A couple of years ago a friend’s novel had just been published by Permuted Press, and she told me that if I could write a zombie novel with a halfway-original idea, they would probably buy it. Immediately I thought, “zombies versus cavemen.” As the weeks went by, I realized to my dismay thatI couldn’t stop thinking about the idea, and it stopped being just a joke and became a major project.
Although I originally conceived of the book as a somewhat cynical way to cash in on the zombie fiction craze, as I wrote I realized with further dismay that it was into something else. The Unkillables really is a zombie book—but it’s more sci-fi than horror, and more Joss Whedon than George Romero. I began to worry that people who bought it expecting a straightforward zombie novel would be disappointed with what they got, while the people who might naturally like it would be turned off by the label “zombie fiction.”
I never did figure out how to solve that conundrum and market the book. So while I’m working it out, I’ll just post an excerpt and if you like it you can get the whole thing (for a mere $3.99!).
This scene takes place in the middle of the book, and is a love scene about math. The time traveler Veela (a linguist who has quickly learned the rudiments of the local language) has escaped from a zombie apocalypse into the prehistoric past, where she’s met Chert and the Jaw, two paleolithic guys on the run from the zombies Veela accidentally brought back with her. Veela has a laser blaster, and the two cavemen want her to teach them how to make lasers of their own. Veela’s been stalling them, since she has no clue how to make one. But when the guys get more insistent, she realizes that, actually, she does know at least the first steps toward creating complex, high-tech gizmos….
Chert advanced on Veela. “You must teach us something,” he warned, “or otherwise prove your worth. So far you’re dead weight. You don’t ever explain any of these mysteries, you just appear alongside them.”
“True, Chert’s saying,” admitted Veela. She tried to think of some point that might qualify this admission, but nothing came to mind.
“Veela,” said the Jaw. He sounded both gentle and anxious, as if her safety depended on her producing something, and he was afraid she wouldn’t pull it off. “You must give my father something. If you can bring your own meat to the circle, my father and I will hunt alongside you. But you must bring something. Something besides questions and strange garb.”
Veela nodded. She didn’t think of anything to say, though.
The Jaw took a step towards her. Almost pleadingly, he said, “Veela. Just the first step. What is the first thing one must do, when making the magic of the strong tight fire?”
Veela hoped she was managing to keep her fear hidden. She had no clue how to go about making a laser gun, much less making one out of mud, wood, and stone….
Then a crazy inspiration hit her: All he’s asking for is the first step….
What was the first step of engineering, of physics, of everything?
With great solemnity, she said, “Teach you this magic, I can. From path’s first step. But path is long. Long, long, long. Want you it do?”
“Yes,” said the Jaw.
“Of course we want to do it,” said Chert.
“Long time. More long than hundred times the time for me to learn spear. More long than thousand times.”
When she said this, she had to use the words for “hundred” and “thousand” from her own native language. Not only did she not know those words in the People’s tongue, but, as she had anticipated, the People’s tongue did not even have such words. Chert and the Jaw both twisted up their faces in confusion. “What’s ‘hundred’?” asked the Jaw. “What’s ‘thousand’?”
“Ah!” said Veela. “That question, first step is. First step, of magic path.”
She sat down again. Chert and the Jaw followed suit, watching her uncertainly. She gestured out at the forest. “Trees,” she said. “How much?”
“Very much,” replied Chert, in a tone that said he was still listening, but his patience would soon run out.
Fortunately, Veela had chanced upon a word meaning something like “exact” during an earlier session, so she was able to say, “No—how much, with exactness?” Even if she had known the language perfectly, she would not have been able to ask “how many,” because they had no word for “many.” While they did have the rough concept of numbers, it wasn’t developed enough for them to need much vocabulary related to counting or exact quantifications.
The Jaw frowned at the trees. “How can anyone say how much, exactly?”
“And what does it have to do with the strong tight fire?” pressed Chert.
“Do this,” said Veela, and held up two lightly closed fists. “Do this.”
The Jaw obeyed. So did Chert, reluctantly.
Veela poked up the index finger of her right hand. “What this, you call? Word for this, there is?”
The People did have words for counting up to ten, though the word list ran out along with their fingers. Even so, Veela’s question was confusing, because when they did count they started with their thumbs.
“Finger,” ventured Chert.
But the Jaw got it. “One?” he said.
Veela ran through all ten fingers. When she tried moving on to toes, they looked at her like she was crazy. So: they only counted up to ten.
She decided to go ahead and teach them her own words for the first ten numbers, figuring that things would ultimately be less confusing if she imported her own mathematical vocabulary wholesale.
