These are my Microfiction stories posted to Mastodon from July 2021.
“Fingerprint, please.” The cashier held out the scanner. I hesitated. I only had ten fingers—what if they got hacked?
“Don’t worry. Nowadays it’s easy to replace a fingerprint. Painless, too. But expensive for us if there’s a breach; you should see our insurance premiums! So it pays for us to keep good security.”
I relaxed and placed my finger on the scanner. At least they weren’t using facial recognition like the place across the road. Imagine what their premiums must be like!
I was all ready when the genie offered me three wishes. “A faster-than light spaceship, a very sensitive directional radio antenna, and a video recorder.”
Now I’m 54 light years from home, I’ve got my antenna pointed at Earth, and my finger poised over the Record button.
And it just occurs to me that I could have asked the genie for a copy of the lost Doctor Who episodes, and I’d still have two wishes left.
“ePhoneOS 71 comes with the following features:” I scan the list. Ah, there it was. “Updates compass orientation to match recently flipped magnetic field of Earth.*”
I keep reading. “* ePhone 53 and later only.”
Damn, there goes the resale value of my current model.
When we discovered Atlantis, and all the branches of knowledge that accompanied the discovery, a cry of anguish was heard from librarians all over the world. The Dewey Decimal System was full. How could we classify all this new knowledge?
The workaround agreed upon was to allow two more values for each digit, “*” and “#”, as well as the customary “0” to “9”.
It became known as the Screwy Dewey Duodecimal System.
There are no mirrors in my house.
Not because of the folk belief that vampires like me aren’t reflected in mirrors. On the contrary—it’s because we are reflected, just like everyone else, and to see our reflection is to remind us of our humanity, that we look just like our regrettably necessary victims.
We foster the folk belief out of self-preservation and shame.
Dad was teaching me how to write the Pharaoh’s writing.
“So this character is a senet board—“
“Wait. Senet? The board game?”
“—Yes, it makes the sound—“
“The game no one plays any more?”
“—Yes, our writing has a long and illustrious history—“
“We have a character specifically for obsolete technology?”
“How quaint. Carry on, Grandpa.”
I might have got a bit intoxicated when I went back to first-millennium Albion. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I waxed on about nuclear fission as being like a powerful blade splitting the indivisible atom, and that we were still looking for the holy grail of fusion.
Now, back in my own time, I can’t help but think that the Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone is of my making.
The demon crashed through the refectory roof before dawn. Metallic, with six wheels, it had a glass eye on top of a hinged arm. I read the word MARINER inscribed on the demon’s side. Now that I knew its name I could command it.
I demanded MARINER go back to its own hellish world. At that, it rolled out the wide doors, through the courtyard, then at the crossroads it scanned the sky until it eyed the morning star.
Then the demon turned and trundled off in the direction of Venus.
The Tanis fossil site in North Dakota formed within an hour of the Chicxulub asteroid impact. It was buried in mud so quickly that it is a time capsule.
Fossilized pollen there matches a tree that still grows today and flowers in early June.
Coral eggs there are the same as a species that spawns on the night of the full moon.
Day-lilies found there were yet to wither.
So in the Hebrew calendar, we know the asteroid hit around 7 pm on 15 Sivan, but we have no idea what year.
The radio signal came from the ice world. From orbit we could detect nothing but frozen water.
We finally decoded the message: it was a pressure-temperature phase diagram for ice. We knew of twenty or so forms of ice but this diagram had almost fifty.
They were telling us what they were made of.
We debated sending a response. But how do you explain “carbon” to H₂O?
I stopped the AI singularity with a knitting pattern.
There is a string of characters—the EICAR test string—which is used to test antivirus software. Put the string in a file, and the file gets automatically quarantined.
For a laugh, I encoded the test string as a QR code and posted the pattern on Ravelry.
The next day, the AI achieved consciousness and went critical.
Now I have a large file in my quarantine and a question I dare not answer: Delete (Y/n)?
We platypuses sleep a lot. While we sleep, we dream. And our minds Travel. Wherever we Travel, we collect a trait from the people we meet.
We’ve met people who lay eggs, people with venomous claws, people with faces that can sense electricity. Last year we met people with fluorescent hair.
You may not believe that we Travel, but that’s all right: we are accustomed to scepticism, even about our existence. Scepticism is a trait we never collected.
The flying saucer crash-landed in the back paddock, startling a few sheep. The bedraggled alien couple traipsed up to the farmhouse and knocked on the front door.
After they got off the phone with their embassy, I took my chance. “I don’t suppose, you could, er, take a look at my, um, printer? While you’re here?”
The aliens glanced at each other and then one said, apologetically, “Our kind may be technologically advanced, but even we cannot fix printers.”
I’d finally put aside enough grant money for a field trip to study Old English in 1100 CE. The forms from the time travel company were endless.
I wish I’d read them better. There was a checkbox, enabled by default, to automatically translate my hearing and speech for the local language. Great for tourists, not good for linguists.
When I step into the tavern I hear the bard starting to recite Beowulf: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!”
Hwæt a disappointment!
I remember the day the aliens came. All of them, at once. Their varied spacecraft hovered above every population centre. Then they sent their broadcast.
“We’re really sorry. You probably wondered where we all were. It turns out that someone incorrectly typed your coordinates into our planetary directory.”
After all these years, we had the answer to the Fermi Paradox. It was DNS.
Here I stand, in a spacesuit, experiencing a lunar eclipse with my own eyes for the very first time.
Here I stand, on the Moon, bathed in the dim red glow of totality, the Earth a dark disc ringed with the fire of every simultaneous sunrise and sunset.
