We are proud to present this reprint of Death, the Universe, and Everything by Sherin Nicole from the podcast, Escape Pod. The podcast is described on its site thusly:
Escape Pod is the premier science fiction podcast magazine, founded in 2005 by Serah Eley, and presently co-edited by Mur Lafferty and S.B. Divya.
Every week we bring you short stories from some of today’s best science fiction, in convenient audio and text formats. Subscribe on your phone or your computer!
The morning after it happened for the first time, I--
I’m not sure if I should tell you, but maybe you can tell me. If your understanding of reality fundamentally changes, does it change you?
And how responsible am I for who you become?
I don’t know.
And that relative state of not knowing is the start of my conundrum. And my conflict.
The morning after it happened for the first time, I woke up with half of my soul hanging out of my body. The worst case of pins and needles possible. The pain was a soft plodding ache, but it couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. It hurt.
I flopped around on my dorm room bed, like the fresh catch of the day, becoming more and more unmoored, until my roommate, Delia, threw her pillow at me. The one that has the phrase “causal & effective” embroidered on it. The impact of her annoyance snapped my soul back into place.
“What is your conflict?” she asked. “I’m sleeping over here.”
“Out of body experience,” I mumbled while slipping my glasses on.
Not a lie. More of an oversimplification, but Delia seemed satisfied. Maybe because our bond goes back to birth and is mathematically sound. It’s been proven. I know her incongruencies. She understands the awkward arcs of my mind and—despite that—she makes room for me to be me. Even when I’m not entirely sure what my state of being is.
Here’s what I know: There are two things on my birth certificate that define me as atypical. The first is Achromasia, or albinism. I’m a near-sighted girl with copper-gold hair, amber ale eyes, and skin pale enough to be white. But I’m Black. It’s not only because of my Bajan mother’s umber dark skin or my Black-German father’s russet complexion. My blackness is the one part of my identity I’m certain of. And when everything else around me tilts, it’s the bedrock I stand on.
Do you understand what I’m saying? I belong.
My second atypical trait has made me famous. Everywhere. Especially within the STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, and mathematics) community. And, more terrifyingly, on the internet.
Are you familiar with the term fandom? I have one (but I share it with others like me). There’s a supplementary line of text on each of our birth certificates. It reads Genius Designate: yes / no. The OBGYN who delivered me punched a hole through “yes” with an authenticator, containing a sample of my DNA. Thus making the designation permanent and loading me up with extra weight to carry through life.
I never question my blackness but my genius...? I don’t know, folx.
Thanks, doc. The confusion is much appreciated.
Delia is the same, Black on both sides and a genius (or G-designate), but she excels at that last part. I trudge along, tripping and falling, while she juggles scientific discoveries for the amusement of our fans.
sidebar: You should know that genius, as it refers to me and my fellows, is an extraordinarily broad term. One of us is a “G” at pizza dough. Classic, gluten free, cauliflower, even no-carb. Incidentally, she’s the wealthiest among us. So much pizza, so little guilt.
Sadly, unlike the Pizza Khalifah, some of us never work out the reason for our G-designate. It upsets the G-Force, our fandom, when we struggle. And they get rowdy when they’re disappointed.
In an attempt to either shame or perhaps encourage us (it’s amazing how easily those lines blur) the fandom has created a meme. When a Genius Designate fails to fulfil the potential inherent to our DNA, they call us POUF. Get it? POtential UnFulfilled.
So, yay, we’re doing big things.
That’s sarcasm. You got that, right?
G-designates are not allowed to object to the pressure. In the fandom’s opinion, we’re too sensitive if we do. That’s a possibility, I guess, but if our emotions are a little more ”extra” than the average, we were born this way. Five of our early education classmates tried to outwit depression and couldn’t. Watching them struggle took a toll on all ten of us.
Three of us didn’t make it out of our teens—they created their own exits. Another retreated into themselves. We’d miss them more, or maybe show it more, if we were allowed to be anything less than G-status.