Then she taught them the numbers eleven through twenty. That was harder. The way she did it was to have the Jaw hold up his two fists while she did the same. Once again she cycled through her ten fingers, then touched the Jaw’s fingers. For the first finger she touched on his hand, she said, “Eleven.”
“No,” he said. “One. You said that was one.”
Veela shook her head and repeated the new word: “Eleven.” Quickly she counted to ten again on her fingers, then touched the Jaw’s finger and said, “Eleven.”
“The bitch can’t even count!” shouted Chert.
The Jaw ignored his father, face straining toward Veela, trying to understand. “That’s my one,” he insisted. “Why should my one be different from your one?”
Veela counted to twenty on their hands again, but this time she started with his hands, and designated her own fingers as eleven through twenty.
The Jaw tried to understand what she was doing but couldn’t. Unlike his impatient father, though, he sensed there was something she was trying to explain to him, something real and new.
“Sometimes your finger is ‘one,’” he said. “Sometimes my finger is ‘one.’ Why? What decides whose finger gets to be ‘one’? What changes? I can’t see any change. And I still don’t understand why sometimes it’s ‘one,’ and sometimes ‘eleven’. Why is ‘two’ sometimes ‘twelve’?”
“‘One,’ different from finger,” Veela said. “Even if no finger is, ‘one’ is existing.”
She got up and ran to a tree. She ran from one to another of them, touching each one and when she touched it counting from one to twenty. She scooped up a handful of pebbles and sat back down with the two men and counted out a little pile of twenty pebbles.
“This is stupid,” said Chert. “Let’s kill her.”
“Number is.” Veela slapped the pile of twenty pebbles. They clattered into the underbrush. “Before rock, number is. Before finger, number is. Before world, number is. In darkness, is number. Number is power. Number is only power.”
“What is she talking about?” demanded Chert.
“Shut up,” said the Jaw, without tearing his eyes from Veela.
“Shut up.” He was concentrating so hard, beads of sweat popped from his forehead.
“Number is bones of the world. Number is the magic language.”
“But,” began the Jaw, then had so many questions he couldn’t find the sentence. Desperately, he said, “But how can you keep track of the numbers? If you don’t use your fingers? If there are more numbers than there are fingers?”
Veela grabbed a twig and jumped up, gesturing for them to follow her out to the ash. They did.
They sat together. Veela held out her hands and again cycled from one through ten. Then, in a column in the ash, she wrote the Arabic numerals for one through ten, saying each number as she went.
Then she held up both hands, leaving the fists closed, and said, “Zero. Zero.” She kept doing it until the Jaw, still confused, mimicked her. Chert refused to.
Then she took her stick again and wrote a zero in the ash atop her column of numerals. “Zero,” she said again. She faced the two men and held up her closed fists again and again said, “Zero.”
The Jaw noticed that the circle she’d drawn to represent a zero was also half of the two-part mark she’d made to represent “ten.” Then he noticed that the other half of the mark was that which represented “one.”
“Zero, hidden number is,” she said. “But most powerful number is.”
“Powerful things have no need to hide,” said Chert.
“Is strange,” she said. “But is true.”
She wrote down the numbers for eleven through twenty, saying them aloud as she went. Having noticed that the “ten” was made of a “one” fronting a “zero,” it was not lost on the Jaw that this new set was just the old set fronted by a “one” each time. He was expecting the same thing to happen when she wrote “twenty,” so that the mark would be “one, one, zero,” and was surprised when instead it was a “two, zero.” His eyes ran up the column again. He noted, with only a groping idea of its significance, that this appearance of a “two, zero” for twenty after the “one, zero” for ten seemed to mirror the sequence of the one and the two in the original column.
Veela looked at the Jaw’s face to see if he understood. She couldn’t tell whether he was close to it or not, but he was clearly trying.
She continued writing the sequence, saying the numbers aloud as she went. “Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Twenty-four.” She had to move along the ash field to find room to write. Chert and the Jaw followed her.
Chert was so annoyed that he wanted to stop her by force. But it seemed that the Jaw was seeing something in all this nonsense, and Chert felt uncharacteristically unsure of himself.
Shortly after Veela got to the the thirties the Jaw realized with a gasp that this new string of marks, fronted by the mark for “three,” also mirrored the sequence of the original string. “Next is four!” he shouted, voice breaking. Veela looked at him. He’d spoken too excitedly for her to make out the words. The Jaw started to hurry back to the original string, then realized he didn’t have to go that far and stopped at the place where she’d written “twenty-four.” He pointed down at the second half of the mark, the “four,” and shouted, “Next is four!” He looked at Veela in appeal, waiting to hear if he’d gotten it right.
