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Infinite Tiny Lives, Infinitely Small Shane Halbach

Grandma kept her civilizations on a shelf in the living room. She always let me dust them.

When I was just a girl, I would pick up each and peer inside. Some of the baubles were dim, the civilizations inside long since dissolving to dust. Even then they were interesting, with crumbling stone walls or rusting iron spires or broken skyscrapers.

They made me feel lonely.

“Why doesn’t Mom display her civilizations?” I asked on a slow, Sunday afternoon. “Doesn’t she have any?”

“She did. She does. That’s a question for your mother,” said Grandma. I noticed a hint of disapproval, though of the question or of my mother, I couldn’t tell.

I was still looking at her so she said, “Lots of people have opinions about what you should do with your civilizations, but they’re yours. Nobody gets to tell you who to show them to.”

“I’m going to keep mine in a museum,” I said, breathlessly. “Anybody who wants to can come and see them.”

It seemed impossible that my body could create such a thing, would someday create such a thing.

* * *

I was seventeen when my first civilization came. It started as a tear, nothing special, just one among many, the drop swelling and hardening until it was a fist sized bauble. I didn’t tell my mom. I hid it in my underwear drawer.

There was a castle with tiny spires so tall they almost scratched the surface of their bauble. I spent hours in my room gazing at it. It wasn’t until I used a magnifying glass that I discovered the horses on the rolling green hills were unicorns.

I thought about one of Grandma’s civilizations, with crumbling stone walls forever bathed in blue twilight. Could hers have ever looked like mine: golden and verdant green, full of light and life?

Impossible. Hers was as different from mine as the sun from the moon.

* * *

I cried three civilizations while I was married to Harold.

The first, just after we married, was thoroughly modern. Skyscrapers, and concrete, and traffic on the tiny streets. Busy, but full of bustling people and full of potential. Everything was exciting and new.

God we were so young.

Just a year later, there was a Victorian one where couples would promenade the streets in the evening, wearing elaborate hats on their way to supper or the opera.

It was always evening there.

In the end, when my days were spent hoping he’d be called away on a business trip so I wouldn’t have to spend another night lying next to him, I made a tropical island with the most amazing birds, barely visible as flashes of crimson or yellow against the dark jungle. There were no people in that one, or if there were, they never ventured out where I could see them.

It was, blessedly, empty.

How I longed to fly with those perfect little birds.

I never showed any of my civilizations to Harold; the bastard never even asked to see them.

* * *

The civilizations have grown few and far between, but they become ever more elaborate. It is easy to fill up a day contemplating the infinite tiny cogs, infinitely small, which run the clockwork pulleys, which wind the clockwork mainsprings of tiny clockwork dirigibles, which patrol near the roof of my latest bauble.

I long to discuss the goings on: the political machinations of the Clockwork Council, the plight of the poor clockwork dockworkers. But no one comes to visit me, and if they do, they do not wish to hear about my interests. They have their own civilizations to tend to.

Sometimes I get out my old civilizations. The first ones. The unicorns have all died and the castle has fallen into ruins. The skyscrapers are rusting hulks with broken windows. The Victorians had a plague.

I wonder: could it have been different?

If things had gone differently, would the unicorns still be alive? If I hadn’t married Harold, would the cityscape still be bustling and sophisticated?

I wonder: would that be better?

I realize if I had a granddaughter to dust my baubles, she would find my civilizations ruined and crumbling, just like my own Grandmother’s.

I wonder about my mom’s civilizations. What would they have revealed about her? What made her cry? Did she love someone else? Would the civilizations she made during her time with dad be comfortable, homey things, the way I always imagined, or would they be full of darkness and lurking monsters? In seeing them, did Grandma know a part of my mother that I never did?

I wonder if the women in my civilizations make civilizations. I wonder if I am part of someone’s civilization. Me, Mom, Grandma, all the way back, our entire string of lives spiraling backwards to infinity, playing out in somebody’s bauble.

And I realize: it doesn’t make a difference. Each civilization is the culmination of everything that came before, each decision a step along the path leading me exactly where I am now.

I can’t wait to see the next one.


Originally published in Daily Science Fiction (February 2019). Republished here by permission of the author.

© Shane Halbach

Meet the Author

Shane Halbach

Shane Halbach

Shane Halbach lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids, where he writes software by day and avoids writing stories by night. His fiction has appeared on Escape Pod, Redstone SF, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. He blogs regularly at

“Copy Machine” will also be included in FFO alumni (“The Land of Phantom Limbs”) Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s 2014 Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas. A visual artist will use “Copy Machine” as inspiration for a work of visual art, while Shane Halbach will write a flash fiction based on a separate work of visual art. Twenty-six total artists and writers will also participate. For more information, including submissions guidelines for next year’s show, visit

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