Welcome to the April 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
Next weekend is Easter, so what could be more fitting than a story about an egg. Therefore, I have chosen The Four and a Half Minute Boiled Egg, the first story in my series Alfred and Bertha’s Marvellous Twenty-First Century Life as this month’s free story.
The Alfred and Bertha stories are not really science fiction. They are parodies, mundane short stories about a couple in a troubled marriage written in the over the top infodumpy and technical style of science fiction’s so-called “golden age” of the 1940s and 1950s, where every single bit of technology, no matter how mundane, is explained.
Fans of Alfred and Bertha – I know there are about two of you out there – will be pleased to learn that a new Alfred and Bertha story entitled Canis Familiaris of the Sofa (that’s “dog” to you mundanes) will be coming out very soon.
But for now, follow along as Alfred and Bertha von Bülow get into an argument about the correct time required to boil an egg in
The Four and a Half Minute Boiled Egg
A Not Really SF Short Story
Bertha awoke to the shrill beeping of her alarm clock. She opened her eyes to see the numbers six zero zero edged into the clock face, in truth a display of so-called liquid crystals, that is matter in a state which has properties between those of conventional liquids and solid crystals.
What was more, the alarm clock was so accurate that it would neither gain nor lose a single second in an estimated one hundred and thirty eight million years, for it was controlled via a radio signal received from an atomic clock which measured time using the microwave signals that the electrons in a caesium atom emitted while changing energy levels at near absolute zero temperatures.
Bertha hit the button labelled “Off” on the alarm clock and got out of bed. Beside her, Alfred groaned in his sleep. Being a man and Bertha’s husband, Alfred was entitled to an extra fifteen minutes of sleep, measured to an accuracy of plus minus one second in an estimated one hundred and thirty eight million years by the alarm clock on his own nightstand.
Bertha walked over to the window and pressed the switch that closed an electrical circuit, which in turn activated a small motor, which pulled up to electrically operated window blinds. Outside, the sun was shining and the neighbour drove past in a small red hybrid vehicle, which was powered alternately by an internal gasoline combustion engine and an electric motor supplied via an array of high energy efficiency lithium-ion batteries under the hood. The vehicle emitted a whizzing sound, which told Bertha that the neighbour was currently using the electric motor.
Bertha smiled. Wasn’t it wonderful to live in the twenty-first century?
She went into the bathroom, which was illuminated via electrified glass tubes containing rarified neon. She brushed her teeth with a vibrating battery powered toothbrush and showered with water that was kept at a steady temperature of twenty-five degrees Celsius via an inbuilt thermostat. Finally, she dressed herself in clothing made of synthetic polymer fibres and walked over to the kitchen.
The kitchen was also illuminated via electrified glass tubes containing rarified neon, though Bertha did not switch them on, for it was summer in the Northern hemisphere, which meant that the sun rose early in the morning due to the axial tilt of the planet. However, Bertha switched on the radio, which received a broadcast of the morning news via its aerial, which intercepted radio waves of a particular frequency and transformed them into electric power, which was then amplified into sound.
Next, Bertha began to prepare breakfast, for Alfred would be hungry when he woke up. Besides, such was the duty of a wife.
First, she made the coffee. She opened a cupboard and took out a package of plastic-coated aluminium foil that contained the roasted and ground seeds of the Coffea arabica plant, which was cultivated in large plantations in Southern and Central America, the Caribbean and Africa. With a perfectly calibrated, spoon-shaped measuring instrument, she filled exactly the right amount of ground coffee into a plastic funnel that was covered by a layer of fine pored paper for filtration purposes. She inserted the plastic funnel into the electric coffeemaker and poured an accurately measured volume of tap water into a compartment at the top of the machine.
Some experts warned against using unfiltered tap water, because the high calcium content might damage the delicate innards of the electric coffeemaker. However, Bertha regularly rinsed the machine with a decalcifying agent, which dealt with the problem before it could arise.
Finally, Bertha pressed a switch and activated the machine. The switch glowed red, while a heating coil in the water reservoir heated the water and let it drip at a controlled rate through the ground Coffea arabica seeds in the plastic funnel, until it emerged as a hot bitter-flavoured dark brown liquid into a vessel of heat-resistant borosilicate glass.
