PodCastle 527: Flash Fiction Extravaganza! In the Beginning…

Show Notes

Rated G, for godlike.

Note that the text for “Intelligent Design” is a story sample; the whole story is only available in audio format.”Intelligent Design” is a re-run of PodCastle Mini 24.

Latte-colored afterglow: the average color of the entire universe is a pale beige officially dubbed “Cosmic latte”. (See https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap091101.html)

Raspberry: Sagittarius B, a massive cloud hanging out in the Milky Way, contains ethyl formate, one of the key chemicals giving raspberries their flavor.
(See https://io9.gizmodo.com/this-space-cloud-smells-like-rum-and-tastes-like-raspbe-1695890013)

Raisins in raisin bread: The raisin bread analogy is the standard mechanism for explaining Hubble expansion, aka the expansion of the whole universe. (See http://cmb.physics.wisc.edu/pub/tutorial/hubble.html)

Recipe: 1 Universe

by Effie Seiberg

Recipe: 1 Universe

Serves: everybody

1) Start with nothing. If you don’t have nothing, discard everything. Discard your house and your bed, your friends and your family and the dog who barks hello to you every time you pass it on your way to work. Discard your work. Discard your hopes and your dreams, your love of peanut butter, and the little crinkle you get at the side of your smile when you smell the seashore. Discard yourself.

If you’re unable to discard yourself, climb to the top of the tallest mountain and study with the monks who serve at the temple there. When you’re done, discard the monks and the mountain, and even your memories of them.

2) When you have nothing, and there is no you to be floating around in the nothingness, stop for a moment and contemplate the peace and quiet. It will not come again. Then discard that moment, because moments are made of time and you may not keep anything, time least of all.

3) Make a bang. Let that nothingness, which has been aching to be somethingness which you’ve been holding back as hard as you can (for steps one and two are not easy) and are bursting at the non-existent seams to contain . . . let it go. If done right, everything will explode out from a single infinitesimal point, and there will be everything instead of nothing. Set the temperature at 10 billion degrees Fahrenheit. Safety goggles are advised for this step.

4) At this point, there will be a soup of fundamental particles, of neutrons, electrons, and protons. You will not be able to see these — the free electrons will scatter photons the way sunlight scatters from the water droplets in clouds — but you will be able to feel them. Swirl gently with your finger and take a taste. It should taste like raspberries. If the mixture is slowly cooling and small neutral atoms are beginning to form, you’re on the right track.

5) Set your timer to 380,000 years, then check back on your mixture. The expansion should be continuing, so make sure there’s room for your nascent universe to grow.

You should see a soft latte-colored afterglow.  This step is most critical, for the echoes of this glow will be visible until the end of your universe, a twinkling tattoo in the background of everything.

6) Swirl in a healthy dollop of dark energy and sprinkle in some dark matter, and stir. Then do this again, and again another time, for nobody ever estimates it correctly on the first try. A true universe has mysteries and depths beyond what can be expected. Your mixture should still be expanding, and at this point, taste like licorice. Set your timer for about another 400 million years.

7) By now you should have several elements, and the first stars should have started to form. They should nestle in your mixture and expand away from each other like raisins in raisin bread, though they should be flavored like sharp cinnamon oil. While it is tempting, do not taste the stars in this form, though their bright white glow nearly cries out to be licked. Like with so many beautiful things, you will get burned.

8) If they have not yet begun to do so on their own, collect stars together to form galaxies. Reach in to grab a handful at a time — while wearing protective gloves, of course — then set that cluster twirling around itself. Much like a soufflé, be quiet around your universe at this time and avoid bangs and shudders so it doesn’t collapse.

9) Add the spark of life. It is recommended to start this process in several locations in parallel, just in case. Of course, you may choose to leave your universe as-is, sterile and dead with the cosmic wind howling upon lifeless moons and stretches of empty space, but it is not recommended. You’ll find that a lifeless universe can never be a complete one.

10) If your life has started to evolve in some places but not others, that’s OK. If your life has gone extinct in some places, whether through meteorite strikes or stars going nova or through the species’ own stupidity, that’s OK. Just make sure you seed more life elsewhere and keep going.

