Halloween is tomorrow, so here is A Zombie Story!

posted Oct 30, 2013, 5:08 PM by Kyle Buchanan

Kantubek Syndrome, they called it. The big K-S. The Zombie Virus. Although Livia thought that “zombie” was a little too on-the-nose - and besides, the scientists had stressed, it wasn’t a virus. It was much closer to a bacterium. Bacteria, virus, who gives a shit anymore?

The story was typical. Patient zero: some idiot walked right into a deserted Soviet-era bioweapons lab and started digging around in old storage containers. Then he went home. The next day, he killed and partially ate his roommate. After attacking two more people on the street, he was gunned down by police. Everyone speculated that drugs were to blame. Heroin? Bath salts? A bad batch of desomorphine? But then one of the police officers, and a bystander who witnessed the attacks, succumbed to the infection. They, in turn, killed three more people and infected eight. After three days, the small local hospital was completely overrun. After four, the entire town was put under military-enforced quarantine. It hadn’t worked.

* * *

Livia opened her eyes, slowly. How long had she been out? A matter of seconds, probably. She was slumped against a wall in some sort of corridor, the broken fluorescent light fixture still swinging above her.


Right. She remembered. The basement hallway in her low-rise apartment building. She was making a run for the parking garage when an explosion - natural gas, probably - dislodged the light fixture, which had hit her right in the forehead. Fuck was that painful. She raised her hand to her head; touched it gently. Her fingers came away bloody.

Oh shit. They can smell blood.

Livia stood up unsteadily. She still had to get out of here. Away from those fucking zombies. The things were fast and it would not take long for them to figure out the stairs.

Down the corridor, a left turn, to a metal door with a “PARKING” sign. She peered through the small window. The good news: most of the lights were still on. The bad news: she wasn’t alone. She could see four zombies, which meant there were probably at least twice that many. For a moment Livia wondered what they had been eating down here to survive this long. But she didn’t really want to know.

She pulled the car keys out of her pocket and positioned her finger on the unlock button. Her other hand gripped the door handle. Both hands were shaking. Okay, deep breaths. Open the door, go through the door, close the door. Then three rows over, six parking spaces down.

Livia repeated it to herself again. Through the door. Three rows over. Six spaces down. Click the unlock, get into the car, lock doors, go.

A scream echoed through the hallway behind Livia, galvanizing her. Either a zombie, or some other survivor being attacked. Time to go. She opened the door carefully, and let it close as quietly as she could.

One of the zombies noticed her as she made her way across the garage. It made a grunting noise that sounded almost surprised, and then began to lurch towards her. Livia swore to herself and started running. The chasing zombie screeched and increased speed to catch up. Now the others were looking. They weren’t exactly intelligent, but once they saw prey they were certainly persistent. And now they were closing in.

Livia almost ran into the side of her dark blue SUV as she pressed the button to unlock the door. She got in, slammed the door shut, and relocked it, half a second before one of the zombies jumped onto the hood and started clawing at the windshield.

Don’t look in their eyes! Livia remembered. She wasn’t sure why, exactly. An animal dominance thing, maybe? No sense in risking it. She looked down, focused on getting the key into the ignition, turning it, moving the gear lever into drive. She floored the pedal, and then stepped on the brake. The zombie bounced off the windshield and it went tumbling down from the front of the SUV. Livia hit the gas again, running it over, and drove towards the exit.

She pulled up to the garage door, over the pressure sensor, and nothing happened. Oh no, no, please, you have to open she thought, feeling panic coming on. Livia pulled the little remote out of the glovebox and hit the button repeatedly. Still nothing. Several zombies were converging on her vehicle. Despite the locked doors of her vehicle, she hardly felt safe. Whatever the infection did to the human nervous system, it also allowed for uninhibited use of all one’s muscle strength.

Livia had no choice but to try to crash through the garage door. She had no idea if that would work, but she recalled that the best way to run into something is backwards, to avoid damaging the radiator. She threw the little SUV into reverse and executed a quick turn to face away from the door, clipping another zombie and sending it flying into a support pillar. Forward now, a few tens of meters to give some run-up. Then reverse again. She braced herself and shut her eyes as the vehicle rammed into the garage door, warping the big metal panels enough to break them free of their tracks. She was through.

The momentum of the SUV carried it up the ramp and into the little car park in front of the building. Livia shouted in rage and defiance and triumph and fear all at once. As much as she tried to force herself to think of the zombies as monsters, they still looked human. They still were human, at least part of them. These things she had run over indiscriminately in her escape… they had been someone’s friends, someone’s family… And why weren’t you supposed to look in their eyes?

