Firmament

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2013
At a point in time when we no longer even count the date, a couple set out to visit the very edge of all things. They had nothing better to do.

The Observation Room of the space ship Ithacan 9 is white, rectangular and almost empty. There is a little furniture, there is a man named Joel and there is a window wall. Joel sits on a smooth white seat, made of a material you wouldn’t have heard of yet, and stares into space.

The view is obscured by what they call ‘shimmer’: just an optical illusion caused by Perfect Speed. It is possible to remove the effect in any of fifteen ways, from adjusting the shape of the windows, to adding buffers to the exterior hull, to tweaking the tiny panels implanted into Joel’s retinas, but the shimmer is still there. Most astronauts tend to leave it there, saying that they simply think it’s pretty. Joel is bored of it now, but then he got bored of motionless black years ago.

From outside the ship the shimmer is invisible, but to Joel the hull appears to be enveloped by a deep, layered purple substance, flapping about as if in the wind. It looks a little like there is a velvet theatre curtain behind the window, with stage hands bustling about behind it, disturbing it.

There is no emotion showing on Joel’s face, no particular thought going through his head. He’s just waiting.

In about thirty minutes the ship will drop back below Perfect and the shimmer will vanish. In the next few seconds it will drop below light speed, and then come to a stop. And Joel will be looking out of the window. There will be absolutely nothing to see, though, and the thought amuses him a little. He’s waiting, rapt, for the opportunity to look at nothing. He doesn’t smile, but he feels like he could if he wanted to. He’s almost in a trance here, just watching the shimmer and listening to his own thoughts. It’s actually not unpleasant.

There is a novelty to boredom. In any other place, any other situation, Joel could just access some form of entertainment and play it directly into his brain stem and hypothalamus. But right now he is remotely synched-up to recording equipment and it would be a little embarrassing to interrupt this historical document with a quick movie.

For him, for now, there are only white surfaces and the window wall. And the shimmer, while it lasts.

In half an hour there will be nothing to see behind that window, because the Ithacan is traveling to the absolute Edge of the Universe.

This will be the last great voyage of discovery. But to be perfectly honest, it probably won’t be so great.

*


The Universe is shaped much like early assumptions had it, but not quite: like a big, vinyl long-play record. As songs are heard on an expanding spiral groove, so too are people’s lives, for a few minutes of the play, and so too are planets’ orbits, and stars’ journeys around the centres of their galaxies. All of these galaxies move slowly around and away from a central point: an immense ring of burning and flying matter at the heart, which of course has its own heart in turn. Finally, at the very middle of that there is a large, large empty space, surrounded on all sides by a dense field of stars.

Reasonably-fast space travel was finally established at the start of the twenty-sixth century, the rest of which was spent in pursuit of the big empty space at the very centre of the Universe. Finally a pioneering woman named Ellen Dallas flew a massively expensive and barely-held-together shuttle into it in the year 2592. Viewing her recording, the people of Earth cooed and shook their heads, and wondered if there was anything inside the big LP’s hole that might tell us more about the Universe and the nature of things – the papers called it the search for a needle. Sadly a few hours later it became apparent that there was nothing there. It was a large, empty space. Humanity, as one, felt a bit silly and asked one-another what they had expected to see in all this time. Dallas retired the same day she returned and all production of spacefaring vessels was shut down by the end of the week.

In time there came the necessity for planets other than the Earth to be colonised, and the shipyards were rebuilt. People began landing on other planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Border disputes raged. Lives were lost. Technology improved. Robots became flawless, food became infinitely plentiful and the idea of a human workforce became archaic. One day the exploratory scientists formally estimated there was a 0.0001% chance of intelligent lifeforms existing on other worlds. The human species was alone and perfectly comfortable.

One day, so many centuries later that people barely counted the years any more, when everything in the Universe had been surveyed by the robots and nothing more interesting than a strange species of fish had been discovered, there was a big announcement.

A research group, essentially a group of hobbyists, was building a space ship. This ship would travel to the absolute Edge of the Universe: the farthest point from home of the farthest ring of the LP. The mission brief was extremely simple. The ship would travel out there and somebody would look out of a window, and that would be that. Mankind would officially have been everywhere and seen everything. For the sake of publicity they asked for volunteers.

One man answered. He had nothing better to do.

He didn’t even bring a flag.

*

Joel turns away from the shimmer just in time to see the door dematerialise, so that when Ash comes in, Joel is already facing him.

Good…” Ash is a little surprised, “…morning.”

Hey,” Joel replies, and he smiles. It’s the kind of smile that has no feeling behind it but it’s not false. It looks like a salute. It serves its purpose and Ash smiles back.

Y’okay?”

Yep yep.”

Ready for the big moment?”

Sure.”

A’ight then.”

