To the Ends of the Universe
I woke up happy. It was Saturday morning, and I’d just proudly handed in my resignation from my temporary job at Popeye’s Chicken. I was in the mood for an outing. Maybe even someplace far, like Napa or Carmel. I’d finally found the strength to let go of my copy of Lights, Camera, Action Comics number 253, and the comic book dealer had taken it back in exchange for my old car. (Apparently he’d gotten tired of having to push it every time he started it.) I was trying to make up my mind whether I’d rather spend the day wine-tasting or hiking in my favorite state park when I heard a tapping at my window.
As my apartment is on the second floor, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it was Splendid Man. Sure enough, he was hovering just outside. I threw open the window and he wafted in.
“Hi, pal,” I said.
“Hi, pal,” he said. “How’d you like to go on a little trip today?”
“Why, that’s amazing!” I said. “I was planning on the very thing myself. I just can’t decide between Napa and Carmel. Or are they too far away for you?”
“Actually, Will,” he said. “I was thinking of going a little farther than that.”
“Where to?” I asked. “San Diego? Shasta?”
“I was thinking to the ends of the universe.”
“Well, that sounds like…huh?!”
“I just finished reading the copy of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius that you loaned me. Remember where he asks if a man went to the ‘last limits’ of space and hurled a spear, would the spear bounce off or keep on going? That really seized my imagination, Will, and I’d like to learn the answer. Game?”
“Hell, yes!” I said. “Shall I pack a suitcase?”
“Oh, no. I’m sure we can make it home for dinner. Maybe you could make us some sandwiches for lunch.”
“While you do that,” he said, “I’ll go build us a spaceship.”
We both finished our tasks at the same time.
“Ready, pal?” Splendid Man said.
“Take us to warp, Ensign!”
We flew to where he’d parked the spaceship in Golden Gate park. It looked like a big goldfish bowl with a couple of chairs rigged up on gyros inside. “Where’s the engine?” I asked.
“There isn’t one,” he said. “I’ll be supplying the motive power, as no known engine in the universe could give us the speed we require. If we expect to be home in time for dinner, that is.”
He took us up slowly so that the G’s wouldn’t kill me, then gradually picked up speed. I was shocked to see Saturn loom up ahead almost instantly.
“What happened to Mars and Jupiter?” I said.
“Their orbits aren’t aligned with that of the ringed planet,” Cal explained.
“Is Pluto’s?” I said. “I want to see what a planet that isn’t a planet anymore looks like.”
“I don’t believe it is, Will. But it’s a moot point, anyway. We’re in interstellar space already.”
He was stretched out full length in our little bowl, apparently pushing the ship along with his outstretched arms. That was some pushing, I tell you!
“Do you have any idea how far we’ll be traveling, Cal? I mean, how big is the universe anyway?”
“You mean the observable universe, don’t you Will? Because all we can ever measure is that which we can see. Scientists have measured the observable universe at thirteen-point-seven billion light years in radius. I know that to be wrong, because the telescopic setting of my Splendid Vision can see a tad over fifteen billion light years and, with every parsec we’re traveling now, I can see more universe ahead.”
“Wow,” I said. “I’m glad I made big sandwiches.”
He shot me a glance. “This is the life, eh, pal? Adventuring together again! Just like old times!”
I patted him on the back. “You said it, pal!”
He noticed something over my shoulder. “Look over to your right, Will. And down about twelve-point-three degrees. See that sun with the bluish tinge?”
I spotted it, but we were moving so fast now that it was quickly lost behind us.
“What about it?” I asked.
“That was the parent sun of the planet on which I’ve often imprisoned Cerebriac. I made it quite escape-proof, if I say so myself. He’s only managed to bust loose a dozen times.”
“Huh? How can you call that escape-proof?”
“I mean it relatively, of course. Pox Pascal has escaped maximum security penitentiaries hundreds of times.”
We zoomed past a spiral nebula, a crab nebula, and a black hole. If you've never seen a black hole, you're not missing much. It's black. And it's a hole. I understand they exert a terrible gravitational pull, but if this one yanked Splendid Man off course by so much as a millimeter, you wouldn't know it by me. I guess being from a heavy-gravity planet has its perks.
A while later he pointed out a pinkish sun. Although it didn’t look like a sun anymore. We had reached such unbelievable velocities that the suns looked more like dashes than dots now. “That sun is orbited by an Earth-like planet, but with an argon-free atmosphere,” he explained, “which, as you know, causes me to lose all my Splendid Powers, and once I was lured there by the Vengeance is Mine Squad, those galaxy-spanning criminals who are always seeking to avenge themselves for previous defeats at my hands, where I was stranded for several days and a couple of times nearly captured until, finally, I managed to fashion a signaling device from the elements at hand, and Va Va Voom, one of my partners in the North American Alliance for Meetness, came to my rescue in her visible plane, which is capable, thanks to the ancient technology of her homeland, Lesbo Island, of traversing interstellar distances.”