The highway proved to be impassable with cars broken down, wrecked, or just abandoned in desperate attempts to flee the city. But the smaller roads were relatively clear. Livia drove West, towards the city where she hoped to find the rest of her family. The two-lane road cut through a forest, which is where she saw the sign spraypainted with “NO INFECTION” and an arrow to a dirt path. The GPS was still working so she checked her position, but saw no indication of the trail. Running low on fuel, she decided to risk it, in case there was someone who had - or knew where to find - supplies.

Livia pulled off the road and headed down the path, putting her vehicle into four-wheel drive just in case. A few hundred meters in, an old gate topped with barbed wire blocked her way. A walkie-talkie was duct taped to one of the posts. She stopped, scanned the area, then got out and hesitantly approached the walkie-talkie.

She pressed the talk button. “Hello? Is anyone there?” Released the button, then quickly pressed it again and said “Uh, over.”

A crackle of static, and then an old man’s voice: “Any zombies nearby? Over.”

“Um - “ Livia looked around again, just in case. “No, I don’t see any.”

“When was your last contact with them? Over.”

“Two or three hours ago, I guess? I ran them over with my car. They didn’t touch me or anything. Over.”

“How many people with you? Over.”

“It’s just me. Please, I need… gas, and food. I’m trying to get to my family.”

There was a pause for several seconds, and Livia was about to ask again when the man responded. “Alright. I’m coming to the gate to let you in. I will be there in three minutes. Keep a lookout, and if you see anything coming, call me immediately, and then drive away. Over and out.”

Three minutes later, as promised, the old man came walking up the laneway. He carried a shotgun, and had a hatchet strapped to his hip. He looked outdoorsy. Lots of plaid flannel. He stopped on the other side of the gate and looked hard at Livia.

“You see anything?” he asked.

“No, no sign of… zombies.” The word still felt strange and absurd to say out loud.

“Hmph. Alright.” The man pulled a key out of his pocket and opened the padlock. “Leave your car here. If you did hit a zombie, there might be blood. The blood might still infect us. Get whatever supplies you have and follow me.”

“I don’t really have anything, just a.. a first aid kit in the back.”

“Leave it, then. Got plenty of that stuff. Come on.”

The old man locked the gate behind them and started walking.

“What’s your name? I’m Livia.”

“George. Richardson.”

She got the feeling that this guy wasn’t much for conversation, and they continued in silence until they got to a small wood cabin, with a storage shed and a little generator next to it. There was an outhouse a few tens of meters back into the woods, and - thank god - a rugged-looking Jeep parked next to a big cylindrical fuel tank and pump.

Inside, George heated up some canned soup on the fire. After eating they sat on a couple of ancient dusty chairs while Livia halfheartedly attempted to make some awkward small talk. There was only one thing to really talk about, these days, and it wasn’t really a pleasant subject.

“You ever killed anyone?” George asked, staring into the fireplace.

Livia was taken aback. “No, I… no.”

“I mean the zombies.”

“Well, I don’t know. Just the two from today, maybe. I’ve been hiding, but I ran out of food so I had to leave so I thought I’d try to get to my parents’ place and see if they’re still… okay. I just need gas, and some food, and I don’t want to drive at night.” Livia realized she had rambled way off-topic, and went quiet.

“So never up close.”


“You know why you don’t look in their eyes?”


He paused. “You don’t see it until you have to kill one of them right up close. They say… the last report I heard… whatever sort of sickness this is, it doesn’t turn you into a monster. Not all of you.”

George fell silent again. After a few seconds Livia asked “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know much about how brains work, but I guess it’s like you’re trapped. You turn into a zombie, but you’re still in there. Just not in control.”

“But what about the eyes.”

“Like I said, you only see it when you’re right up close. You can tell, if you look. You can tell there’s still someone. Not just a monster or some kind of animal. You can see their fear. Their pain. Their sorrow. And when you kill them… their relief.”

It was nearly a minute before Livia could even respond. “I didn’t know. Oh christ, I didn’t know. Have you…?”

George got up and poked the fire, causing a mass of sparks to come out which were sucked up into the chimney. “Three times, so far. It’s not something you ever want to do unless you absolutely have to, trust me.”

He sighed and turned back around to face Livia, fireplace poker still in hand. “And so I am, honestly, sorry about this. Look at your arm.”