Satisfied, Bertha turned to preparing the eggs, while the coffee was being automatically boiled by the machine. She opened the refrigeration unit, which was kept at a steady temperature of plus four degrees Celsius by an inbuilt thermostat. As soon as she opened the door, a switch was triggered which closed an electrical circuit and caused a small lamp inside the refrigeration unit to come on to illuminate the interior. It was truly a small miracle and Bertha recalled with a smile how her late father, who had been an electrical engineer, had explained to her how the lights inside the refrigerator worked, when she had been but six years old.
Bertha withdrew a box made of moulded papier-mâché, a composite material consisting of paper pulp and an adhesive, from the refrigeration unit. She opened the box. Inside, there sat ten perfectly ovoid shapes. These were the eggs of Gallus gallus domesticus and not just the eggs of any old Gallus gallus domesticus either, but the eggs of Gallus gallus domesticus that were not kept in pens, but allowed to roam freely, while fed only the kernels of Zea mayz plants that were raised without the aid of chemical fertilisation agents, herbicides or insecticides. True, these eggs, known as corn-fed organic eggs, were pricier than the regular kind, but Bertha believed in always purchasing the highest quality of foodstuffs.
She removed two of the ovoid shapes from the papier-mâché box and returned the rest into the refrigeration unit. Next, she opened a cupboard and took out a device consisting of a round base of brushed chromium steel with a diameter of approximately twenty centimetres topped by a dome-shaped lid of translucent plastic. This device was an electrical egg cooker.
Bertha set it down on the kitchen counter, which was coated with several layers of sturdy Kraft paper impregnated with melamine thermosetting resin and finally cured with heat to create a hard and durable surface. She inserted the power cord into an electrical socket, which supplied their house with power generated via a mix of massive wind turbines, photovoltaic panels as well as nuclear fission, though that was on its way out due to the risk of a meltdown and the severe health and environmental hazards it posed.
Bertha removed the dome-shaped lid and pricked the bottom of the eggs with the tiny but sharp steel needle embedded into the centre of the chromium steel base of the electrical egg cooker. Then she inserted the eggs into the plastic cradles inside the chromium steel base.
Next, Bertha took the measuring cup of translucent plastic, which was included with her electrical egg cooker, and filled it with water from a gleaming chromium tap. She poured the water from the measuring cup into the egg cooker, replaced the dome-shaped lid and finally set the boiling time at the plastic dial on the base of the egg cooker. She was careful to set the boiling time to exactly four and a half minute, for this was how Alfred liked his eggs, not too hard and not too soft, but boiled for exactly four and a half minutes.
Now the machine took over. A heating coil installed inside the chromium steel base brought the water to a boil, until it gradually evaporated. The resulting steam was trapped by the dome-shaped plastic lid and condensated on its inner surface. And so the heat generated by the boiling water and the steam cooked the eggs to just the right texture and firmness, until finally — once all the water had evaporated — the device emitted a shrill whistle and switched itself off.
While the coffee was brewing and the eggs were boiling, Bertha busied herself with setting the table, which was also coated with several layers of sturdy Kraft paper impregnated with melamine thermosetting resin and finally cured with heat to create a hard and durable surface. First, she covered the table with a piece of cloth woven from the natural fibres of the Linum usitatissimum plant and then dyed a cheery red and white with synthetic azo dyes.
Bertha opened the cupboard and removed two ceramic plates, two large ceramic cups for the coffee and two smaller ovoid shaped cups for the eggs and set them on the table. Next she removed four clear glasses, two for each of them, and set them onto the table as well. Then she opened a drawer and removed two small spoons made from melamine plastic and two knives as well as two small spoons made from inoxidable acid-resistant steel containing eighteen percent chromium and ten percent nickel. The plastic spoons were intended for the eggs, the inoxidable steel spoons for the coffee.
From another cupboard, Bertha took a paper bag containing several small round lumps of baked dough made from finely ground Titicum aestivum seeds. She opened the refrigeration unit and removed two containers made of pressed paper coated with a protective plastic layer. One of these cartons contained the secretions of the mammary glands of Bos taurus taurus, which were rich in calcium, iron and other vital minerals. The other carton contained juice made from the concentrated pulp of the Citrus sinensis fruit, which was rich in Vitamin C.