The last of the five is a grifter. No judgement. We’ve all felt the devastation of the G-Force dragging us down. It’s difficult enough to find yourself when science has defined who you ought to be. But failing while the public watches in anxious anticipation and smug entitlement... it can shatter you.
Perhaps it’s meant to.
So much entertainment, so little guilt.
At least minimal guilt for our fans. Perhaps they don’t think we deserve the perks of being beneficial anomalies. Beyond that, I don’t think we’re “real” to them. Not in any sense that would make them empathize with our failures.
For me, it’s different. When my three classmates created their own... ways out... I didn’t cry at their funerals. They were closer to me than skin, but the sadness inherent to memorials and wakes wasn’t tangible for me. I knew what I should’ve felt, but instead my body tightened up with frustration. As though something inside had clogged up, blocking my flow.
Yet I do have a certain respect for our designation. It brought me to Delia. She became my sister and my guide. Eventually our G-designate led her to seek a doctorate in the new field of Quantum Sculpture. Which is how we landed at Witten-Hawking University—safely ensconced in the school of Fine Arts & Theoretical Sciences.
Right side up or sideways, Delia chose a path and we followed it. She has an irrefutable sense of direction. I, inarguably, do not. So back then (when we were both fifteen) I followed her everywhere.
Therefore, on the morning after my soul popped out of my body for the first time, I hesitated to confess my madness to my best-sister-friend. I had gone somewhere Delia has never been. Beyond anything explicable, in any field of science we’d learned, or in any field any “G” has discovered for ourselves. And I went there first.
But the joke of the whole thing is: Shhh, I’ve never led the way anywhere. I don’t know where I’m going.
Wait. I’m not insecure. When I tell you about the rest of the class, you’ll get it. The students on my tract have a variety of abilities in the quantum space. Freeman isolates specific moments in time... which he uses to cheat at five-dimensional chess. Umeki ambushes us at our most vulnerable by projecting pocket quantum realities onto the bathroom floors. We fall through and have to solve our paths home before we wet ourselves; she gets to giggle in superiority. (Some of us wear astronaut diapers now, just in case.)
Delia discovered the means to dissect miniscule slices of spacetime, and she can electromagnetize almost anything, but she refuses to use G-level science to prank us. She prefers the old ways—pepper sauce on your lips while you’re sleeping. That kind of thing. Others in our group enjoy creating six-dimensional objects and donating them to art museums. Some of us de- and then re- dimensionalize objects. It’s annoying. Try eating lunch when your burger is suddenly one dimensional.
Seriously, try it.
Me? Remember that meme I told you about? I mostly make everyone wait in anticipation of whether or not I’ll go POUF (potential unfulfilled). Therefore, on the morning after I went to the otherside for the first time, I absolutely undoubtably had to lie to Delia by faking normality.
Afterward, I limped out of our dorm in search of Dr. Emile Okoro-Adekoya (or Dr. Adie, as we like to call her) because I trust her most. Dr. Adie is our O.G.D (original genius designate). She was among the first generation of infants to receive a hole punch, and later she defined the field of Quantum Sculpture. By way of proof, we were not accepted by the Witten-Hawking University admissions office. We were handpicked by Emile Okoro-Adekoya. She must’ve had an empirical basis for my presence in the program. Right? She chose me—for a quantifiable reason—yeah? Not just to watch me POUF.
When I found her, Dr. Adie had propped herself up on her desk. Her braids were piled high and wrapped up in a scarf that was the exact same color as the first time you realize there are more than five dimensions. It’s a wonderment. Delia calls Dr. Adie’s manipulation of the sartorial sciences, ‘A transcendent sense of style.’ The professor does seem to have one foot in the future, yet she still reads the newspaper. She shook it out as she turned the page.
I limped into her office stumbling and otherwise discombobulated. With each step, I had to half stomp, half drag my left foot because my soul hadn’t properly settled back into it yet.