Ash strolls over and kisses Joel, rests his hand on the white chair and feels the surface shift its shape slightly to keep him steady and as comfortable as is physically possible. “I am gonna fix you some eggs,” he says.

Eggs don’t need fixing, hon,” says Joel. “They’re supposed to break.”

Ash leaves and the door reappears. “Still funny,” he says, but Joel doesn’t hear.

The trip has taken only taken two days, but already Ash is starting to think he should have stayed home. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be there, or that he hasn’t been looking forward to seeing the Edge. It’s just that Joel probably wouldn’t have invited him. He knew that right away. That’s why he invited himself. It just seemed like a much better idea at the time. He reasoned that Joel would get lonely if he went out by himself.

Ash likes to cook and as such he has converted one of the empty spaces of the ship into a kitchen. It is unorthodox to have perishable foods and manual tools on-board a ship, but the Space Administration didn’t seem to mind him bringing himself along, so he assumed they wouldn’t mind him bringing a bag of fresh food, a preserver and a flatstove either. Now he enjoys the involuntary creasing of his face as he feels the rough, charred pan-handle and smells the burning fat in the pan. These are unpleasant feelings but he likes them. The novelty of fresh cooking, of creating, has not yet worn off for him. It’s his pastime.

Yanking his involuntary grimace upwards into a wonky smile, he grabs an egg, selecting the brownest one even though he knows the colour of the shell makes no difference to flavour, and cracks it on the stove’s edge. The eggmeat, suddenly acquainted with gravity, starts to drop but Ash gives it a little lift and drops it square in the middle of the pan in one disgusting, mucus dollop. His grin gets wider as he hears it sizzle. Eggs are fun. He cracks another in and throws some toast on the heater, enjoying himself.

When he returns to the Obs Room with the eggs and toast and some orange juice on a tray, he sees Joel turned toward the window again. The shimmer is kind of nice, Ash thinks. They both like it.

You’re not eating?” Joel asks before he’s turned around.

I had cereal,” Ash replies.

You cooked for me?” Joel touches his husband’s hand for a second. “Thanks.”

I like to cook.”

Then how come you never like to eat?”

Ash rolls his eyes. After fifteen years of marriage they know each other well enough that questions like this aren’t worth answering.

For a minute there is an awkwardness between the two that neither of them is able to diagnose and fix before it dissipates.

Joel probably should have been allowed to take this vacation by himself, Ash thinks. But then again he probably should have said so. Ash did ask after all. At this moment, Joel is thinking about the same thing. Their eyes meet.

They nod at each other a couple of times, to save themselves the bother of going over it all. Joel frowns, like a warning, then looks guilty and grabs some orange juice.

Joel eats, Ash drinks and watches absently, they wash up and talk about their families and then kiss again. Ash’s bristle moustache is dry and pushes into Joel’s face before bending back. They meander over to the window wall and don’t bother with arms around each other.

Are you excited for the thing?” Ash asks. “The grand unveiling?” He guesses the answer will be ‘Not really’.

Not really.”

Yeah.”

Are you looking forward to being the last great explorer?”

The Final Frontier.”

They laugh. The shimmer carries on shimmering over their pale clothes and eyes.

*

The two men had first met on a space ship with invisible walls which flew around and around the centre of a quasar. When it was built, two hundred and thirty years prior, the Disk Runner had been a popular tourist attraction: nobody at the time had even seen a quasar up close without being immediately crushed, let alone experienced the thrill of flying into one. To them it was an amazing and unique ride, an exciting educational tool, something to simulate danger and make their adrenaline pump the old-fashioned way. But by the time Ash and Joel got there, it was old news. Kids sometimes visited the ship and took a spin on its endless voyage through apparent chaos, usually just to say they had been. Ash and Joel were just about young enough to call themselves kids, still at a point in their lives when there were mysteries to be figured-out and hardships to be endured.

Love was one of these mysteries, to them at least, and so both of them had an eye open for pretty or handsome faces.

Ash noticed the back of Joel’s head first, and approved of the haircut and clothes, which led him to wonder what the young man was doing, standing alone in the ship’s Great Hall and just looking at the quasar. He pointed this curious behaviour out to his friends, who offered simple answers: he’s lonely, he’s one of those sheltered types who hasn’t travelled much, he’s waiting for somebody. Ash wondered if he should invite the guy over to join them, and then decided to just go and talk to him.

His footsteps seemed too loud, which made him look down at the transparent floor. For a second he was distracted by the vast sea of fiery colours and energies beneath his feet and thought about the Greek myth of the Kingdom of Hades. What would the ancients have made of this sight?

Never been into space before?” the young man said.

Wh–?”

Ash looked up again. The immense red and gold light show surrounding them once again became a mere distraction in his mind. A parlour trick. The guy was kind of cute, in a grumpy sort of way. They exchanged names.

