Futures | Published:

Benjy's birthday

Nature volume 511, page 258 (10 July 2014) | Download Citation

Subjects

Time to be creative.

Lucy loved her husband Hiram but, when he told her at the supper table what their son Benjy was demanding for his 13th birthday, she almost choked on her burger.

Image: Jacey

“He wants a what?” she sputtered.

Nervously, he told her again. “A universe.”

“But they're expensive!”

“He says all the other kids have them.”

“But their parents earn the big bucks. Me, I'm strictly middle-management.”

“Mark Pollock got one for his tenth,” Hiram pointed out. “Benjy's not being unreasonable. Penelope Saunders —”

That little toad!”

“Penelope Saunders has one. Dwayne Simmons. Lottie McPhee. Denny Barden ... well, Denny Barden's only got a galactic cluster, but Denny's mum's been out of work these past two years. And —”

“Even so.”

Hiram shrugged. “Benjy's going to be 13,” he said. “This is maybe the last birthday he'll have as a little boy. By next year he could be interested in girls instead.”

They shuddered in unison.

“We'll both have to scrimp and save,” she said doubtfully.

“We can do it. For our little champion.”

****

Three nights later, when Lucy got home from work, she could tell by the look of suppressed triumph on her husband's face that Hiram had made the purchase. It seemed to take forever for Benjy to get sleepy that evening, and even longer before he could finally be persuaded to drag himself off to bed.

“Let's see it,” whispered Lucy when at last they were certain the boy was out for the count.

Hiram led her into the bedroom and opened the wardrobe door.

“Is that it?” she said, looking at the box.

“An AC49 universe, just as our son specified,” said Hiram proudly. “I was able to get a big discount by paying cash.”

“It doesn't look like much, does it?”

The box was maybe a quarter of the size she'd expected. It sat on the floor of the wardrobe looking oddly ... tame, despite the garish pictures on its sides of exploding galaxies and the like.

She bent and picked it up.

“It's so small,” she said.

“Apparently it gets a whole lot bigger once you've assembled all the pieces and set it in motion,” Hiram assured her. “That's what the salesman told me. See?” He pointed a stubby finger at the lettering on the box top. “It comes with a built-in inflation kit.”

“Well, if you're sure it's the right thing ...”

Lucy bent and put the brightly coloured package back where it had been. Even with the hefty discount, it represented a month's salary. Still, it was a once-in-a-lifetime investment, and worth every cent if it made her little boy happy.

Nevertheless, she slept fitfully that night, waking several times to fret about money.

****

Luckily Benjy's birthday fell at the weekend that year, so Lucy didn't have to rush off to work through the city's grey dawn. She and Hiram set the alarm for six o'clock and tiptoed around the house getting everything ready for when Benjy awoke. Aside from his main present, there were gifts from his grandparents to be opened, plus a cheque from his aunt that, if past years were anything to go by, would prove to be embarrassingly small.

And then there was the cake that Hiram had baked the day before, when Benjy was out at school. He'd made it in the form of a bright-red racing car, which was probably a mistake but it was too late to do anything about it now.

By the time Benjy eventually straggled downstairs at quarter past eight, his hair sticking out in all directions like a squashed beetle, the living room had been transformed into a veritable Aladdin's cave.

Or so Lucy thought, anyway.

When Benjy saw the box containing his AC49 universe, sitting in pride of place in the middle of the carpet, the sleep vanished from his eyes.

“Wow!”

Lucy and Hiram beamed proudly.

Sitting on the sofa, Benjy turned the box over and over in his hands. He showed no interest at all in any of his other presents. At that moment Lucy didn't care that the next few months were going to be pretty austere. All that mattered was the awe on her boy's face.

“Assembles in minutes,” Benjy said reverentially, reading aloud. “Contains small parts unsuitable for young children. No batteries required.”

He slit the tape on the lid with his thumbnail.

****

Hours later, the house was silent except for a sort of thrumming sound from the attic, which had been cleared to make space for Benjy's universe. His doting parents had promised him that they wouldn't go up there except in an emergency — that from now on it was his territory, his and his alone.

Lucy and Hiram hadn't quite fallen asleep.

“I didn't expect it to be quite so noisy when you were getting it going,” he murmured drowsily.

“It was a hell of a bang, there at the start,” she agreed.

“Or for him to take so long setting it up.”

“The AC49 comes with the option to fine-tune the physical constants,” said Lucy. “Benjy decided he wanted to optimize it properly. Apparently Buster Padawi didn't bother and ended up with something completely chaotic. Our boy wants his universe to support organic life and all. We spent half the morning tinkering with the velocity of light.”

Hiram was silent long enough for her to start wondering if he'd drifted off.

“Organic life, huh?” he said, startling her.

“That's the plan.”

“Think he'll treat his creations kindly?”

“I very much doubt it,” she said, rolling over and squirming herself into a more comfortable position. “Who cares?”

Notes

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  1. John Grant is the author of more than 60 books, both fiction and nonfiction — the latter including such works as Discarded Science, Denying Science, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (with John Clute) and A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir; a new collection of his short stories, to be called Tell No Lies, is scheduled for late 2014 publication by Alchemy Press. He has won the Hugo (twice), the World Fantasy Award and a bunch of other awards.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/511258a

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