Dr. Adie looked up from the paper, and I froze. I needed a strategy in order to tell her about my night. Otherwise, she’d have questions, and her questions tended to flow through the spacetime continuum, weaving in and out of five-dimensional space. That’s how she’s able to perceive the full spectrum of any and every mishap her students have ever managed to fall into. And I was in freefall.
What to do?
Eureka. I’d use the basic paradigm of dreams, which are purely cognitive exercises and therefore wouldn’t bear too much examination from the good professor.
“Yes?” she said, without looking up.
“I had a wild dream last night an--”
“You sure it was a dream?” She kept reading.
“Um, yes. Why do you ask?” I leaned against her desk and promptly slid off of it. Still discombobulated.
“I want to ensure I understand,” she said.
I rushed in, entangling her with words to keep her spacetime ability from coming into play. “In my dream,” I began, and my story took over from there.
A clamor erupted as Gordon Pierce took the spotlight.
In front, I could count the fans between me and the stage, but beyond me the audience stretched on and on until they merged with the horizon. Bodies swayed endlessly in a haze that left trails of light behind them as they moved.
Gordon Pierce hypnotized them all with his music. The first time I’d seen him, he’d sung rocked out bedtime stories on a children’s series. I liked him then. I like him now.
He looked the same as he had back then--when I’d danced to his tales of moons and foxes--his hair so blond he seemed more pixie than human. But the man performing now was also the iron-gray haired one, who’d used his guitar to hide a paunch when he sang a medley during a live benefit last month. And in the same spot, occupying the same stretch of time, stood the boy, playing the same guitar as his first late night appearance fifty years ago, dark hair shining, dimples warping reality.
Every Gordon Pierce who had ever existed played a thousand concerts in front of every audience he’d ever had. All at once. It should have been beautiful. But the energy around him, his personal Northern Lights, were nothing but smoke.
The amp wasn’t plugged into his guitar either. Instead, it punctured the back of his neck, bruised and veiny, with the cord wrapping around and tightening across his throat like a choker.
He’d been entrapped by his fans’ expectations.
I could relate.
Dodging security, I leapt onto the stage. Pierce wasn’t startled for whatever reason. So, we stared at each other, the iron rock god facing off with the Quantum Sculpture student. His skin pale from heritage, mine from albinism. Not much of a connection there, but we found a kinship anyway. I took the guitar from his hands and raised it over my head. When I brought it down, that axe severed the amp cord in a single stroke.
I did a meme style shrug for Dr. Adie to mark the end. “And I woke up,” I said.
She finally looked up from her newspaper. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, showing only the whites. Apparently, my “dream” had presented her with a new theory she needed to ponder. After a Schrödinger's second or two, she said a thing I’m still not sure I heard correctly, and not only because of the tentative tone in her voice. The most expansive mind I know said, “I can’t figure it out.”
I was shook. Shaken to the core.
Then she turned the paper around and showed me the headline: Rock Legend Gordon Pierce Dies After Month Long Coma.
That happened six years ago. My metaphysical switch had flipped, overnight, in less than twelve hours. And after fifteen years with nothing but my hyper-intelligence to prove my G-status.
Oddly, none of the other geniuses had any theories on how to realign me with reality (quantum or otherwise).
They still don’t.
Is it okay to be bitter?
A bee lands on my shoulder but I’m not worried about getting stung. It came to me to die. And it does, 3, 2, 1, dropping onto my waiting palm.
“You need to do something about that,” Delia says, compressing her lips.
I lay the dead bee down at the roots of a nearby tree and come back to sit on the bench beside her. I squint upwards. The sun feels extra harsh this morning. I’m photosensitive, for sure, but I also spent the night hanging out in the amusement park at the edge of the afterlife.
“What do you suggest?” I ask.
Everything comes to me right before it dies. I’m living with it.
In the mornings, Delia and I wake up to a dead menagerie on our doorstep: raccoons, possums, fireflies, something resembling a jackalope. Or maybe an actual jackalope. Are those things real? They seem...improbable...but my life is odd.
