Matt Gemmell

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Weekly Short Story: Retrogenesis

writing, fiction & once upon a time 5 min read

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.

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I enjoy thinking about the near and far boundaries of rationality and superstition: the places where the two modes of thought are either separated by a great distance, or immediately adjacent to each other. Both scenarios exist.

The far boundaries are of reason. Rationality and science depend on reason, and evidence, and proof, and repeatability. Superstition presupposes the incredible, and asks that it be taken on faith and hope. There’s no bridge between the two on that axis; not without contortion and dilution.

The near boundaries, though, are of imagination. There are places where reason stops dead in its tracks, offering only a question-mark, and at that point even science must begin to pre-suppose, and invent, and explore chains of baseless supposition in the pursuit of something to test. Conjecture and hypothesis occupy a grey area.

These contact points are vulnerable to accidental transitions between rational and less-rational thought, but they’re also the places where stories happen.


“Does anyone know how old the universe is?” the magician asked.

The six students seated before him remained silent, some of them frowning and some showing the slightest hint of a puzzled smile. The magician, whose name was Faine, waited patiently. After almost half a minute, a young woman raised her hand timidly. Faine nodded at her.

“Well… science says, I think, that the universe is almost fourteen billion years old.”

Faine nodded again, to the woman’s visible relief. “Thirteen-point-eight billion, I think, but that’s close enough,” he said.

He knew that the student had been expecting to be corrected, and he’d come to that in due course, but inwardly he marvelled again at how reluctant his pupils always were to admit to the presence and relevance of science in their lives.

It was understandable to an extent — they were studying the ultimate power of existence, from which their wishes could be made manifest in the world — but they were also the product and the beneficiaries of science. Faine himself had an iPhone in his pocket just like everyone else, after all. Now he smiled.

“And how does the figure of one hundred and nine years strike you instead?”

Silence, and more confusion than before. This time no-one raised a hand, and indeed he didn’t expect them to. This was a lesson he very much enjoyed delivering each time he had the chance.

He was standing in front of them, and he leaned backwards slightly, resting against a desk that he brought into existence in the instant before he made contact with it. His students, more than accustomed to such spectacles by now, barely even glanced at the newly created furniture, instead focusing intently on Faine himself.

“As is so often the case, there are two truths,” he began, “and the one that’s relevant to all of the ordinary people out there—” Faine gestured to the line of windows to his right, which commanded a grand view of the capital city beyond “—is of course that the universe as we commonly understand it began with an explosion of unimaginable violence, originating from a cosmic singularity, all of those billions of years ago.”

He said it quite matter-of-factly, in an almost kindly tone, and waited a few seconds before continuing.

“But the universe as we know it also owes its existence to an otherwise utterly unimportant middle-aged scullery servant named Maggie, who caused the Big Bang in late morning of a dreary Wednesday in April of the year 1913, barely two miles from this room.”

The students exchanged some incredulous glances, but remained silent, just as Faine knew they would. He shifted his weight away from the desk again, allowing the object to lose cohesion and vanish, leaving the floor at the front of the classroom free for him to pace. He wasted no time in starting to do so.

“Maggie was preparing her master’s elevenses, you see,” he said, “and was arranging the newspaper along with some buns on a large tray while she waited for water to boil to make tea. She used the time, as was her habit, to exercise her literacy and peruse the day’s news. A small article caught her eye. It pertained to astronomical observations that spiral galaxies — called spiral nebulae at the time — were in fact receding from the Earth.”

Faine stopped at the line of windows, peering out at one of the new airport express buses that the city council had spent so much money on, and right before a viral pandemic too. At least they had USB charging ports for each seat. Faine appreciated a well-placed charging port.

“The unassuming woman had a moment of insight that flashed across her mind years before anyone else made the connection: if things were moving away from us, then perhaps it had always been so, and that situation implied that at some distant time in the past, everything was very close together.”

He looked around at the six faces, and the young woman who had spoken earlier blinked. They were hanging on Faine’s every word. It was the usual state of affairs.

A dark-eyed boy in his late teens who sat next to the young woman opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it once more. “So she was a maid and a scientist?” he asked, and Faine smiled again.

“Only the former,” he replied. “She was in fact a rather dim-witted creature who made a rare but not unheard-of leap of deduction. We all exceed our normal limits at some point during our lives. And indeed we all owe a great debt to the, shall we say, paucity of intellect that she was blessed with — because she immediately and completely believed in the truth of what she’d imagined.”

The students understood this part, at least. It was the underlying message of every lesson; they had known it was coming from the moment they walked into the room and took their seats.

“It was the strength of her belief alone which took the until-then uncertain past of the universe, and created the Big Bang event whose existence she had momentarily conceived of. The Planck epoch, baryon asymmetry, the dark matter issue… they all came into being during a tea-making act of pure, instinctive retrogenesis.”

This time, the silence seemed like a physical thing, inserted into all the spaces in the room, filling the air and holding it still. Faine approved of the solemnity.

“What, in essence, is the working of magic?” he asked, for perhaps the fiftieth time since he had first met this particular class.

Wilful belief,” the students all immediately replied in unison.

Faine raised his arms, palms skyward, in a gesture that each of them knew encompassed far, far more than the room, the building, or even the city surrounding them.

“You’d do well to keep in mind the power of a stray act of belief, as I teach you how to shape the Fabric.”


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.

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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.