Undead math

By Phil Plait | July 23, 2010 7:31 am

Last year I wrote about the nifty website Ficly, a community where you can write short fiction. And I mean short: each story can only be 1024 characters — roughly 200 words or so. It’s incredibly limiting, which means you really have to be careful when you write.

The story I wrote then was loosely based on the last chapter of my book Death from the Skies!. I’ve been playing around again, and have recently become interested in zombies. Since I’m a scientist, of course I had to put my own spin on it… and I was curious if it was possible to have an overarching theme to a story when it was so short. I think the answer is: barely. So here, in its entirety, is my new Ficly, "Random Walk".

I know a mathematician’s an unlikely survivor. But it’s not axiomatic.

By the time I realized I was in trouble, there was only one way to go: up. I locked the door, made sure the windows were secure, and ran up to the second floor.

I peeked out a bedroom window at the rotting, writhing mass below. I should’ve predicted this, I guess, but in my defense I didn’t know all the initial conditions.

I didn’t see how the pile got started. Extrapolating backwards, I can guess it was one of the deadwalkers in advanced decay. It bumped into the house and fell apart. There must’ve been hundreds before who stayed intact, but statistics won’t be denied.

Once seeded, it grew. Another fell, and another. They don’t climb, really, but they can walk up hill. One on the pile, then another. Given their speed, average size, direction, I can calculate how long before they’ll reach this window in front of me: 6 to 8 days. Plus or minus.

I have 7 days of food here. I suspect in week or so, I’ll have one last equation to solve.

If you like it, you can go to Ficly, register, and write a prequel or sequel, too. It’s a very cool place to play around with words.

Tip o’ the braaaaaaains to Wil Wheaton, who first twigged me to Ficly.

MORE ABOUT: Ficly, zombies

Comments (34)

  1. Pi-needles

    Nicely done. :-)

    Is the mathematician’s name Fermat & this his Last Theorem?


    … no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two.

  2. Ray

    If he had a rifle, he wouldn’t be in the mess that he’s created.

  3. Aaron
  4. magetoo

    I like it a lot!

    Ray: So he could use it to pole-vault his way to freedom? (Though I’m getting more of a “infinite supply of walking dead flesh” sense of the situation here, so that might be only temporary.)

  5. Charlie in Dayton

    Nice…that one line puts me in the mind of ‘the shortest SF story ever’…

  6. Nice story. Flash fiction is hard, and microflash is even worse, heh.

  7. Nice job! So what’s with the sudden zombie fascination? Got a favorite Zombie movie of all time?

  8. rob


    go over to Pharyngula and look what PZ and Skepchick found…

    (perhaps i am late to the party and you all already know?)

  9. Andromeda

    hehe I too was gonna mention the video leak at Pharyngula/Skepchick…but I dunno how much of a leak it is

  10. evinfuilt

    @ #9
    Yeah, i’m a bit surprised I found out about it at PZ’s before BA. I guess this ends all the jokes about “writing a book” and we’ll get jokes about his TV show instead.

  11. Great story. It reads to me as a great opening for a longer story though.

  12. Tad

    Way to go! Nice imagery.

  13. Matt T

    This mathematician salutes you, sir!

    However, I don’t know why your protagonist is hiding out — most mathematicians I know are already zombies. (And P(zombie | mathematician) -> 1 asymptotically as coffee -> 0)

  14. Kirk

    Yeah, that is a cool story. Very nicely done. It’s not easy to fully set the scene in that few words, much less have an arc.

    And on to the real news… I’m also surprised I learned about it on Pharyngula first (though it seems Skepchick broke the news). That sounds really cool, Phil, and we’re all looking forward to reading your write-up on it, I’m sure.

  15. Grand Lunar

    Neat story, Phil!
    Reminds me of an H.G Wells style story.

    Perhaps your next book can be a fiction story?
    Seems you have the talent.

  16. Gus Snarp

    I can’t believe Phil hasn’t done a post about the Super Secret Project. Must be very busy in San Diego.

  17. Idlewilde

    It’s a great story. I wish it was longer! I really like zombie apocalypse stories. Though..couldn’t he make some molotov cocktails and blow his way out the back door? Even if he doesn’t have any flammable booze, there are so many other flammable things in a house…nailpolish remover, rubbing alchohol, some cleaning agents….

  18. olderwithmoreinsurance

    hmmmmm, for future reference, flash fiction doesn’t have time for VERY bad jokes in the first line….

  19. Chris Winter

    Nice job on the story, Phil. It puts me in mind of some short short stories that Asimov collected (IIRC) in some anthology. Like Henry Slezar’s “Chief.”

    Then there was one published (I forget where) about an inventor who made a device that would cause time to run backward. As he reached over and threw the switch the threw and over…

  20. Greg in Austin

    You wrote a book?


  21. Giles

    Speaking of books, when is Death from the Skies! coming to iBooks Store in ePub format?

  22. Blizno

    An infinite number of zombies shamble into a bar.
    The first zombie groans “Pint of beer.”
    The second zombie groans “Half-pint of beer.”
    Third zombie, “Quarter pint of beer.”
    The bartender tells them to stop, draws two pints of beer and says, “You undead corpses sort it out amongst yourselves.”

  23. Brian Too

    Well done.

    Seems like a lot of people want to try to take the Zombie concept and make a serious fictional work out of it. Note the release of World War Z, I Am Legend, the older Omega Man, and others I’m currently forgetting.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling peckish for some brains. Raisins, I meant raisins.

  24. Jim

    52 readers …nice. I liked the site and thought the 1024 limitation was interesting so I wrote a story. Currently, I’ve had less than 52 readers …52 less to be exact.

    Perhaps some kind soul here will take my Ficly cherry… maybe even Wil Wheaton

  25. TomF

    200 words is a “double drabble” or “drouble”.

    Counting characters is tricky – your story is only 1024 characters if you count whitespace AND you’re using CR and LF to terminate paragraphs (it is a zombie story, so using an ancient undead DOS convention is probably fair game…). Also you need to end with a new blank paragraph, otherwise you’re only at 1022. But then you forgot to include the terminating zero for the string, which means you still went over the cache-line boundary and hit the 1025th byte.

  26. tudza

    So, what is it that keeps these zombies moving? Are they going away, eating something, and then coming back?

  27. Jeffo

    I Like it, Man that’s grim…

  28. Brett Glass

    This story assumes that all of the zombies are headed for the one building the author inhabits.

    Or that there’s an infinite number of zombies.

  29. Sunflower
  30. Valdis Kletnieks

    Shortest SF story? Has to be Larry Niven, he did one called “Unfinished Story #2” which appeared in one of his collections of short stories. It went:

    “There were some things man was not meant to know.”

    That’s it. 😉

  31. Richard Woods

    Re: whose style your writing style resembles

    There’s a site, http://www.iwl.me/ (“iwl” stands for “I Write Like”) that “analyzes your word choice and writing style and compares them with those of the famous writers.”

    I entered your short zombie story.

    It said you write like Dan Brown.

    I then entered the two introductory paragraphs with which you preceded that story.

    It said you write like Cory Doctorow.

    I then entered your whole post — introductory paragraphs, short story, and final paragraphh.

    Again, it said you write like Cory Doctorow.

    (At no time did it mention your own name.)

  32. Buzz Parsec

    TomF@27: The terminating null is not part of the string. That’s just a dumb C convention. Possibly the most egregious K&R blunder. (Ducks…)

    [In my family, this is called a fight-bomb. I think we invented it, though my brother claims to have seen the term used on the Internet. So we went viral. Woot!)


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