Finally, she removed a small platter of inoxidable steel with a translucent plastic lid from the refrigeration unit. This platter contained an oblong lump of the fatty acids contained in the mammary secretions of Bos taurus taurus and separated from the liquid components of the milk by churning. Because of its unattractive natural colour, this lump of fatty acids had been dyed a cheerful yellow colour with an organic pigment named beta-Carotene.
The coffee was still brewing, the eggs were still boiling and the sound of water rushing through the copper pipes in the walls of their home told Bertha that Alfred had gotten up and was immersed in his own morning grooming routine, to which she — being a only woman — was not privy.
So Bertha went over to the front door instead. She turned the key, a motion which shifted a cunning arrangement of cylinders and bars, which in turn unlocked the door. Bertha waddled out of the door, nodded to her neighbour, who was just getting into her vehicle, which was powered by an internal gasoline combustion engine. From a tube of dark green plastic she withdrew a bundle of sheets listing the day’s news, printed onto cheap woodpulp paper by a rotation printing press.
She took the rolled up newspaper inside, unrolled and smoothed it and laid it onto the kitchen table. Alfred was always rather peculiar about his morning paper.
When she returned to the kitchen, the automatic coffeemaker had finished its work and the vessel of heat-resistant borosilicate glass was filled with freshly brewed coffee. What was more, the egg cooker was whistling, announcing that the eggs were ready. So Bertha lifted the dome-shaped lid and blinked as the steam rising from the device clouded her vision. She removed the plastic cradle with the boiled eggs and briefly held them under cold water from the chromium tap. Then she placed the eggs into their respective cups.
By now, Alfred had finished his own morning routine and entered the kitchen.
“Good morning, dear,” Bertha exclaimed, “I trust you have slept well.”
“Morning,” Alfred grunted. He was always rather monosyllabic first thing in the morning. Men simply were that way.
Bertha poured the coffee, Alfred picked up the melamine spoon and repeatedly hit the top of his egg, until the thin shell of calcium carbonate crystals stabilised by a protein matrix cracked. Alfred brushed the remnants of the cracked shell away, inserted his spoon into the exposed interior and abruptly stopped.
“The egg is too hard.”
Bertha said nothing, for she was far too busy smearing a thin layer of the fatty acids in the mammary secretions of Bos taurus taurus, separated from the liquid components of the milk by churning, onto a halved lump of baked dough made from finely ground Titicum aestivum seeds.
“Bertha, the egg is too hard,” Alfred repeated.
“I heard you the first time,” Bertha said. She lifted a cup to her mouth and enjoyed bitter flavour of the ground and brewed seeds of Coffea arabica as well as the way the caffeine contained in the brew stimulated her central nervous system.
“How long did you boil the egg?” Alfred wanted to know.
“As you know, Alfred, eating too many eggs is not healthy,” Bertha replied, “After all, a single egg contains up to one hundred eighty six milligrams of cholesterol, which promotes the development of atheroma in arteries and is therefore one of the main causes of cardiovascular disease.”
“Actually, Bertha, science has long since debunked the myth that eggs are unhealthy,” Alfred countered, “Indeed, the effect of egg consumption on blood cholesterol is minimal compared to the effect of trans-unsaturated fatty acids.”
He looked down on the boiled egg that was gradually cooling down on the table in front of him. “Besides, I wanted to know how long you boiled this particular egg.”
“Well, as you know, Alfred, you always want your eggs boiled for exactly four and a half minutes…”
“I know that,” Alfred snapped.
“Well then, why do you ask?”
“Because it is physically impossible that this egg…” Alfred banged his spoon against the egg in frustration, further shattering the thin shell of calcium carbonate crystals. “…was boiled for four and a half minutes.”
“But every morning, I take care to precisely set the timer built into the electrical egg cooker and precisely measure out the required volume of water and boil your egg for precisely four and a half minutes, just as you like it.”
“If your measurements were truly that precise…” Alfred said, “…then why is the egg too hard on some mornings and too soft on others?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Bertha snapped, “After all, I am not a female member of the Gallus gallus domesticus species.”
“As you know, Bertha, Gallus gallus domesticus is a sub-species of Gallus gallus, more commonly known as red junglefowl, which in turn is a sub-species of the Phasianidae family. It was domesticated at least five thousand years ago in Asia and is one of the most common domestic animals with a worldwide population of approximately twenty-five billion…”
“I know what a chicken is,” Bertha said, “Don’t bloody lecture me.”