One morning we found the neighborhood mail courier on the porch swing with a knife sticking out of her side. The night before I had “theoretically” taken her paragliding over Machu Picchu. We’d flown straight through the afterlife before I could wake up and stuff my soul back in. My foot had still been asleep hours later at the police station. For the sake of justice, I’d told the detectives what the Dead-Mail Lady had confided in me about her killer (but I’d also been kinda enthused to wrap that whole thing up and shove my soul all the way back in).
Delia slumps on the bench. “I don’t have suggestions, but everything happens for a reason. And that reason is you.”
“Oh gawd,” I moan, “Stop dating existentialists. They actually believe in the grand self-deterministic purpose of it all. Let me tell you, honey, there’s no secret handshake behind the curtain of the universe.”
She laughs. So do I.
“Oh yeah?” She takes a sip of her green juice. “What did you do last night?”
Well, she has me there. A person named Andi and I ended up at the top of the most massive wacky slide in the amusement park at the edge of the afterlife. Andi told me they’d spent so much of their life worried about going up, they’d never considered how delicious down might be. So we took our corn dogs and our funnel cakes and we slid deliciously down into the great beyond.
Delia smiles. She doesn’t need to hear my answer to know she’s right. That doesn’t mean she’ll stop talking. “You’re a Shinigami.”
Her accusatory finger is now tapping my nose. My glasses slide halfway off and with a little twitch of electromagnetism, Delia sets them right without breaking the rhythm she’s playing on my nose.
“I am not a death god.” I snatch that finger and shake it, holding on to her hand for a while. These days she seems to believe in something other than the wisdom of theoretical physics. Probably because of me.
Oh damn, I’m the taint in the construct.
That realization is why I try to enact a sense of chill when I push up my glasses for no reason whatsoever and ask, “How can you be sure you know what you believe you know?”
Delia takes another sip and puts her juice down between us. With a flick of her fingers she slices the moment out of the spacetime continuum. It doesn’t look the way you think. It’s more like pulling a slice of bread from the middle of the loaf. Oh, and there’s currently a specific kind of nothing to the left and the right of our bench—except for glitches of rainbow gas clouds floating in an endless white.
“Stop stunting,” I say (despite being impressed every time she does this).
She tsks me. “I needed a minute.”
I don’t argue because I have no idea how long we’ve been inside this pocket of time. Could be a minute, could be a millennium.
“I can’t be sure I know what I think I do,” Delia begins slowly. “Math I’m certain of. I can put the equation for string theory on a board and prove it to you, but most of what we do is theoretical for a reason.” She pauses. I want to give her an out, but she’s not done. “Sometimes it’s a must that I take everything I know, everything I’ve experienced, everything I feel... and blend it all together into something I can believe rather than prove.” Her hands flail and she almost loses her grip on time. “I mean, I make adjustments along the way but I don’t have to understand everything... always. I’ve never felt that need. I look forward to the mysteries, and I revel in the abstractions... because something new eventually presents itself, and newness gives me the chance to expand what I know.”
I’m thinking “whoa-what-wow” but I say, “Shut up and drink your juice. It’s fresh pressed. No worries about multidimensional conundrums during tonight’s date with your current existentialist.”
Delia doesn’t worry, but I do. Because I don’t know how to enact the process she just explained for myself. Maybe at our next press conference, when they ask about my progress, I’ll yell out, “I see dead people,” and see how long it takes the G-Force to crush me. I don’t get what makes me a G-designate when my gift seems to be straight out of supernatural fiction.
It’s a puzzle I begin to work through after Delia and I part for the day. I keep twisting and turning the question of “me” while I construct a tesseract in the phone cubicle in our studio-lab. (Because why not? I need something to keep my hands busy while I think things through.) By nightfall, I have yet to come up with a theory for my weird connection to death energy. But the interior of the phone cubicle is now a concert hall.
