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One Fathom from the Brink (and other Absurd Units of Measure)

Jason P. Burnham is an infectious disease physician by day. At best, he got a C in dimensional analysis in high school chemistry. He loves to spend time with his wife, children, and dog, who is about three stone.

The only thing saving Dr. Claire McClintock from certain death was the alien's misunderstanding of human units of measure.
"No, no, I'm afraid you've located the wrong human," Claire said through the alien's translator apparatus, a black, plastic-looking thing that was wrapped around the creature's solitary, pink forehead tentacle. The rest of the alien looked downright humanoid, excepting the forehead tentacle and its blue skin.
"You meet the specifications," the alien, who'd she come to learn was called Grennifer, said through the tentacular translator. Their voice didn't sound humanoid, more the sucking noise one heard when one's shoe was lost to a particularly muddy field after a rain.
"May I see that?" Claire asked. "Certainly, you wouldn't want to put the wrong human to death."
Grennifer begrudgingly handed over something approximating an alien tablet with a hologram floating above it. When it was evident Claire couldn't read it, Grennifer waved their tentacle across it.
Claire McClintock, astrophysicist, human discoverer of Xorpopulon VII, harbinger of our destruction by revealing our location to the universe. One hundred seventy-five centimeters in vertical dimension, brown fur, cream-colored outer layer.
Claire waved her hand through the hologram. "You've got the wrong girl," she reiterated. "I'm five feet and eight inches in vertical dimension." She didn't bother acknowledging that everything else was correct, though she didn't know that the locals on the planet she'd discovered had called it Xorpopulon VII.
The tentacle warbled; the translation noted that Grennifer was perplexed. "What are inches?"
Claire shrugged. "You know, inches. One inch is one twelfth of a foot."
Grennifer pointed to Claire's feet. "One of those?"
"No, no. Twelve inches make up one foot."
Grennifer's tentacle took on a slimy sheen and the translator interpreted this as exasperation. "This does not explain what an inch is."
Claire held up her hands. "It's a unit of measure. You know, one inch. Three barleycorns, the width of an average man's thumb." Claire was suddenly grateful for her esoteric knowledge of units of measure.
Grennifer's upper appendages trembled. "Certainly, there is imprecision in these measures."
"Not if you assure the three barleycorns are ripe, removed from the middle of the corn ear, well dried, and laid end-to-end."
Grennifer's tentacle drooped in frustration. "I won't argue the variability of this flawed measuring tool. You approximate the stated measurements of the wanted astrophysicist; your punishment is death."
"What other measurements do you have on me?" Claire asked, stepping back from Grennifer's advance.
Grennifer sighed. "Your mass."
Claire raised an eyebrow at the readout. "Seventy kilograms?" Claire tsk-ed. "Sorry Grennifer, this simply isn't me. I'm twelve stone, easily."
Grennifer's tentacle shrunk down and draped over one blue shoulder. "Good Lord," the alien said. Claire wondered what Grennifer's God was like. "I'm going to regret this, but what is a stone? Not a mineral concretion?"
Claire smiled. Maybe she would be lucky. Maybe if she stalled long enough, she'd find a way out of her death sentence. "You know, a stone! Fourteen pounds, or one one-hundred sixtieth of a long ton."
Grennifer's tentacle stood straight up. They walked back to the spaceship.
"Forget it. This whole planet is ridiculous. I was going to spare the rest of humanity, but no, your species is finished. One supernova, coming up."
Claire blinked. "You'd release an entire foe of energy into the cosmos just because you dislike our measurements?"
Grennifer paused. "You know the unit called foe?"
"Yeah, why?" There was something in the way Grennifer spoke--Claire sensed reconciliation, or at least a potential for compromise.
Grennifer turned. "I invented that unit on Xorpopulon VII. They laughed at me. That's part of why they sent me here to take care of this. It's a punishment."
Claire looked at the ground so as not to reveal her smile. "I've always thought it was a quite eloquent measure."
Suddenly, Claire was in the air, a slimy, stifling embrace from Grennifer's elongated tentacle. As the breath was squeezed out of her, she thought that this must be the death sentence she'd been promised.
When Grennifer dropped her to the ground, Claire gulped in air greedily.
"Apologies," said Grennifer. "You're the first being to acknowledge the foes' value. Perhaps I can spare you, after all."
"What about Xorpopulon VII?" Claire asked, then winced. You had an out!
"Oh, they'll be fine. Nobody's paying attention to that backwater planet. Kinda like this one." Grennifer chuckled in their way. "Besides, it's not like you have something worse than inches."
Claire chuckled nervously. "Worse than inches? Now that would be hard to fathom!"
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 21st, 2022

Author Comments

Ever since nobody could explain to me what a league or an acre was, I've found units of measure to be quite absurd. Imagine my surprise when I learned how an inch was codified! Unfortunately, it was so ingrained into my brain in school that I still have a hard time imagining things in metric. Thanks to my friend C.M. Fields for putting me on to the ridiculous unit of the foe.

- Jason P. Burnham
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