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Sugar Showpiece Universe

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold, cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Asimov's, and Clarkesworld, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

The best pastry chefs in the Milky Way meet once every two hundred years at the Intergalactic Pastry Competition, sponsored by FTL Travel. We prepare desserts and candy showpieces in hopes of impressing the judges, and I'm among the favorites to win. My main competition is a currently-female humanoid named Tela from Kesenia-186f. She's three thousand years old and started working as a pastry chef several centuries before I was born.
The themes of the competition are space and time, and the prize is a ticket out of our slowly dying universe, provided by FTL Travel.
My tasting dessert explores the theme of space. It is a galaxy of chocolate cake topped with threads of candied orange peel and drizzled with hazelnut caramel, all swirling around a black-hole truffle made from chocolate so dark that light cannot escape its surface.
Tela offers the judges an hourglass of clear sugar, full of freeze-dried grains of cardamom-infused cream cheese. A frame of chewy gingerbread cookie surrounds the delicate hourglass, and the presentation is so lovely that the judges are reluctant to crack the clear sugar with their forks and sample the dessert. She gets the highest score in the tasting round, but I'm confident that my sugar showpiece universe will win the judges over.
I heat sugar to the hard crack stage, boiling away nearly all the water. The few bubbles that remain are like tiny universes in the sugar syrup of the multiverse, forming and rising for a brief but glorious existence before bursting on the surface. The end of our universe will be less dramatic--a slow and steady march toward thermodynamic equilibrium. The last of our stars are already running out of fuel, and soon the universe will be dark. My life will end before the heat death of the universe, of course, but I want to live my remaining millennia in a place with energy and hope. My sugar showpiece has to win.
I pour the molten sugar into molds, making near-invisible supports to give the illusion of astronomical bodies floating high above the surface of planet Earth. That's the brilliance of my showpiece. It depicts the universe from a special vantage point, the birthplace of humanity, a planet that no longer exists. The planet features green continents in an ocean of blue syrup, partially concealed by wisps of cotton candy clouds.
Tela sculpts her showpiece in chocolate instead of sugar. To my eye it looks drab and boring, but the judges might see it as subtle and sophisticated. Hard to say until the work is finished. At this point, I can't tell what she's making.
I dust Earth's moon with gray powdered sugar and spend hours making tiny sugar spheres into a band of stars for the Milky Way. I work on nebulae and galaxies on a large scale before shrinking them to the size of pinheads. The nebulae are particularly challenging, with colors gradually blending from pink to blue, all done with pulled sugar, uncomfortably hot against my hands.
I enclose my creation in a clear bubble of sugar. The sphere represents cosmic background radiation, the edge of the universe. It is the final element of my showpiece, and my sugar universe is a thing of beauty. It fits in the palm of my hand, but it can be magnified to a scale that shows all the intricate details of the nebulae and distant galaxies.
Tela's showpiece has come together too, a molten chocolate phoenix that flows from bird into flames and back again. Like my sugar sculpture, it is beautiful. The competition will be close, but I have one final trick up my sleeve.
The judges finish examining my sugar universe, and I drop it into a tank of liquid nitrogen. This is the heat death of my sugar universe. When I pull it out of the tank, my universe crumbles into dust.
The judges clap. I shoot a sympathetic smile at Tela, confident that I will win, but she hasn't finished yet. She gathers a handful of sugary dust and sprinkles it over her chocolate phoenix. She lights the bird on fire, and the chocolate melts away to reveal a phoenix egg of clear sugar, with a tiny universe inside. She must have made it when she did the clear sugar hourglasses for her tasting dessert, and hidden it at the center of her chocolate showpiece.
The judges favor creation over destruction, and they declare Tela the winner. She shakes my hand and compliments my showpiece, but I don't want compliments. I want a ticket from FTL Travel to jump to another universe, and that prize belongs to her.
Her sugar universe floats in a pool of melted chocolate. She'd been right to weave space and time together. Our multiverse boils with universes that form and burst on a timescale that encompasses all eternity. Perhaps some supercosmic pastry chef is waiting for the heat death of our universe, for the right moment to reshape the multiverse into something beautiful and new.
I sweep up the sugar dust from my shattered universe. I will never know what becomes of our multiverse, but the next Intergalactic Pastry Competition is only two hundred years away, and with Tela gone, surely next time I will win my ticket out.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Author Comments

Several months ago, I decided to write a series of flash stories for Daily Science Fiction. This proved to be more difficult than I expected--my first few attempts to write multiple flashes on the same theme collapsed into single (multi-part) short stories. (If anyone is curious, my first "failed" attempt at a series of flash, "Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion," is available to read in the August 2014 issue of Clarkesworld.)

For DSF, I wanted the individual stories to stand completely on their own, rather than being fundamentally interrelated. When I got the idea to do a tasting menu, I started by writing one fantasy story and one science fiction story, to make absolutely sure I ended up with a series instead of a single story.

- Caroline M. Yoachim
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