I continue to work at home when a yellow butterfly with black tipped wings thumps against my window. I lift the pane up and push the screen open. The butterfly lands on the left lens of my glasses. Ready to die. And 3, 2, 1, I follow it to the otherside.
The veil brushes my cheeks as we pass through it. Layers drift past like tulle caught on a breeze, until we reach the other side. It is endless dark, where all the colors converge and light speckles the unending. My butterfly dances amidst this unknowable expanse, then fractures into fractals. After breathless moments they unfurl, stretching into yellow lines, forming somewhat of a road for me to follow.
It’s what I do. I follow. But I’m not sure I’m ready to go where dead butterflies lead.
In the first state of being, my soul flattens out, leaving only a horizon—an infinite horizontal line—in all directions. Neither up nor down exists in this dimension.
I remain in flux.
I pop up, gaining height and width in the second state.
Third, I expand into protruding and retreating curves, but I cannot move beyond a singular now.
Until the fourth state begins, and my awareness opens into each before, every now, and all the will-bes.
On the fifth leg of the journey, the butterfly returns, broken down into particles. Discs of its light flutter on the periphery of my consciousness, coiling into strings. When I strum the strings they resonate in the sound of “om” before they weave themselves into the fabric binding the universe.
Yeah. That’s real.
I recognize this part of the journey as the truth Dr. Adie has chosen as her own. Her comprehension of the universe began with E=MC2. From there string theory became a revelation for her and Delia and me too, but only until they found the “theory of everything.” Also known as M-theory.
I understand that truth, but it isn’t mine.
On the precipice of the eighth state, gravity takes hold. I hesitate. With my arms flung out and flailing, I nearly fall.
Answer me this: If the convergence of dimensions we call the multiverse is limitless, then the probability of an infinite fall is high, right? It’s risky going further. There might not be a return trip home.
What to do?
No, that’s too far.
Maybe if I--
Eureka. I asked the universe a question. If it’s ready to show me an answer, I can’t tell it to shut up now.
I unfurl the parts of my soul that I’ve kept separated from my science mind. Then I listen. By that I mean I vibrate in sync with the hum of the unendingness and, in that state of resonance, I get what Delia meant. If I take everything I’ve learned, everything that shapes who I am, and blend those understandings into my own mix of science and the supernatural, then it’s clear that mathematics alone cannot define everything. There are eleven dimensions. As far as I understand, if M-theory, Dr. Adie, and Delia remain part of the bedrock of my beliefs. And if I use that truth as a steppingstone, I could go beyond the confines of what I think I know...
I stop flailing.
3, 2, 1, I leap into the unknown.
Why not? I’m already here. Yet I’m not sure I have the language to bring you along.
You’d think it’d be easy. Yet when you’re enraptured by the fundamental forces of the universe, maybe then you can judge my inability to speak on such wonders. Here’s the most I can tell you: The Multiverse isn’t made up of quantum realities, otherwise known as every “might-have-been” playing out simultaneously. Not in any method we’ve been taught. The universe wouldn’t waste that much energy. Think about it, every time you choose iced coffee rather than an Americano = new splinter reality?
Nah, that’s not my truth.
What I know, I accept as mine, and those things I do not understand I will seek rather than follow. They are merely unseen. Behind a veil. One of eleven doorways. All held within the structure of creation, destruction, the exchange of energy. And everything.
I know you won’t believe me. Until you do. After all, I’ve only seen eight out of eleven. I have miles to go.
Waking up is easy. No pins, no needles, no floppy soul making me stomp around. I’m ready to escort the next spirit to their whatever comes next. After that I’ll post an update on the internet. Maybe I’ll call for a press conference and see how much I can mess with people’s perception of reality. As it turns out, the G-force can’t hold me down, and for the first time since the morning after I first pierced the veil, it all adds up: I’m a G.
No POUF imminent.
A spirit sits down beside me on the bed. I smile.
“So, what do you want to do tonight?”