And William Faulkner thought he could crank out long sentences!
The stars had now become long, varicolored lines. “How fast are we going?” I asked.
“Pretty fast,” he said.
“Is the universe really curved?”
“I don’t know, Will. I think you’d have to get well outside of it to be able to tell for sure. But why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering how you’re able to maintain us on a straight line of travel, so that we don’t waste a lot of time wandering hither and yon, or even ‘curving’ back toward our point of origin.”
“Very astute wonderings, Will. But not to worry. My sense of Splendid Direction will keep us on an arrow-straight trajectory, at least relative to our origin-point and the universe’s edge, even if there is a curvature to space that renders ‘straight’ objectively meaningless. We’ll have to deviate now and then, naturally, so as not to collide head-on with any celestial bodies, but I can intuitively nudge us right back on course.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said.
A speck of light suddenly appeared in the distance, oddly unaffected by the Doppler Effect, or whatever you call the thing that was making the stars look funny. “What’s that?” I asked. “Off to our left, and up about thirty degrees?”
Splendid Man peered in that direction. “Well, what do you know!” he exclaimed.
“What’s…?” But before I could finish my question the speck suddenly grew and resolved itself into a man. And then I recognized him. It was Northern Light, another of Splendid Man’s Splendid colleagues!
We all waved. In less than a second, Northern Light had zoomed past us and was lost to sight.
“Wow,” I said. “What do you suppose he was doing way out here?”
“Returning from the planet Eu, I imagine, to which he was no doubt summoned by the Watchdogs of the Macrocosm, those survivors of an ancient race who, with the help of a cadre of Northern Lights, police the cosmos.”
“Small universe,” I said. “Ready for lunch?”
“If you are, Will,” he said. “What have you got?”
“Chicken and ham,” I said.
“Chicken sounds great. If you don’t mind eating the ham, that is.”
“Oh, no. I love ham. I also brought Fritos and a bottle of wine.”
“Good thing you thought of the latter, Will,” he said. “I just realized we forget to bring a spear. When we reach the end of the universe we’ll need something to throw, and the wine bottle should work nicely.”
Shortly after we finished lunch the number of stars—or lines—that filled the sky started to thin out. “What’s going on? “ I asked. “Are we getting close to the end?”
Splendid Man was peering intently ahead. “Close to something,” he said. “But not, apparently, our destination.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
“You’ll see in a second,” he said. “Well, actually you won’t really see. Oh, just hang on. You’ll experience it right about…now!”
Suddenly the last star faded out and we entered a zone of absolute, stygian darkness. I’d gone spelunking deep into caves before but in comparison to this, the caves had been blindingly bright!
“Whoa,” I said. “Is this what you saw? I mean, what you didn’t see?”
“This is it.”
“Do you think this is like virgin space or something, into which the universe is expanding? I mean, the universe would need space to grow into, wouldn’t it?"
“I don’t know, Will,” Cal said. “Science has gone back and forth on the theory of an expanding universe. I can tell you one thing for sure about this zone, though: It’s dark. It’s real dark!”
“How’s that sense of direction holding out, pal?”
“Splendidly. I wouldn’t worry about that.”
“Have you peered ahead with the telescopic setting of your Splendid Vision? Any idea how long this lasts?”
“Farther than I can see,” he said.
I lit a cigarette with trembling hands. No lonely traveler of the icy tundra of Earth ever derived greater comfort from a roaring fire than I did from that little glowing ember. Splendid Man asked for a smoke. I think he wanted a little spark of his own to hold onto much more than a taste of tobacco. We made small talk. I don’t even remember what we talked about. We just needed to hear our voices. We made small talk and smoked cigarette after cigarette in a pathetic attempt to hold the devouring darkness at bay.
“At last!” Splendid Man exclaimed. “I see light ahead!”
“How far?” I asked.
“Why, a tad over fifteen billion light years, of course. As I explained earlier, that’s as far as I can see.”
“Of course,” I said. “But man, that’s a long time to be stuck in this darkness!”
“Not to worry. I’ll put on a burst of speed and have us there in a jiffy.”
By the glow of my cigarette lighter, I saw the muscles in his arms stand out. The big guy was giving it all he had!
