontrollably for almost a minute. When he was finally feeling warm again he sat up, still trying to keep as much of himself covered as possible, turned on the TV with the remote and popped open a can of beer. After a long drink he dug into the now-lukewarm chicken and fries, relishing every bite and surfing the channels in between swallows.


Excerpted from "Napier's Bones"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Derryl Murphy.
Excerpted by permission of ChiZine Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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