Story Idea: Atom By Atom

Mark BallThe following idea was sent to us by Scott McKeown.

Thanks Scott! I love the absurdity of this idea, and the many opportunities for situational comedy it presents.

Scott writes…

Please feel free to alter my idea in any way you see fit. For example, it doesn’t really have to be a father and son it just has to be two people that care about each other. But if you do write a story based on this idea I would like some recognition.


An alien comes to earth and due to a misunderstanding ends up in an altercation with a young boy’s father. As a result of the altercation the father dies of a bullet wound and both the boy and the alien end up getting frozen in time by the alien’s freeze ray. (If the alien’s “freeze ray” sounds hoaky, to be fair I envision this as a somewhat silly story. If you want to make it more serious feel free.)

The effects of the freeze ray wear off after about two years, and both the boy and the alien wake up at almost the same time. By now the dad has been buried and has been decomposing for quite a while. Feeling guilty the alien decides to reassemble the dead father atom by atom with his highly advanced alien technology. For this to work the alien needs two pieces of technology (that he already happens to have in his space ship).

  • An “atom by atom 3Dprinter.” You put atoms in one end and you get whatever you wanted to print out the other end (and of course the item on the other end is frozen in time just like the boy and the alien were.) The freezing of the item is useful to help the item not fall apart and or die before it is done printing.
  • A device that the alien refers to as a necalarg. It is a device that tracks the exact location of every single atom in the universe (both past and present locations only, not future).

The idea is that using his necalarg the alien determines the exact position of every atom in the father’s body right before he died; he then feeds that information into the 3Dprinter and prints away.

Printing starts and when it’s finished, the boy’s father is basically just lying there fully formed, suspended in time.

That’s about the time the alien gets a fax (or something) from his home galaxy stating that it is illegal to print deceased persons unless you are putting each original atom back in its original spot. Otherwise it doesn’t legally count as bringing someone back to life; it counts as making a copy. And seeing as how the original didn’t consent to being copied it’s illegal. But not to worry, as long as the alien doesn’t unfreeze the father he won’t be arrested.

For some reason, I imagine that the punishment for unfreezing an unauthorized copy of a person is an eternity in jail. Which would be a real problem for our alien friend since I also imagine that his people are so advanced that they can extend their lives almost to the point of immortality.

So this is where the real story begins. The boy and the alien face a challenge to bring back the dead – and decomposed – father. They must piece him back together atom by atom, molecule by molecule, and to do this they must find all the original atoms that made up his body!Atom_plankton


So the two characters go on a mission to collect all the original atoms that were contained in his body just before he died. First they dig up his remains and throw them into the “atom receptacle” and the readout states that 70% of the atoms have been recovered. But this guy has been decomposing for a while and there is just no telling where all the other atoms ended up. Fortunately they can use the necalarg to track them.

They trace some of the atoms to the nearby soil and throw them in. Now it’s up to 90%.

Basically, the closer they get to collecting all the atoms, the harder it becomes to track down the missing few. Also, as the story progresses they find themselves in stranger and stranger locations. I suggest being creative here. For some reason I envision them stealing a brick out of the wall of a night club to get some of the atoms back. Now how in the heck did his atoms get in there? That might make for a good mini story.


Finally, at the end, it’s down to one atom. If they don’t get it they won’t be legally allowed to bring the father back to life. But there is a problem. It no longer exists. Perhaps that atom was involved in a nuclear reaction of some kind (in which case maybe the answer is that they have to find the individual electrons, protons and neutrons that were in the original atom). This could be pretty bad if you decide that the necalarg can’t detect sub-atomic particles.

Or worse yet, maybe the atom was involved in a matter antimatter annihilation reaction. If that’s the case, the answer might be to make an appeal to the alien’s home government or something.

Either way they manage to bring the boy’s dead dad back to life. All’s well that end’s well.

What do they do with the illegal copy they made at the beginning? That’s for you to decide. Personally I like the idea of him going from no dads to two dads.

Things to Consider

1) The necalarg is a great way to explain why the alien can speak English. If they know the position of every atom in the universe then they know the precise lay out of all the neurons in any English speaking human brain. From this they can deduce how English works.

2) If the time freezing technology truly freezes time then consider this. If you time freeze a block of air then no events of any kind can occur inside this block of air. Even though photons normally can pass unhindered through air, if a photon hits this block of air it cannot pass through. Either the photon will have to wait to pass through until time in the block of air has resumed (in which case the block of air would appear to be solid black) or it will have to bounce off the surface making the block of air a perfect mirror. Personally I prefer the perfect mirror option because I think that both the alien and the boy would get one wicked sun burn upon awakening if it was the solid black option.