11) Do not coddle your lifeforms, tempting though it may be. The occasional aversion of a meteorite is fine, but you must let your lifeforms develop on their own. At some point some lifeforms will even develop theories about you, and that is fine as well. Do not be tempted by their offerings and flattery — it will do them no good to assume such power over you. However, if you have a set of lifeforms lacking love, or curiosity, or logic, feel free to discard them and start a new set elsewhere. Such creatures may well ruin the batch.

12) It should be noted, at this point, that you will not be the only one following this recipe. There will be universes next to yours, steaming on your colleagues’ windowsills with tantalizing scents. Resist the urge to connect your universe to theirs. Wormholes are aptly named, and nobody wants a wormy universe.

13) At some point, one of your set of lifeforms will develop philosophy and science and will stumble onto this very recipe. One of them will even follow it. This is as it should be. In the process, their/your universe will be discarded, and you along with it. Universes, like most things of beauty, are ephemeral, cyclical things.

Before you and your universe wink out of existence, take a moment to appreciate the one who came before you and built your original universe, for you had discarded them without a moment’s thought at the beginning of this process. Toast them with a glass of champagne and a thick slice of your freshly-baked universe, studded with stars and planets and love, before you blink away.

Of the Dreams Yet to Come

By Paul Alex Gray

The brush slipped across the surface of the egg with the slightest whisper. Fine hairs trailing a crimson line in their wake. A comet, perhaps, burnt against an indigo sky.

Olivier dipped the brush in his worn ceramic dish, dabbing the edges to let the colours fade. He ran his hands over the wooden bench worn smooth and waxy. Long ago his daughter Jessa had caught her finger on a rare splinter here, leaving tears and a little drop of blood. He had led her to the rectory and bought two cookies. Dough-stars, each with a dollop of raspberry jam in the centre.

Beneath the jacarandas in the courtyard she had asked if there were any colours yet to discover. He had led her back to the chamber and she helped him paint an egg, one eye squeezed tight and the tip of her tongue held out. As the hues mixed together, he told her how the dreams were brought into being. He could still feel those small fingers within his, guiding her imagination along the shell…

“That will be your last one, eh?”

Mala’s voice came warm and kind. She stood beside him, wrapped in her Dreamcrafter’s robes, peering over half-rimmed glasses.

“Seems to be so,” said Olivier faintly, his thoughts still honed onto paint speckled hands.

“It’s a beauty,” said Mala as she leaned in to peer at the egg.

“I can’t imagine how many I’ve painted,” he said, reaching out to seal the vial. He was always telling off apprentices who left them open.

“Oh my. Thousands,” laughed Mala as she shuffled back to her workbench. She sat slowly and raised two vials, looking from one to the other before selecting the darker shade.

“Tens of thousands,” she said and began to paint.

Olivier plucked at his brush, twisting it slowly. He carefully dipped the tip into the gold dust ink for the final coat. His hands trembled, and he left a splotch of yellow on the egg. It was so unlike him.

He stood and made his way to the southern window. The evening shone ochre calm and vast, great clouds etched in the distance. Far below the jacarandas sighed in the breeze. Their leaves were young and broad. Purple shrouded boughs covered the sight of the fountain beneath, but not the sound of tumbling water.

How could it have been so long ago? Sitting there with his wife watching their daughters. Meticulous Kyla taking her own brush to a paper egg while Jessa splashed and squealed and kicked the water.

Now Kyla had a family of her own. She worked at the tower, painting dreams just as she’d always wanted. She was the only one that stayed, neither taken away nor gone of her own free will.

The noise of a shell crunching brought him back to the moment. There was a ruffle of feathers and a chirp. Apprentice Jaquuen’s dreams. They always brought brilliant little birds. With a swoosh the tiny thing was cast from the tower

“I’m off mate,” said the tall young man ambling over from the north window. He extended a paint-splattered hand.

“Thanks for everything,” he said and left leaving just Olivier and Mala in the chamber.

Thirty-three years, distilled down to a few final minutes. It was time to finish up. He passed floor-to-ceiling patterns of colour. So much knowledge, steeped in vials and beakers. Spilled and imbibed within stone floor and maple benchtops. Written into feathers and bone and dreams flung far.

There was home to escape to. Kyla had told him not to come late. She no doubt had a fine meal prepared and the faculty had given him the lovely bottle of Shiraz. He knew his grandchildren had baked a cake. Within a few hours, he would be sitting by the brazier, sipping wine.