I lost track of time. It might have been ten minutes or it might have been an hour that elapsed when even with my non-Splendid-Powered eyes I suddenly glimpsed light ahead. Then more light. Then a whole passel of light! Suddenly we were flying though a psychedelic light show unlike anything ever beheld by the eyes of man!
Well, unless they’d seen 2001, A Space Odyssey, that is. It looked amazingly like the light show at the climax of the movie. I even found myself making Keir Dullea faces, despite the fact that I wasn’t feeling any discomfort. It just seemed like the thing to do.
“Are you all right, Will?” Cal asked.
“I’m fine,” I said, and made a mental note to play the movie for him sometime. “Can you see how long this goes on?”
“Not too far. No more that ten billion light years.”
“Oh,” I said, "that’s nothing. Can you see what lies beyond?”
“Yes, I can, Will. The end of the universe itself!”
“Really? What does it look like?”
“Remember that zone of darkness we just passed through?” he said. “Well, it looks even darker than that.”
“Jeepers. How can that be?”
“I don’t know, Will. I’m just calling them as I see them.”
Pretty soon I could feel him slackening his speed. The light show continued to play around us, but now it was easier to make out the individual whorls and curlicues or whatever shapes psychedelic phenomenon can be said to possess. Then the lights started to fade in intensity. At last, they fell behind entirely, and we came to a dead stop.
Before us, in every direction, stretched a barrier of absolute darkness. We were there. At the very end of the universe!
“Ready?” Splendid Man asked.
I passed him the empty wine bottle. “What’s your guess?” I asked. “Will it bounce off or keep on going?”
“It’s not going anywhere, Will. I can’t determine what that barrier’s composed off, but I guarantee you it’s solid.”
“Then why bother throwing the bottle?”
“Isn’t that what we came here to do?”
He vibrated the molecules of his body through the glass of our ship and soon he was hovering outside, the bottle poised in his hand. He glanced in my direction and I gave him the thumbs up.
He reared back the hurled the bottle.
They say sound doesn’t travel in space. Well, brother, whoever “they” are should have been there. The bottle hit the barrier…and the barrier shattered with a peal of thunder that must have been heard all the way back in the Richmond District!
At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing beyond the broken barrier. It was much too vast to take in at a glance. I tried craning my neck and squinting my eyes, but nothing seemed to work. And then, like with one of those puzzles you need to stare at for a long time before the intended optical effect resolves itself, I suddenly realized what it was that I beheld.
It was a face. A face of unimaginable size. A face the size of a universe. The face of a white guy with long hair and a beard. And he looked pissed. Really pissed!
I glanced at Splendid Man and for the first time in my life, and I hope the last, I saw sheer, stark terror on his face.
Then he had vibrated back into the ship and we were heading back the way we’d come, moving so fast that I thought my teeth were going to pop out the back of my head.
“Don’t look back,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t look back!”
“Who do you think I am?” I said. “Orpheus? Ain’t no way I’m looking back, motherfucker!”
We’d sent out for pizza and we sat in my dining room eating our fill and guzzling beer. “So what do you think?” I asked. “Was that God we saw?”
Cal thought about that for a minute. “I find that hard to believe,” he finally said, “although it sure seemed like God at the time. Back on Strontium we had many different faiths, but whether we worshipped Jeez’In, Yahw’In, All’In, or Shiv’In, we believed in a God of love. This…entity we saw seemed anything but loving. He looked about as angry as anybody I’ve ever seen, even Giganto, the Splendid Mandrill, when I trapped him in the distant past.”
“Let’s not forget that we broke his window,” I said.
“There’s that,” he admitted. “But still.”
“What if he was some Splendid Being?” I postulated. “One that dwarfs you in power the way you dwarf us mere humans?”
Cal shook his head. “I suspect we’ll never know, Will. I, for one, have no intention of returning to the ends of the universe. And if I ever should find myself in the vicinity, I sure won’t throw anything at the barrier again.”
“Perhaps we learned a lesson today,” I said. “That, this side of the grave, there are secrets no Man may ever know.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Will. And more, secrets that no man may ever presume to unravel.”
“Sure,” I said. “Even in the comics there are eternal mysteries. Did the comet that struck the x-ray machine and set off the explosion that gave Quickie his power of Splendid Speed really strike there by accident, or was it guided by the hand of a higher being?”
“Or look at Abel Fey,” Cal said. “Was he really randomly snared from Earth and whipped to the planet Torr orbiting Beta Centauri by a loose superstring, or was there a larger destiny at work?”
“Yes,” I said. “And is Va Va Voom really a lesbian?”
We speculated deep into the night.