I’ve started writing microfiction, a self-contained story that fits in a single Mastodon post. Here are the stories I’ve written up to 30 June 2021.
We invented a time machine. People were excited at first, but then the negative reviews appeared. They said it was “inauthentic” because Italian food had no tomato, Indian food had no chillies, and Mexican food had no coriander. And everyone missed cinnamon hot chocolate.
Grok came and sat with me by the fire, his heavy-set brow furrowed.
“We have to talk about these inventions of yours.” He glanced over at the wheeled toy his toddler was rolling on the ground. “They don’t seem … useful.”
I ignored him, continuing to whittle away woodchips from my super-wheel, round in every dimension. Grok pointed at the sphere. “I mean, whose child is going to want to play with that?”
Just then, the wolves howled in the dark, so nearby.
“Theirs,” I said.
We proved that string theory was correct. Every fundamental particle in the universe was made up of a tiny ten-dimensional string twisted up in a tangle.
I looked at the formula for the electron. It goes “knit one, purl one”, over and over.
Somehow I get the feeling that God is ribbing us.
The geophys results were in. The gravitational anomaly under the archaeological dig in New Mexico was city-sized and dense, at least 15 kg per litre. I picked up the phone to call my supervisor.
But I called my parents first. They had invested heavily in bullion. Dad picked up the phone.
“Dad,” I said, hurriedly. “Sell.”
Computer science no longer excited me. I looked in the “positions open” list. The job ad for the librarian position read:
“Your two most challenging tasks will be:
• Selecting which books are to be removed from the Collection, and
• Allocating catalogue numbers to books.”
How hard can that be? I thought. It’s just cache invalidation and naming things.
I was working on a shortlist of names for my kitten. I was quite partial to Eris, because the kitten was a chaotic menace.
That night, Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, came to my dreams. She looked weakened, ephemeral, drawn. She pleaded, “Every time my name is reused, some of my power is taken away with it.”
The next morning, I named my kitten Eris.
I hadn’t talked to Grandpa since he got uploaded. He walked in with a spring in his step that I hadn’t seen in years.
“This body is amazing,” he gushed. “Did you know that I can see all the way from ultraviolet to infrared now?”
I didn’t seem impressed. How was that useful?
“Useful?” He countered. “Who cares about ‘useful’? Wait till you see all the rainbow.”
We’d accomplished a lot, researching the dead alien civilization. We deciphered their language and we even got their computers going, though it was all encrypted.
Then came the breakthrough. A dig revealed a top 100 list of their pets’ names.
“Right,” I said, pulling up a chair to the alien login screen. “This should only take a minute.”
The concert programme said:
~ ~ MUSIC OF THE DOGS ~ ~
That’s got to be a typo, I said to myself.
The curtain raised to reveal an eclectic canine choir. The conductor, a happy puppy whose tail wagged as perfectly as a metronome, kept time.
It was divine.
The Chief Astrologer summoned me to the mothership. I could feel its mass as my shuttle neared. We’ve known since we became a starfaring civilization that astrology is just gravitation.
“This preindustrial world,” she pointed at the display, “that we’re trying to influence. You chose the asteroid to fly by it?” I nodded meekly.
“Well, we certainly ‘influenced’ it. That ‘asteroid’ turned out to be a comet, the brightest in centuries, and now there are riots in the streets!”
It was a relic of the Time War: a weapon that would send a parcel of land back in time by six months, allowing the bearer to conduct a pre-emptive strike.
Now I use it on part of my garden, so that I can grow basil all year round.
The damaged spaceship—it looked like a human one but not quite—descended over the Atlantic, then hovered over the Gulf of Guinea, right on the equator. The location surprised everyone except us cartographers. We chuckled and made jokes about Null Island, at 0° latitude and 0° longitude.
“No,” said the leader of the contact team. “It’s on the equator, but it’s at 2°20′ East.”
I thought for a moment about prime meridians. “Better send someone who speaks French.”
The tropics had been uninhabitable for decades. We all live inside the Arctic Circle now; we figure there is another population in Antarctica, but we can’t contact them: all the geostationary satellites are below the horizon.