Livia looked down. Her hand had begun to twitch involuntarily.

A Short Story

posted Jul 23, 2013, 1:07 PM by Kyle Buchanan

The math department of our local university had been a veritable hotbed of excitement since the initiation of the enigmatic "Project" eighteen years ago. Though, "excitement" for a math department rated right around a 9 or 10 on the boredom-meter for the average person, which was probably why I was the first journalist in those nearly two decades to bother doing a story about it. This hadn't even been my choice, really, but it was a slow news week and my editor had insisted.

It was one of those cool late-summer mornings, before the sun burns the dew off the grass and the temperature climbs back into the low thirties and the bird songs are replaced by cicadas. Mist was still rising off the landscaped pond in front of the ivy-covered angular concrete building that served as headquarters for the incomprehensible-to-non-specialists and surely-of-no-interest-at-all-to-the-layman Project. I finished my bagel and coffee in the car before going inside for my interview with one of the coordinating directors.

"Professor Green? Phil Davidson, from the Weekly Tribune. Pleased to meet you," I said, shaking the hand of a professionally-dressed woman in her fifties.

"Ah yes, of course. Please come into my office. We're glad to get a chance to finally see you in person."

I took stock of the office as she led me inside. Functional wooden desk with a laptop and tablet and a small mess of papers; bookshelf full of various reference texts, none of which I would probably understand past the preface, two whiteboards covered in sequences of symbols that might have been mathematical or might have been ancient cuneiform; orange couch that must have been time-warped straight out of some 1970s corporate lounge; three scrawny houseplants sitting on top of the radiator under the window.

Professor Green sat down at her desk and motioned to a small plastic chair in front of it. "Please, have a seat. We've got a lot to discuss."

I sat down, and pulled my notepad and voice recorder out of my bag. "Do you mind?" I asked, holding up the recorder.

"Not at all; go right ahead."

I turned on the little device and sat it on the desk.

"Now, you're probably wondering why you are here, and what the story could possibly be," said Green.

"Well, yes, to be frank. I took a couple of semesters of linear algebra and calculus back in college, before I switched to journalism. I guess that probably means I have the most relevant knowledge of any of my coworkers but I don't know if it's going to help me here. I don't recognize any of that, not even the symbols," I replied, waving my hand at the whiteboards.

"Actually, we requested you specifically. We've finished the first phase of our project."

I raised my eyebrow at that.

"Alright, let me see if I can explain what we've been doing here," Green continued. "We've been making amazing strides in pure and applied math since the beginning. To be honest, even a top mathematician probably wouldn't understand those equations unless they've been working here or following our publications very closely, so you shouldn't feel too bad. The project so far has generated nearly 500 Ph.D.s, four Fields medals, and we're on track to have at least two Nobels. Assuming you did your homework before coming here, you probably know that the philosophy department has almost completely been absorbed into the project, and we've been stealing people from neuroscience, physics, and CS for years."

She paused to take a drink of water, and I looked up from my notebook. "Sorry, I'm still not clear on what this has to do with me in particular."

The professor carefully set the glass down on a bare patch of desk and smiled at me. "Ah, we're coming to that. You have heard of the attempts made by various organizations to simulate a human brain? Former president Obama initiated such a plan, as did the E.U., and IBM had their Blue Brain."

"Let's see: Folded into a pre-existing military program for enhanced drone awareness; funding got cut; retasked for running network efficiency optimizers," I answered, ticking them off on my fingers.

"More or less. What we decided to do was pick up where they left off, and then go further than they had even planned." Suddenly she got a worried look on her face. "Oh, I guess I should ask now; you aren't a dualist, are you?"

"As in, do I believe there's some... supernatural component of a conscious mind; like a soul or something? No, I'd say not. I'm on board with the idea that you could simulate a brain on a computer, anyway."

"Oh good. Anyway, about six years ago, we managed to do it. We didn't actually run the simulation due to, well, ethical concerns, but the program was set up and we had all the data we needed, and we could have turned it on with the click of a button if we had wanted."

My eyes widened a bit at this revelation. Now that was news. Big news. Career-making news, even. But why did her mention of six years ring a bell?

"I'm sure you see now where this is going," said Green. "Or perhaps you don't, judging by the look on your face. You don't look nearly as shocked as I imagined."

Then I made the connection. Six years ago I had been scanned in an experimental molecular-scale MRI for a story I was doing on a hospital opening. And that meant - "That simulation... was me? Based on my brain?"