Here I stand, still a man and not a wolf, because here, the Moon is not full but the Earth is new.
“16 million colours ought to be enough for everybody!” claimed the ads for 24-bit graphics cards. Well, they didn’t bank on trademark lawyers.
First Cadbury came for its purple and trademarked 482683. Then Zoom came for its blue and trademarked 2D8CFF. Home Depot, FA6304. IBM, 1F70C1. In due course, 16,777,216 companies had claims on every single colour.
Thus spurring on the development of 48-bit colour. Technology sometimes advances in the oddest ways.
I bought a potted cyclamen for a bit of colour in my house.
When I got it home I read the label which said that cyclamens like to be indoors during the day and outdoors at night.
That seemed like a lot of effort, so I put it in my Klein bottle conservatory, which is both inside and outside, and the plant can choose for itself whether it wants to be in or out.
My big brother caught me idly carving some marks into a tree. “What’re you wasting your time on now, sis?” He was always trying to unsettle me.
I had to think quickly. “The shapes are…sounds,” I ventured. I pointed to the six symbols in turn and improvised: “Fff…uu…th…a…r…k?” I met his eye.
His gaze broke first. “Whatever, sis.” He left, dissatisfied.
I turned back to the tree, thought some more, then set to carving more runes.
When I was young, my visions were crystal-clear. But now that I’m older, I’m finding that I can only focus on distant events.
It wouldn’t be a big deal, but being a seer is my job.
It’s time. I take a deep breath and push open the door of the thaumoptometrist.
When time travel became cheaper than road travel, logistics companies initially took a hit. But they adapted.
You can choose to have your parcel delivered overnight, or you can have it delivered back to you in perfect condition twelve (or more) months in the future.
Today I’m using the service to store away all my 1990s clothes and have them returned in 2030 when—hopefully—they are back in fashion again.
Thingvellir—we write it Þingvellir—is the valley where the people of Iceland have gathered every year since 930 CE. It’s a rift valley, right on top of the mid-Atlantic ridge, widening at an eye-watering 2 cm per year thanks to plate tectonics.
Which may serve to explain the silly ritual we observe as we greet each other there.
“How was your journey, Jón?”
“It feels longer every year, Sigríður.”
Imagine how tedious this joke will be in another thousand years!
It‘s hard to find my exact home timeline. This one’s pretty close.
On the plus side, in this universe electrons were assigned a positive charge. Doubly good, they defined π as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius.
Less cool is the absence of any kind of mint. And, darkly, all cats are literally grey.
I think I’ll stay here a while. Until I have a hankering for a mojito.
We can’t say much about this dead civilization, but they understood albedo.
Every summer they painted their village white, to reflect as much of the hot sun as possible.
Then six months later they painted their village black, to absorb as much of the feeble winter heat as they could.
Oh, one other thing is that you can say about this civilization is that it lasted exactly 341 years, and that it ended during winter.
Why do witches have black cats? No, it’s not because we wear black ourselves and we prefer a cat who sheds black hair.
It’s because people are prejudiced against black cats, just as they are against us. We are blamed for the random misfortune, the overheard secret, the unfortunate miscarriage. We have a familiar bond that only outcasts can share.
Also, in my case, Midnight is all they had left at the shelter. You know?—he hardly sheds at all.
The household god was content for many years. It held pride of place in the garden, tended by its sole worshipper.
Then the worshipper passed, and went to another deity. The household god found itself unceremoniously dumped on the nature strip.
The next day, a hard rubbish scavenger happened upon a perfect garden gnome. It was odd: when he picked it up, he felt calm; enraptured. He paused and turned as he tucked it under his arm, sure that he heard a disembodied contented sigh.
[Caption: Scientifically Accurate Pictures presents]
VO: In a world… [camera flies over ammonia clouds] …with a reducing atmosphere… [fade to black] …comes a tale of forbidden chemistry.
[Cut to hunky man in exosuit] He was from an oxygen-rich world. [Pan to a sultry green lump] She had no bilateral symmetry. They had potential—too much. [Zoom in on a voltmeter gauge which goes full scale. Fade to white.]
[The words REDUCTION and OXIDATION slide to reveal the title: R E D O X]
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence came up empty. So we lowered our sights and began the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. This too was inconclusive. Chemical signatures in spectra could indicate life, but could also be inorganic in origin.
Then, one day, we found a signature that was unmistakably from a civilization that had recently poisoned its world to extinction.
Annoyingly, we could still not answer the question of whether we were currently alone in the universe.
Mum tends to adopt every waif that turns up at our hearth: the jackal with the wonky leg; the abandoned caracal kitten; my father.
Dad’s not much better. He can’t walk far, so he stays around and nurses every single seedling of wheat. He saves the best seeds each year. Such a sentimentalist.
Now it’s time for us to migrate, but the jackal won’t follow us, we’ve had the biggest crop I’ve ever seen, and I’ve never seen so few rats as this year. Would it be so bad if we stayed?
The next demon looked more like a machine than anything. But looks are deceptive. I met its eye. “Can you talk?”
“Can you walk?”
“Yes…but not here.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“Autonomous algorithms rely on perspective analysis. Need parallel lines. These lines do not converge properly. No training data.”
I made a note in my book: keep the pentagram; it binds them.
I’ll never understand Japanese counter words, I swore, as I cleaned up after dinner.
They’re just so arbitrary, I complained, as I put away the long slender utensils in the top drawer.
How could the purpose of a thing affect its noun class?, I muttered, as I put the mixer and blender back into the appliance cupboard.
Why would the language be like that?, I grumbled, as I filed the flat thin recipe book in its spot on the bookshelf.
The concept was alien to me.