Then I remember that the Internet interprets damage as censorship, and how as a child I had to fly from Miami to Havana via Toronto.
So we get our biggest lasers and point them at the moon, and spell out H-E-L-L-O in Morse code.
Next month, we get a reply.
My parents tell me that as kids they used to lie on the grassy hill for hours and look for animal shapes in the clouds.
We can’t do that nowadays—there’s allergies, lockdowns, and my friends are not even in the same city as me—so instead we sit on our couches, refresh the rain radar website, and share the best ones on social media.
Here, see this one, it looks just like a whale!
We weren’t intending to find the fundamental building block of the universe, but that’s what we found.
“The grid is five Planck lengths along this axis,” I said to the press conference, pointing in the opposing directions of Vega and Canopus, “and five along this axis,” I turned 90° and pointed to Antares and Capella.
“And five along the third axis?” asked a reporter.
I paused, sheepish. “No. Six.”
The fundamental building block of the universe was LEGO.
You told us you liked brownies from the edge of the pan, so we brought you the All-Edge Brownie Pan™, with dividers on the inside, now every brownie is an edge brownie.
Now, for those who prefer the middle brownies, we bring you The No-Edge Brownie Pan™ where every piece is from the middle!
Order now! (Add $10 for handling. Requires Boundless® or compatible four-dimensional oven. Brownie corners add to more than 360°. Do not use No-Edge and All-Edge pans simultaneously.)
The human was too psychologically scarred from his encounter with our vessel for us to release him back into his natural habitat, so we introduced him to our zoo.
But he’s alone, and we know from the humans’ broadcasts that they like company, so I’ve been sent back to Earth to obtain a companion.
And that’s how I found myself creeping around a back alley, holding a laser pointer and a small cage, calling, “Here, kitty kitty!”
Last summer’s dig uncovered a sprawling complex. We guessed it was an administrative building, full of bureaucrats keeping the old empire running. What cemented the theory was when we found a broken plaque, engraved in Latin and two scripts we didn’t recognize. I read out the Latin, translating as I went:
“We, the willing, led by the unknowing, …”
The rest of the plaque was missing, but we all joined in to finish the saying.
We were the Royal Astrological Telescope. Twelve of us, one born in each star sign, under constant observation for unpredicted events, to hone our astrological models.
Last year we got funding for three more Telescopes on other continents. When they were finished, we were able to infer the distance and direction of an influence using only trigonometry and the speed of fate.
We were unprepared for the discovery that most influences were coming from inside our planet.
I step through the portal into a late ’80s bedroom exactly like mine. No, not quite exactly like mine. The wallpaper is a different design, the posters are of bands I haven’t heard of, their outfits familiar yet uncanny.
What else is different in this world? I ask myself. I look over to the volumes of encyclopaedias on the shelves. No, I have a quicker way.
I locate Billy Joel among the tapes, pop a cassette in the boom box, and press play on “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.
I made a universe, ages ago, with its own rules of algebra. Then I forgot about it. Now I look at its container and dust off the top, where I’d excitedly scrawled:
(¹²√2)³ ≅ ⁶⁄₅ (¹²√2)⁴ ≅ ⁵⁄₄ (¹²√2)⁵ ≅ ⁴⁄₃ (¹²√2)⁷ ≅ ³⁄₂ !!!
I shrug. It must have meant something to me when I was younger, but I am more even-tempered now. I open the lid, and hear … music !!!
TGIF! I just teleported back from work on the orbital station and I’m keen to go straight to bed.
While brushing my teeth I get a whiff of caraway. I glance at the tube: “Spearmint”.
I’d been reflected during the trip back. Not again!
I rummage through the pantry for the jar of synthetic L-glucose that I keep for emergencies. I won’t be able to digest normal unmirrored food so I’ll be drinking nothing but this sugar syrup all weekend till work can fix me. Roll on Monday…
The Antedating Machine, by analysing the tiniest perturbations in the atmosphere, could pinpoint where and when in history a phrase was first uttered.