Professor Green just nodded, and my jaw figuratively dropped, while my notebook literally did. I scrambled to pick it up as she started talking again.

"In any case, as I said, the simulation was never run. It was just our preliminary effort; our proof-of-concept if you will. And it was really a crude construct. A model of your brain, running on top of a virtual physics engine, sitting in the memory of a huge and expensive supercomputer. What we wanted to do is really take advantage of the shortcuts afforded by having a mind that for the first time in history had been distilled down to numbers and algorithms. We can work with those. We can simplify them, in a way that simply isn't possible or even conceivable for real biology or physics."

"This is a... a lot to take in," I stammered, "You're saying that you were trying to compress my mind? Like it was a zip file?"

"That's basically it. And you would be amazed how well a mind compresses. Once we began looking at it, the simplifications became almost obvious. It started off as a large and cumbersome program which was the simulation substrate, and the data we had from your brain was a big file of parameters to be fed into that program. What we first managed to do was write equations expressing many of those parameters in terms of the others, and we also pared down the simulator. By about two years ago we had developed an entirely new notation system that's half sets of partial differential equations, half propositional calculus, and half C code. That's what you see on my whiteboards. In fact, what you are specifically seeing there is our final product. That's you. Aren't you proud?" Green was grinning now, "That's the essence of your mind, your consciousness, everything that you are, compacted so efficiently that it can be handwritten in marker on two medium-sized pieces of white plastic. Sure, there's plenty of complexity being hidden by our fancy symbols, but it's still all there."

It took me a few seconds to respond. "My god, this is, well, this is absolutely huge. Half an hour ago I was rolling my eyes at the prospect of having to write some boring piece about math research that would get buried in the back pages of the paper and no one would read it. But now you're telling me that not only can a human mind be fully enumerated by that... that gibberish, but that it's MY mind in particular? And how are religious people going to react to this?" Another thought struck me, then. "If you erase those boards, is it technically murder?"

"And don't forget," said the professor, "this is merely the first part of the project." She now had a full-on mischievous look on her face.

"Well, I can't even imagine where you're going to go from here."

Green got up and walked to the whiteboards to point out different symbols. "Let me just explain these a little bit. This part is a description of the parameters that we had to specifically define. These ones here denote a system of equations; well, it's a bit more complicated than that, but you can picture them as a large array of differentials, most of them being defined implicitly by the others. And this part is essentially an array of variables, though they're more like data structures that can contain different things. And that's pretty much it, the rest specifies how they all interact with each other. If you've done any programming I'm sure you can see the similarities."

I nodded. "And phase 2?"

"Let me ask you a question, Mr. Davidson. How would you like to know your destiny?"

"My what?" I asked, incredulously. "You can't predict the future, not with that. Not with... anything, I thought. No, there's no way."

"Take a look again at the code. Here you've got a system of equations, and here you have a set of variables," said Professor Green, gesturing at the relevant symbols. "It turns out there are the same number of each."

She paused, rather dramatically, and I waited for her to continue.

"It's solvable."

MSPaint Mental Math, Chapter 1: Prime Factorization

posted Sep 18, 2012, 6:52 PM by Kyle Buchanan   [ updated Sep 19, 2012, 9:11 AM ]

Image dump: recent creations for the Game Of Thrones subreddit

posted May 30, 2012, 12:59 PM by Kyle Buchanan

House Clegane has some new words

posted May 27, 2012, 10:56 PM by Kyle Buchanan

Edited "Battleship" Movie Poster

posted May 19, 2012, 3:43 AM by Kyle Buchanan

I mean, come on. Dude on a boat, big alien ship coming out of the water...

Not even going to apologize for this

posted May 10, 2012, 3:59 PM by Kyle Buchanan

A Terrible Geology Joke

posted May 5, 2012, 1:24 PM by Kyle Buchanan


Picture of the Moon

posted May 4, 2012, 8:53 PM by Kyle Buchanan

Last weekend I inherited an old Meade telescope. I cleaned up the optics (it had about 20 years worth of dust in it) and it works pretty well, though I need to fix the tripod mount. I don't have any camera mounting equipment, or a camera with a manual focus, so this photo was achieved by just holding the camera up to the eyepiece. I eventually plan to mount a fixed-focus webcam to it, and maybe even motorize the pan/tilt.

Arrested Westeros

posted May 4, 2012, 8:44 AM by Kyle Buchanan

This never ended up being posted to the "official" Arrested Westeros tumblr, so why not here.

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