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Space Unicorns and Magic Ovens

I'm sitting with ma as she prepares dinner. It's one of her rules, of which there are more every year. "I don't mind cooking for you, Jem, while you're young," she says. "But I'm not your servant and I'm not working while you watch TV or read comics. So it's either homework, or come keep me company as I prep."
A choice like that is no choice at all, even if it sometimes seems closer to extra lessons than not. She's asking the usual questions about how my day has been and what I learned at school, which is so long ago I can hardly remember, so I tell her what Billy said instead.
Ma lays the knife aside, thoughtful. "Billy, hey?"
I nod. "Right before last class, during break. We'd just had a story-tell about fairies. 'Ain't no truth to it,' Billy said. 'No truth at all!' Maisie was in tears. And... I didn't know what to say to her." I feel heat rising in my cheeks at the memory.
"You could have said Billy's grammar is appalling."
I turn my almost-laugh into a scowl. "So he's right?" I demand. "It is all lies and make-believe? It's just science?"
"Didn't your teacher say Billy might be an engineer one day?"
"Yeah." And hasn't that gone to his big head?
"Well, Billy is a smart boy." My scowl hardens. "But no imagination. And not a lot of kindness, either."
I don't say anything to that. Imagination and having the wool pulled over the eyes seem to be the same thing. Every day, whether in class or out, another illusion is burst, another childhood story revealed as fake. And kindness? Is that any excuse to deceive?
Ma sighs. She must be able to feel the anger rolling off me. "OK, kiddo. Maybe it's tough to understand, but what if the stories and the science are both right?"
"What happens when I put this dish in the oven?"
Science again. "The microwaves vibrate the water molecules," I repeat without enthusiasm, "and transfer the heat to the rest of the food. That's why--"
She taps my hand away from the sliced veg, where I've been stealing slivers of raw carrot. "So it's not magic, then?"
"Well, no."
"Even though it's called a Magic Oven?"
"That's just a name."
"Is it? Can you explain how a microwave generator actually works? Why they work so well on water? How the oven stops microwaves leaking out all over the place? Or even why it's got a turntable?"
I frown. It's quickly becoming a very frowny dinner prep, as she places the dish in the oven and sets the timer.
"Do you think Billy could?" she asks.
"Maybe." I shrug, distracted as our meal slowly spins behind the glass door, the smell reminding me how hungry I am.
"What about Billy when he was two years younger?"
"Definitely no." Ma missed a couple of carrot sticks from the chopping board, and doesn't seem to notice as I pinch them one by one.
"So for Billy-two-years-younger, does a microwave work by science, or by magic?"
I munch the carrot, glad for the excuse to think about my answer. "Science," I decide as I swallow. "But Billy-two-years doesn't know that yet."
She smiles and nods. "It's all in the narrative. We tell the stories the listeners will understand. Otherwise, the audience learns nothing."
"It's still not real, though," I protest. "Fairies, and... things."
"It's as real as you believe it to be. Or, as real as the storyteller can possibly make it."
"Even if the storyteller knows it's science?"
"Especially then. Because the storyteller--me--can't explain to you how a microwave works either. Hardly anyone can. But every single person knows how oven fairies hate metal, right?"
I roll my eyes.
"Which is important. Because sparks and fires are very bad in space. That's why, whenever we need a new story--and we always need new stories, it's as much my job creating them as telling them--we work closely with the engineers, with people like Billy's dad, to make sure the story makes as much sense as the science."
I turn to stare out of the porthole, another excuse to think. Somewhere, out there, is the star we left, long before I was born. And somewhere, out there, is the star we'll arrive at, long after I'm gone. I look down and back to the rear of the spaceship and the glittering trail we leave in our wake.
"And unicorns?" I ask, trembling, fearful, ready to have my everything turned upside down yet again.
"Oh, they're real enough." Ma laughs. "And you best hope they never stop pushing. 'Cos ain't no-one aboard this spaceship knows how the heck the thing flies."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022

Author Comments

"Space Unicorns and Magic Ovens" was inspired by a Codex flash fiction prompt: "Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." (C.S. Lewis). I mixed that with the concept of fairy tales and myths as important lessons, encoding for things too difficult to explain or not fully understood. From there, via the "Any sufficiently advanced technology" idea to this whimsical piece mixing myth and science to safeguard the young (and the not so young) wasn't perhaps too far a stretch.

- Liam Hogan
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