Etymologists flocked to it, but were quickly disillusioned. It turned out that everything famous first came out of the mouth of someone not famous. Half of what we thought was Shakespeare was fifty years older than him.
In the end, the Machine got sold to defamation lawyers.
One of the first things I was asked to do with the Department of Palaeontology’s new time machine was to go and record some authentic dinosaur noises.
When I got back I was too embarrassed to share the actual sounds. They were indistinguishable from peacocks, cockatoos, lorikeets.
I went to my friend who worked in foley for the film industry and they whipped up some plausible roars and bellows.
Please don’t tell.
Most photographers embraced digital, but Lobo stuck with his darkroom. I asked him why.
“Your best images are when you can sense your own mortality,” he explained. “Others … put themselves in danger to take that special photo. I’m … more hardy.” Everyone knew Lobo was a werewolf.
“But this stuff.” He casually swirled a stoppered vial of silver nitrate solution. “This can kill me. For me, the danger is in the developing, not the taking.”
They were good photos.
Every year on the day of the winter solstice, my cat and I can talk to each other.
My heart sank yesterday when I greeted my cat and all I got in return was emphatic meows. I checked the almanac and double-checked online. Had the magic left us? I slept terribly last night.
This morning, the cat was apologetic. “My people changed our time zone in March. The solstice is today instead. I did try to tell you yesterday.”
Writer’s block drives you to things you’d never normally do. Case in point: I summoned a demon.
We struck a deal. I asked the demon what it wanted in payment. My soul? My firstborn?
“No,” said the demon. “I want your typewriter. Have you any idea how hard it is to use a pen with these claws? I’ve got so many stories to tell, and writing them by hand is hell.”
I never had writer’s block again.
The deep space probe had a gold plaque on it, engraved with the directions and frequencies of a dozen pulsars. I keyed them into the Ship’s database and all the lines converged back on a point in spacetime.
Except for one line that was askew. It was more than ten degrees off.
“No way that’s a mistake. That’s got to be the next clue in the scavenger hunt,” I said to the Ship. “Take us to that pulsar!”
Not only did we prove our universe was a simulation, but we’ve probed the hardware our simulation is running on.
Well, I say “hardware”, but we think our universe is running under a hypervisor, collocated with other universes. And thanks to a communication backchannel vulnerability in that hypervisor, we’re able to talk with one of those universes.
Now we think we’ve found a privilege escalation, so once we’ve contacted all the other universes, we’re going to try and get root.
With the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, and the hazards of Christmas logistics in 24-hour darkness, Santa Claus announced that operations would be relocating to the South Pole.
“What about the scientists at Amundsen-Scott Station?” one of the elves asked.
“They’ll get a present too,” Santa assured them.
On Christmas “morning”, Amundsen-Scott woke to find they had a new neutrino detector.
Every time I went into the bathroom, my cat scrabbled frantically at the closed door.
“Stop that!” I scolded her, flinging the door open. “There’s no secret portal in here.”
The cat sauntered past me into the bathroom, and a secret portal opened. She turned to face me before stepping in. “Are you coming?”
Travelling to the past includes all kinds of hazards, not least of which is ensuring that you have enough—and the right kind of—cash.
You can’t just take coins from your wallet: they’re probably dated after the year you’re travelling to. Banknotes have serial numbers, so there’s the risk of a note meeting itself. Forget buying cash from a dealer: well-preserved money can cost a mint!
Instead, we recommend that you simply rob a bank once you reach your destination year.
Into a crate I threw a few board games to take to the cross-cultural event with our new alien friends: backgammon, a chess set, a few from my childhood and a couple of modern games.
They leafed through the boxes and paused at Monopoly. “We have this game too. We call it ‘Supremacy’. It has ruined several friendships. Let us not ruin ours.”
We enjoyed all the other games.
He pays with a banknote that has my face on it. As always, I force a smile and give him his change. He’ll go back to his century tomorrow thinking he’s the only history tourist who’s ever done that. Jerk. Being future-famous is awful.
I’ve half a mind to not invent a time machine after all. The hell with any paradox!
Only—I have all this cash that won’t become legal tender unless I do.
So much for free will!