Olivier sat at his bench once more. Holding the brush firm, he traced a golden light of sunset along the peak of the egg. Turning it slowly, round and round until the colours were finished and glimmered through his tears.

Once there was a girl, bright-eyed and filled with fire. The youngest. Not ready for a home suddenly silent. Perhaps Olivier had been insensitive. Too distracted by the endless need for dreams. There were arguments and screaming matches. A drawing in of seasons and long cold quiet months.

Then, she was gone.

The egg shuffled, and Olivier heard a muffled peep. Taking it to the window he sensed a rhythm in his pulse, the potent magic slipping through and within. Outside the first stars shone, brilliant despite their distance.

He waited while the little thing broke its shell remembering back to Jessa’s first bird. It was big, and she had squealed with laughter as it hooted and honked its way free.

The egg cracked. Olivier tenderly helped the little bird push open the shell. Jet black eyes blinked as it sat wavering. He pulled the pieces away. Feathers began to dry, and it transformed before his eyes, growing larger and stronger, drawing in its dream. Wings stretched out cerulean bright.

It shivered and shook away its last down feathers as it cried out. A lilting sound that echoed all around. Olivier held his hands up and the bird turned, drawn to the sky. It jumped once, flapped its wings and then leapt out. A cascading song fell away, gone in just a moment. He watched long after it had disappeared from sight.

Olivier gathered his things and glanced around the chamber. He cleaned his brushes and dish and left them to dry. He bade farewell to Mala and moved down the twisting stairs.

He wandered out into the warm embrace of night, making his way home. He held onto the sound of the bird’s cries, imagining all the dreams he’d painted. Some remembered, some forgotten and some yet to come.

Intelligent Design

by Ellen Klages

God cocked his thumb and aimed his index finger at the firmament.

Ka-pow! Pow! Pow! A line of three perfect glowing pinpoints of light appeared in the black void. He squeezed his eyes almost shut and let off a single shot. Ping! The pinprick of light at the far edge of the firmament, just where it touched the rim of the earth, glowed faintly red.

About the Authors

Paul Alex Gray

Paul Alex Gray was born in the UK, and now lives in Canada with his wife and two children. He’s a huge fan of interactive fiction and started launching his own games startup with friends. You can find his fiction, interactive and otherwise, on his website, paulalexgray.com, and keep up with him on Twitter @PaulAlexGray

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Ellen Klages

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Ellen Klages is the acclaimed author of the Scott O’Dell Award-winner The Green Glass Sea, and White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book awards. Her short fiction, previously collected in the World Fantasy Award-nominated Portable Childhoods, has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and has been translated into more than seven languages and republished worldwide. A graduate from the Second City’s infamous Improv Program, Klages also holds a degree in philosophy, which led to many randomly-alliterative jobs such as proofreader, photographer, painter, and pinball arcade manager. Her newest collection, Wicked Wonders  — full of tales about bad girls and their friends — is now available from Tachyon Publications, and contains several cross-over stories for fans of Passing Strangeher Tor.com novella. Ellen lives in San Francisco, in a small house full of strange and wondrous things.

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Effie Seiberg

Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in all four Escape Artists podcasts, as well as “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” (winner of the 2015 British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology), “The Best of Galaxy’s Edge”, Analog, and Fireside Fiction, amongst others. She likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns. Follow her on twitter at @effies , or read her work at effieseiberg.com.

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About the Narrators

Kaylin Norman-Slack

Kaylin Norman-Slack works during his days as a support engineer, but spends his time voice acting, composing music and making games. You can find his music on Sound Cloud under “Mr. Game and Audio.”

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M.K. Hobson

M.K. Hobson recently decided to follow a time-honored authorial tradition and become a bitter recluse. She swore off all social media and left her website to go to seed. At the moment, she exists only as a voice on short fiction podcasts such as Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. She leavens the tedium of her vastly expanded free time with misanthropy, paranoia, and weight lifting.

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Wilson Fowlie

Wilson Fowlie lives in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada and has been reading aloud since the age of 4. His life has changed recently: he lost his wife to cancer, and he changed jobs, from programming to recording voiceovers for instructional videos, which he loves doing, but not as much as he loved Heather.

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