3) The father was probably standing up when he got shot. But it would be wise to print him lying down. The “atom by atom 3-D printer” only places atoms in the proper location; it does not somehow imbue atoms with their previous velocity. This means that the father’s blood pressure will temporarily be zero (until his heart pumps again). In order to protect against him passing out and hitting his head on the way down he should be printed horizontally.

4) On the atomic level it is difficult to determine the exact edge of a person or any other object for that matter. For example, when zooming in on the boundary between a human hand and the cup it’s holding, you might ask, “Is this particular carbon atom part of the hand or part of the cup?” It just easier to print the hand and the cup than bother to tease the two apart from one another. This is why I think it makes a lot of sense to go ahead and print the father with all of his surrounding air (including the air in his lungs), the ground he was standing on and the bullet itself.

5) If the father is indeed printed horizontality to avoid fainting and the bullet was printed along with him and none of the atoms have any of their previous velocities then once the “time freeze” is deactivated the bullet would harmlessly fall to his chest due to gravity.

6) If they are printing the original air then they are gonna need to collect the original atoms that made up that air. In addition they will need to collect any of the atoms that used to be in his body as a solid but due to chemical reactions are now floating freely in the air as a gas. You are probably going to have to invent some sort of alien technology to allow them to do this. How about a device that attracts the correct atoms (Kind of like magnetism but different). Only the atoms that they want would be attracted to the device. You could explain how you can make the other (solid state) atoms attracted to the device but the device isn’t powerful enough to rip atoms out of solid walls. Besides, even if it could it wouldn’t be safe. You wouldn’t want a chunk of bone acting like a projectile weapon would you.

7) If you need a bad guy in your story to make the plot work, consider the following scenario: It wasn’t the alien that shot the father. Instead in an attempt to shoot the alien, the father’s brother is the one that fired the gun. Furious over what the alien has made him do he continually attempts to kill the alien throughout the story.

Written by Scott McKeown.

Scott also penned an entry to the 2014 Alien August competitionAlien Profile: Shearzari. Alien August will be making a return in 2015, so watch this space!

  • I’m giving Scott extra points for the phrase “dig up his remains and throw them into the atom receptacle”. Best sentence I’ve read in a long time 😀

    • Scott C. McKeown

      thank you.

  • Daniel Lind

    This is an excellent idea! I’m very excited to do something with it. Thank you for posting.

  • John H Reiher Jr

    Here’s a rub: Some of those air molecules are now part of the boy and alien. Hey, they were breathing at the time when the dad got shot…

    • Kirov

      Plot twist! The boy and the alien have to give up their own right to being revived in order to use those atoms in the father.

      • Haha yeh! But the alien can re-print the boy, so long as he has permission to do so.
        Or is the boy too young to give consent?

        • Kirov

          Interesting. If the aliens are nearly immortal, what would their minimum age of consent be? Would the father even be old enough to give consent?

          • Scott C. McKeown

            My original idea was that they either just have really good medical technology or they are more like those lobsters that can’t die of old age.

  • Leonardo Faria

    I conjecture that the necalarg, in order to discriminate an iron atom from another iron atom, refers to the dupyon, the well-known particle that marks an individual atom getting in resonance with the orbital angular momentum of the gulliblon, the particle also named “the God’s wink” (they found it out at Geneva Cern in February 30, 2018). Sounds like good alien technology…

  • Paulo R. Mendes

    ……………………………….meh. :/

  • Christmas Snow

    Mother Nature recycles everything. What about the lost fluids when the bullet pierced his chest? I guess it has been assimilated in some organism which went up the food chain to feed larger animals, and is now inside another organism – A cockroach, a fly, a bird, or a fish at sea. What about a globe-spanning hunt?

  • Corey Nave

    The science behind this is extremely shaky, due to multiple reasons. First, it would be extremely difficult to bring the dad back to life once he is brought back. Also, there are about 7 billion billion billion atoms that make up the average human body, so it would be practically impossible to locate the 10% that are spread throughout the world. Because of these reasons, this would most likely be a childrens story, as kids wouldn’t overthink the logic behind a story.

    • Yeh, I think it’s the impossibility of it that makes the story so fun. Perhaps it could be an endless task that occupies the rest of the son’s life – a demonstration of his love for his father.
      It could even be spun around so that it’s a father dedicating his life to saving his son, because surely most sons would give up 😀

    • Scott C. McKeown

      It’s funny that you say that since I originally thought it might make a good pixar film. However, if plausability is your goal then reducing the amount of time that the dad has been dead for should help.