Read Napier's Bones Online

Authors: Derryl Murphy

Napier's Bones

Napier's
Bones

© 2011 by Derryl Murphy

 

This one is for my
wife JoAnn. Her patience, her support, and her enduring love are all reasons
you hold this in your hands. Her belief in me through the few highs and many
lows of writing this book is what kept me going.

 

The good Christian
should beware the mathematician and all those who make empty prophecies. The
danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the
devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of hell.

— St. Augustine of
Hippo

Part One

 

For as Old Sinners
have all poynts

o’th Compass in
their Bones and Joynts

Can by their Pangs
and Aches find

All turns and
Changes of the wind;

And better than by
Napier’s Bones

Feel in their own the Age of
Moons

—Samuel Butler

1

 

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.

2

 

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.

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