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art by Tais Teng

Bit by Bit

Karina Fabian writes science fiction and fantasy and is known for her quirky twists on common clichés. Winner of the 2010 INDIE award for best fantasy for her novel, Magic, Mensa and Mayhem, she has two new books out: Infinite Space, Infinite God and Neeta Lyffe, Zombie Exterminator. She has had three root canals to date, and hopes never to be inspired in this way again. Learn more at www.fabianspace.com
Sally blamed the drill bit stuck in her tooth.
She didn't blame the dentist. It happened sometimes. The tiny little bit broke and got stuck. Nothing for it but to fill the gap and go on. If her roots were thin and twisted, it wasn't his fault.
If she was hearing alien voices now, that wasn't his fault, either.
At first she thought it was the codeine, but even after she stopped taking that, she heard them. Thin short tones, more easily heard on the left side. Where the bit was, of course. That's how she knew.
Thin, short tones, in a language she didn't understand. Not like insects. More like birds, asthmatic birds chirping patterns day and night, keeping her awake.
She tried to explain to her dental insurance why she needed the tooth extracted.
"Ma'am. Other people have had bits of equipment break off during root canals. They don't hear voices."
"Maybe it's because I have so many silver fillings? Can I get those replaced, then? I can't sleep for the voices."
The agent suggested a psychiatrist.
Her best friend at work suggested a new tinnitus cure she heard about on the radio.
"Tinnitus is a buzzing. This is a pattern." She tapped it out. Her friend gave her that face that said, "Stop it! People are staring!" but her eyes were wide with worry. Sally never brought it up again.
On the way home from work, she saw a bum with a colander coated in foil on his head.
"Does it work?" she asked.
He started screaming about the end of the world. She gave him twenty dollars and wore an aluminum foil cap to bed. She slept in blissful silence that night.
The manager at the coffee shop where she manned the cash register made her take it off, however.
"You look ridiculous. First voices--now this? Do you want this job?"
So she left the cap at home, and let the pattern play in her head. Sometimes, when business was slow, she'd tap it on the counter. Then he yelled at her for that, and she tried to stop, but...
"What are you doing?" a customer asked. He had mussed-up hair and wore a t-shirt with "God said," and a huge equation.
She looked at her hands. She'd been tapping. "Oh, I--"
She shrugged.
"Prime numbers. Cool." He gave her a grin that made her heart beat in a whole new rhythm.
He stuck around, nursing the same double-espresso latte, until her shift ended. She poured herself some chai and went to his table.
He stood and pulled out a chair for her. "I'm Bob. So, prime numbers--are you a math major?"
She told him about the root canal and the voices in her head. Afterward, they sat in silence until her drink got cold.
"Tap it again," he said.
She did: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, pause, 1-2-3-4-5, pause, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7...
"Try this," he said, and tapped out 1-2-3-4, pause, 1-2-3-4-5-6, pause, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
She tapped it on the table. Nothing happened. Then on her cup with a spoon. Nothing.
They sat, tapping and thinking. People stared. They didn't notice.
When the shop closed, he walked her home. He kissed her at her doorstep. Suddenly, he pulled away.
"Your teeth! Tap it with your teeth!"
That night, the rhythm changed.
For the next six weeks, they met. She'd play the new rhythm for him. He'd give her one in return. Meanwhile, they found their own, more personal, rhythm.
When at last, the authorities detected the ship, the aliens knew her phone number.
The Press swarmed her house. "How did you do it?" they asked.
She took Bob's hand and smiled.
"Bit by bit," she said.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 11th, 2011


After four hours and three dentists drilling into my tooth, one realized they'd broken a drill bit deep into the root and decided to call it a day. At home, under the influence of Tylenol Three and anticipation of another nasty session, I wrote "Bit by Bit." I've learned two things from the experience: never deny inspiration, and always go to a specialist.

- Karina Fabian

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