“Considering your continued inability to boil an egg of said species for the exactly correct time and to the exactly right consistency, I just thought you needed a small refresher course.”
“Well, I don’t,” Bertha snapped.
“Then how do you know when the egg is done?” Alfred asked.
“That’s simple. After exactly four and a half minutes, the buzzer goes off and I remove the eggs from the egg cooker.”
“But we have just established that the egg cannot have been boiled for four and a half minutes, because it is too hard,” Alfred pointed out, “What is more, I couldn’t help but notice that the electrical egg cooker only has setting for three and five minutes, not for four and a half minutes. So how do you determine the precisely correct cooking time?”
Bertha shrugged. “I just know. It’s intuitive.”
Alfred looked genuinely shocked. “But Bertha, you should know that intuition is hardly a scientifically accurate method of determining the proper cooking time for an egg.”
“After twenty years of marriage, I guess I have acquired sufficient knowledge and insight to intuitively know how to set the timer on the bloody egg cooker.”
“Nonetheless, evidence suggests that your intuition is wrong,” Alfred said with an infuriatingly smug smile, “Which is not surprising, considering that what is commonly referred to as intuition is a right-brain activity and therefore associated with emotions and irrationality…”
“And of course, women are so emotional and irrational, that’s what you meant to say, isn’t it?”
“There is some statistic evidence that female members of the Homo sapiens sapiens species are more governed by irrational phenomena such as emotions and intuition, whereas male members of the same species are more analytical…”
Bertha seriously contemplated pouring her one third empty cup of cooling Coffea arabica brew over her husband’s head.
“…which is evidenced by the fact that you use intuition to determine the time required to boil an egg to the desired consistence. And as a result, the consistence of the egg is only correct by sheer accident.”
“What does it matter if the egg is boiled for four and a half minutes by sheer accident, as long as it is boiled for four and a half minutes?” Bertha wanted to know.
“Because I’d like an egg with the exact right consistence and not just with an accidentally right consistence,” Alfred said, “I don’t care for how long you boil it, as long as the consistence of the yolk is right.”
“Oh, so after twenty years of lecturing me about boiling your bloody eggs for exactly four and a half minutes, now you suddenly no longer care about the cooking time?”
“That’s not what I meant. I…”
“Oh, so you suddenly no longer care about all the hard work I do to keep the household running, while you go off to chase the elusive Higgs Boson particle at the Large Hadron Collider…”
“As you know, Bertha, the Large Hardon Collider is the world’s most powerful particle collider and also coincidentally the largest single machine in the entire world….”
“Yes, I know,” Bertha snapped, “Because you won’t bloody shut up about it. You never shut up, you’re always lecturing me, while completely dismissing my contributions to this marriage.”
Alfred sighed theatrically. “All I wanted was a soft egg.”
“Well, I’ll tell you where you can stuff your egg. You can stuff it into your anus and I’m not talking about the seventh planet of our solar system.”
“As you know, Bertha, inserting an egg into the anus of the human being may — though not physically impossible — cause serious injury to the muscles of the anal sphincter…”
Bertha emitted a scream of primal frustration.
“Bertha, dear, you are being irrational again.”
Bertha emitted another scream with a pitch and frequency that were even higher than those of the previous scream. She picked up her own egg and hurled it full force at Alfred.
Alas, Alfred ducked at the last possible split second and the egg hit the kitchen counter instead. The calcium carbonate shell shattered and both egg white and egg yolk ran all over the coating of several layers of sturdy Kraft paper impregnated with melamine thermosetting resin and finally cured with heat to create a hard and durable surface, that thankfully also happened to be easy to clean.
“Now that egg seems to have the exact right consistence,” Alfred declared.
But Bertha was no longer listening. Instead, she stormed from the kitchen, slamming the door, which consisted of several thin layers of wood veneer glued together while rotating the direction of the woodgrain by up to ninety degrees to one another.
“Men…” she declared, “…can be such primitive examples of Homo neanderthalensis.”
Alfred looked down at his too hard egg and contemplated poisoning Bertha with diethyl parathion, a powerful insecticide and acaricide best known under the trade names Folidol and E605, which disrupted the nervous system by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase.
But if he did poison Bertha, then who would boil his breakfast egg?
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.