Space? Yeah, I mean, of course! I just thought I saw something down there.” Immediately this seemed like a terribly jerky thing to say. Ash tried not to look embarrassed.

Joel surprised him by not reacting except to look down. Between his feet the red moved almost too quickly for his eyes to focus, but he tried to see if there was anything remarkable in the sight.

Sometimes I think I see faces in there,” he said happily, smiling a shameless smile. “Do you ever get that?”

Wow.” Ash was not good at guarding his emotions. This guy was very cute. After thinking for a moment he said, “You’re very cute,” which thankfully made them both laugh.

Through the laughter, they decided to get a drink and watch the quasar together for a little while longer. Ash forgot to say goodbye to his friends, forgot to be nervous on a first date and finally forgot to catch his flight home. Instead he spent the evening as one half of the only couple dancing, on a rotating dance floor at the edge of a supermassive black hole.

*

Now they are both in their late forties, and like everyone in their late forties they feel as though they have become different people without even noticing it and they wish they had possessed their current wisdom when they still had time to change things. They sit together in Ithacan 9, staring, thinking about their day and planning the next one. After they are done looking at the Edge, they will transmit the full experience to the Administration base’s receivers, and then turn the ship around.

For a minute they both think about going to bed, and then see the doubt in each other’s eyes and abandon the idea. The entire experience of their flight will be downloadable to anyone who cares to view it. Although there is little modesty or ignorance about human emotion and sexual activity in this day and age, they still feel that they would prefer privacy. And anyway, Joel is tired.

He never would have guessed that sitting in a perfectly comfortable chair and doing nothing at all could be tiring.

Ten minutes,” he says to Ash.

Yessir.”

They smile.

The quiet that follows is easy for a couple of minutes, but there comes a point when both men notice every time the other breathes. They find themselves trying to breathe more quietly, or less often, and failing to do so without sounding ridiculous.

Just gonna go wash my face,” Joel says, and Ash nods.

The door dematerialises when Joel approaches, letting him step through without breaking his stride. The wide, white corridor he enters looks a lot like the wide, white room he just left, albeit a touch more claustrophobic. Claustrophobia shouldn’t exist any more, he thinks. This is a badly-designed ship.

The Obs Room is located at the head of the flat, oblong tube of the vessel. He now passes Manual Control, the little spare room which Ash has made into a kitchen, and the Sleeping Bay, which seemed a bit lavish considering it would only see one or two more uses on this simple back-and-forth trip. At the very end is a storage bay and a small shower-room, which adorably has an actual shower in it. Rather than bother using that, he merely reflects his image off the wall and opens his mouth to ask the ship for water.

Immediately, Ash’s voice shouts down the hallway, cutting him off. “Let me synch-up with you so I can get some of that water!” Before opening the synch, Joel groans very quietly and very deeply.

An instant later, nothing at all has changed for Joel but he knows that his husband now shares his consciousness. “Cold water,” he says to the wall, and some appears in his cupped hands. As he drops it over his face, he knows that Ash is feeling the effect as well. After he has dried his hands and neck on pieces of his shirt, Joel closes the synch and rubs his forehead.

When he passes through the Obs Room door once more, he lets out an involuntary sigh. His walk back to the chair by the window is measured and straight, like a supervised march. He sits, sinking into the seat and not noticing the way it adjusts itself to fit his shape, his posture, his weight and its own prediction of his future movement patterns.

Hey, do you suppose there might be more Universes than one?” Ash mutters. “That ours is just one of many?”

Joel cranes his neck a little to see his husband’s face. It’s rare that Ash surprises him these days. “No,” he says. “It’s been confirmed. Couple of years back.”

Oh.”

Yeah.”

Just one?”

Just us.”

Ash grunts acknowledgement.

Joel says, “That’s it.”

And then, earlier than they had expected, the shimmer stops. It seems to drop downwards, but that’s just the way it looks from inside. There never really was any shimmer, of course. Joel and Ash stand together at the window wall and stare at sheer black.

*

Fourteen billion years ago, every single piece of matter and energy that exists and has ever existed was packed together into an object the size of a needle’s point. At some point, it began to expand. This whole business was called the big bang when it was first discovered, but the nickname was abandoned when synch devices and backward-facing causality models allowed us to watch the event. It was actually silent and quite small.

It began when the pinhead diluted into empty space, like the contents of a burst balloon, and flew in all directions and at a greater speed than has ever been seen.

The Universe scattered into pieces, each of them was flung from its siblings all at once, and these pieces expanded and scattered themselves, again and again. They swirled around themselves and cooled, and flew ever onward, and slowed, and swirled, and shattered and scattered, and cooled some more, and flew. They now form an immense tapestry mounted against black: as thin, delicate and shimmering as a spider’s web on a cold night. One that was perfectly round, anyway, with a hole in the middle.