“Yes!” she shouted. “Yes!” She wrote more quickly, hurrying to get through the thirties’ subset of the sequence so that she could get to the forties, to reward the Jaw.
He walked beside her as she wrote. When she got to the forties, and he saw he’d been right, that he’d predicted the pattern, his body shook with emotion. He put his hand over his eyes. Voice hoarse, he said, “Next is five. Next is five.”
Veela kept writing on into the fifties. Her voice was getting hoarse too, as she continued to name each number. She was exultantly shouting them now.
Chert stared in astonishment at his son, who for some reason was actually crying over these scratchings in the dirt. “How long will you go on?” he demanded of Veela. “Where do these scratchings end?”
She straightened and turned to face him. She said, “They end at the strong tight fire.”
As she was about to finish the sixties, the Jaw took the stick from her and took over the sequence. Having never written before—having never conceived of the notion of writing until today—his scratchings were barely legible. But it was plain that he had grasped the principle of the sequence—he made his way into the seventies with no problem, then the eighties. Veela walked alongside him, saying the name of each number as he wrote it.
Once he’d written “ninety-nine,” he looked up at her uncertainly. She took the stick from him and wrote a one and two zeros. “One hundred,” she said.
“Is that the end?” he asked.
“No end. Never end.”
The Jaw breathed out softly. He gazed up at the dimming sky and seemed to no longer even notice the nearby wall.
While there was still light Veela sat the Jaw down with her in a fresh patch of ash. Chert hung back—Veela wasn’t going to waste time begging him to pay attention when the Jaw was so enthusiastic.
In the ash she wrote a ten, and below it she wrote an “x” beside a two. Under them both she drew a line, and below it she wrote a twenty. The Jaw stared, face scrunched in concentration.
She held her two closed fists up, and flashed her ten fingers open twice in quick succession, saying, “Ten. Twenty.” She repeated the action, this time saying, “One. Two.” She repeated the whole thing several times, using both pairs.
Then she pointed down at the newly written symbols. One the Jaw’s attention was there, she held her two closed fists beside the symbols. She opened her fingers. “Ten,” she said. Then she flashed her fingers closed and open twice. “One, two,” she said. “Two.” Then she pointed at the symbols written in ash, pointing at each relevant marking in turn. “Ten. Two times. Is twenty.”
She repeated this many times. The Jaw, scowling in concentration, followed along with the symbols, watching her flashing fingers, muttered along after her. He would look up at her face, looking for help. She continued repeating the lesson, patiently.
At last he gave that gasp of comprehension. He leaned far forward, supporting himself with his hands and bringing his face close to the markings.
With his finger he crudely wrote, next to Veela’s markings, the symbols for “ten times three equals thirty.” Before he could even look up at her for approval, she screamed for joy and threw her arms around him.
In a dim way, he grasped that this had something to do with why she had said zero was the most powerful number. It designated magnitude … but of course the Jaw had no words for this.
He was right, but Veela had also meant that the concept of zero served as a gateway from the idea of natural numbers to the idea of integers. But she would have been delighted enough with the Jaw’s insight.
They called it a night after that. Just as well—Veela wanted to spend time planning the next lessons better. For instance, why had she gone straight to multiplication, without even pausing for addition and subtraction?… The Jaw seemed to have a knack for this stuff, considering that a couple hours ago he’d had no notion of a number as an entity existing independent of any contingent physical phenomena, as pure pattern. But knack or no knack, she should be able to keep him on his toes. Her mathematical background might be laughable compared to Dak’s, but she’d been good at it in college and was confident she could teach someone all the way up to calculus.
Chert eyed her, where she lay resting in the ash. He suspected she’d played a trick on his son, and felt angry at her on the Jaw’s behalf; he speculated, a little sadly, that perhaps the Jaw’s Big-Brow blood made him gullible.
The Jaw wandered, almost staggered, through the corridor of ash, head tilted back as he counted the stars. He felt he himself had been cracked open to reveal a beautiful terror within. All of a sudden there was an abstract pattern underpinning the world. The Jaw felt instinctively that it transcended himself, that it transcended all the spirits and people and animals and plants he had ever known. If the universe disappeared tomorrow, that eternal pattern would remain.
He went to where Veela was resting and knelt beside her. “Thank you for showing me.”
She smiled, and put her hand upon his arm. Earlier she’d feared that the attraction he obviously felt for her might manifest itself as rape. Now, looking at his grateful, humble, awed face, she knew she wouldn’t have to worry about that. As far as the Jaw was concerned, she called the shots from now on.
And that’s it! I hope you enjoyed this excerpt, and I hope you’ll consider grabbing a copy of the book on Amazon at on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/zzmqors – the support would really mean a lot to me.