Wednesday 23 December 2020

404: A Christmas Story

Marley’s web pages were dead: to begin with. No sooner had Scrooge returned from the funeral than he had deleted every page of Marley’s “blog”, for which he had begrudged every kilobyte.

But that night he awoke from uneasy sleep to find a ghostly figure in his bedroom chanting “404! 404!”

“You don’t exist,” said Scrooge testily. “You’re that piece of cheese I had for supper.”

But the figure only said, “Come!” and Scrooge found himself compelled to follow as it drew him beyond the walls of his house and across the earth.

“The Library of Alexandria!” it declared, and Scrooge found himself amidst its burning. “404!”

“Plays and poetry!” retorted Scrooge. “Stuff and nonsense!”

It spoke again, “The archives of the Medici Bank!” and Scrooge was surrounded by workmen carting away stacks of old ledgers as waste paper. “404!”

Scrooge shivered with fear.

Finally, it said, “Ebenezer Scrooge!” and there was nothing but “404! 404! 404!” and Scrooge awoke.

Friday 2 October 2020


Darwinium was accidentally created in the search for stable superheavy elements. Its atomic number is 288, and it has at least fifty isotopes with half-lives of more than a microsecond. That may seem a short duration, but in its brief life it is able to catalyse the combination of ordinary heavy elements to form more darwinium and other superheavy darwinides whose properties vary in many ways, and which can induce each other's transmutation or disintegration. The resulting intense process of natural selection, with upwards of 100,000 generations per second, has resulted in the rapid creation of entirely new forms of matter, faster than human understanding can keep pace with.

Fortunately, it has not yet evolved the ability to digest any of the lighter elements. The few samples in existence have been isolated in aluminium containers, within which the finite resources cause the evolution to eventually peter out. The samples now appear to be quiescent, but there is no known way of destroying them. They have been able to absorb all the high-energy particles we have bombarded them with.

Theoretical calculations suggest that the introduction of as little of 1 gram of the heaviest ordinary elements might allow darwinide to evolve the ability to digest every element down to hydrogen. Some argue that it is our moral duty to release the darwinide so that it may progress to transmute the entire planet and beyond into new life-forms beyond our imagination.

Thursday 27 August 2020


I was at the airport when it happened, waiting to fly out to the UN Emergency Conference on, well, everything. Failure of all the Covid vaccines. The Indo-Chinese war. Escalating threats from the other nuclear powers. Then the Yellowstone supervolcano.

An announcement came over the PA system. “Attention all passengers. Civilisation has fallen. Passengers should only embark if travelling directly home. Once all remaining flights have departed this airport will close permanently. Personal message for Dr. Brezoianu. The conference has been abandoned, because what’s the point? Apologies for the inconvenience.”

I walked out of the airport and drove home, to wait for the end.

Image credit: Marcin Bajer, abandoned airportCC BY-NC 2.0

Friday 10 April 2020


The querkleyhew (Querculus arrigiosus) is the pride of the tree-lined avenues of London. It sheds its boughs wherever they extend more than a few yards from the trunk, and at a certain height, the upthrusting members terminate themselves similarly. The exposed wounds heal into lumpy nodules that host nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It is the only tree known to do this. Every spring it grows clusters of thin shoots from these terminations, shedding them in autumn.

The nodules exude resins which are harvested for use in incense. In former times they were also, by the mediaeval doctrine of signatures, favoured as a salve for amputees. The shoots would be gathered by basketmakers and woven into charms against wounds in battle.

The uninformed mistake this curious habit of growth for over-zealous pruning.

Image: Querkleyhews on London streets, not far from the Tate Britain gallery.

Monday 23 March 2020

Tant con je vivrai

Grey fingers of dawn opened the sky. Dew lifted from grass into drifting mist. The body of a man, three crossbow bolts protruding from his armour.

More bodies, hundreds, scattered over the meadow.

One lay against a tree. He gasped and opened his eyes, grimacing as his hand tightened on his sword. A body lay across his leg, too heavy to shift. 

"As long as I shall live..." he began. He paused, drew breath again. "My right hand shall defend thee."

"As long as I shall live, our love shall live."

"As long—"

Above the silent battlefield, the crows began to arrive.

This was inspired by the song “Tant con je vivrai” (“As long as I shall live”) by Adam de la Halle. The song is about something completely different, but the cold performance linked here fits the mood.

The story has also appeared on Laurence Simon’s Weekly Challenge.

Image credit: Gunnar Lundström, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0