One of the specks of light within this tapestry cooled and calmed and became the Milky Way galaxy. Inside it, a smaller piece became the star we once called ‘the Sun’. Orbiting around this, a far smaller piece still became a blue-green ball of rock and metal and water.

The moving objects who grew from that water became sophisticated. Eventually they came to understand what they were, and that they had once been connected in the most intimate way to absolutely everything else in existence.

They wanted to see it again. All of it.

A group of researchers decided to finish that work. They asked for a volunteer to take the last ‘small step’. Say a few words.

*

Huh,” says Joel, looking over the Edge.

The space ship has now passed the most distant star in the most distant galaxy. It has travelled to the very limits of the immense pattern of lights and stones that forms the cosmos. It’s the end of everything.

Long ago, long enough ago that it sounds like a fable, humans used to imagine that the world was a flat discus with a literal end that you could walk off of. Thousands of years later, Joel and Ash stare blankly and confirm for themselves that this was basically true all along.

There it is,” says Ash, but that doesn’t really make any sense because there is, quite literally, nothing there.

Yeah.”

And for no reason at all they are immensely sad. Joel stands, breathes and puts an arm around Ash.

Now leaving the Universe,” Joel says. “Home of Da Vinci, the Rings of Saturn… some weird fish…”

Black holes.”

Black holes, yeah. Binary star systems. Pulsars. Mozart.”

Shakespeare.”

And then they list some other, more recent great artists who you haven’t heard of yet.

Alenko’s Spire,” says Ash. It is a very large mountain on a cold planet in Andromeda.

For some reason Joel asks the ship to switch off all the lights in the Observation Room. The ship complies and they just stand there a while longer. There is no starlight, of course, so they can’t see a thing. Ash thinks he can still smell the eggs.

A’ight,” Joel says after a few seconds, talking to the ship. “Turn around please, and head home.” In the perfect darkness, he gently feels for the chair and grabs its arm. The white material moulds itself to give his hand purchase, and it feels for all the world like another hand gripping his. This time he doesn’t sigh or groan or close his eyes. He just gets his balance.

The ship, very slowly, starts to turn around. Ash can’t even be sure that they are moving until the first star slides into view at the edge of the window. The little white dot puts him off his train of thought. The light from it hits the edge of the window wall, makes him aware of the physical world again. The star looks very small, very simple. Like a little hole punched into the black, like a spyhole.

And Ash is suddenly not satisfied that Joel knows what he’s talking about. He wonders if this might not be the Edge after all. Just us, he had said. That’s it.

Joel has been getting awfully distant for a good year, now. Ash knows it’s partly his fault but he’s still angry. He’s sick of ‘That’s it’.

Hello, ship?” Ash says, too loudly. Louder than he meant to.

The ship, of course, says nothing.

Yes, a little further please. Straight ahead.”

Ash just looks out of the window while Joel stares at his own feet. This goes on for a few empty minutes while the single star drifts back out of view.

Finally Joel blinks, groans and starts to stand again. As he gets to his feet, he feels Ash crashing into him, elbow and heel sawing back and forth, panicked. They almost fall onto the floor but Joel manages to lift them back. The ship stops, to save the astronauts giving the order.

The black suddenly no longer looks black, to him. To us.

But we can’t describe it.

We just can’t describe it yet. It’s sort of like an illusion. The sort of thing you have to squint at to make out.

It’s like drowning. Like getting lost for the first time and not knowing how to get home and not knowing–

Joel grabs his husband’s arm, softly.

Stay course,” Ash says, dramatic and broody. He isn’t blinking.

The hell did you see?”

I love you,” says Ash. They’ve both heard that so many times before. And then Ash tells Joel what he saw beyond the stars.

*

Inside the Space Administration Centre I open my mouth and mutter things, but I can’t hear myself because I’m still synched-up to their experience. I’m seeing what Ash sees. And then the connection starts to break.

After a moment it is gone altogether and I watch their ship, stopped dead, from the perspective of a nearby monitor beacon. I don’t say anything. I only have questions. How are we going to explain this to people?

What was that?” I ask aloud, turning to my left, but there’s nobody here.

Of course nobody’s here. Nobody else wanted to watch this live from the lab. I was curious about the Edge and I thought somebody should be here. Like mission control, you know, when space travel was new. When there were things to discover. Just a touch of romantic nostalgia, really.

The Ithacan 9 is small and mostly rectangular and white. It looks like something a child would make out of spare plastic blocks just to occupy his hands during cartoons. The propulsion system is dormant, leaving the ship drifting gently forward at its skewed angle. But when it starts up again, much later, it heads back to our own galaxy along a new course. Our monitors try to follow the route but eventually the shuttle gets lost in a quasar and cannot be seen.

Slowly its white walls turn grey and then black. The propulsion glows a pale blue, but eventually that too fades into a starbeam.

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