Where the Universe Stops

I was very young when the leaders of my people declared that exploration was a dead science. For tens of thousands of years, we’d explored our planet, and stared at the skies above. That task completed, we turned to the stars, and raced through the cosmos, charting all we could. It was the great passion of our people: cartography. Exploration. Building a bigger and bigger picture of the universe we lived in. And then, we solved it. Of course, there were more stars to see, more planets to visit, all manner of cosmic phenomenon to observe. But we’d seen enough, and mapped enough, that we’d solved the algorithm. The universe, and everything in it, was just a pattern. 

It was a pattern so impossibly huge as to boggle the mind, but with our massive sample size and staggeringly powerful computers, we figured it out. The equation. Give us any point in space, and we could tell you what was there, within a few lightyears. Then lightyears became kilometers, became meters, became millimeters. The variance from our predictions became so small as to be imperceptible to all but the eyes of our most advanced instruments. And as we pushed out, the equation held true. Every star, every planet, every comet and nebula, exactly as it predicted, where it predicted them. It was only natural that after a century of zero surprises, we closed the book on exploration.

As I grew, there were those who tried to find a new frontier for exploration. Time travel. Alternate dimensions. The afterlife, the spirit realm, what have you. None of it ever bore the slightest semblance of fruit. Despite the futility, no one could blame these would-be pioneers. Exploration was the great passion of our people. For it to just… disappear, was an idea we didn’t know how to cope with. It was as if curiosity itself simply vanished, and we went about our days, going through the motions. Waiting to die.

And then, one day, an instant communication from one of the few scouts still duly confirmed the truth of the algorithm reported something. The universe where they were had stopped matching our predictions… entirely. Where our computers predicted a continuing expanse of space and stars, dust and rocks, there was nothing. Literally… nothing. A void. The universe simply ENDED, abruptly, into a sea of emptiness that stretched as far as the scout could see. How far was that? They had no idea. Their instruments couldn’t measure anything into the void without flooding with errors, and light didn’t penetrate it. It could be a centimeter or a billion, billion lightyears. We had no idea.

The scout, understandably terrified, returned to their family and refused to talk to anyone about what they’d seen. They gave us coordinates, such as they were, and some went to go see it themselves. I was one of those few.

It’s hard to describe, the end of the universe. I wish I could say, “close your eyes, it looks like that.” But all you’re seeing there is an absence of light, assuming nothing is so bright as to pierce your sealed eyelids. Looking at it both hurts and is mesmerizing. I suppose it would be most accurate to say that you don’t see anything: it feels like you have a blind spot, or scotoma, covering the place where the void is. But you can feel it. Inside a space suit, a ship, a space station, or all of the above at once, if you’re close enough to “see” it, you can feel its tugging. Like a mix of gravity and static electricity. It doesn’t move you: instruments don’t read it as having any actual gravity at all. But you feel its pull, all the same.

Most people throw up within seconds of experiencing it for the first time. A few daring folk attempt staring contests with the thing, and inevitably end up hospitalized. Nothing particularly wrong with them, doctors say: their body just stops, and resumes once they’ve been removed from the void’s vicinity. My people have come to hate it. It represents to them not only the end of exploration, but the end of understanding. Nothing we do makes sense of it. It is just a cage that we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot comprehend. It is beyond us in every way. It exists to mock our weakness.

I have always been at peace with my weakness. Illness has been a constant companion from a young age, and though our medicine has been good enough to keep me alive when I have no business doing so, my trials have been many. It’s fine. I have a lot of blank spots from my childhood, and no doubt I did something terrible to deserve this. Therefore, I can’t be bitter about it. It is simply how things are. And the void is simply how it is: I can’t be bitter towards it, either.

My familiarity with pain and hospitalization is what led me to hold one of those staring contests with the void: when the void won and I ended up in triage, it was affirming in a way. Certainly it wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t much worse than the things that had beset me along the way. So I stared again. And again. I wish I could say I built up some sort of immunity: I could stare for longer, or my hospitalization was less severe. This wasn’t the case. Medical staff became fed up with me, and I became a particular doctor’s pet project. Every time I ended up back there, they were the one who looked after me. I don’t know if they sympathized with me, or felt pity, or… what, but they never told me to stop. Every few weeks, I would end up back there, they’d get me back on my feet, and then I’d go stare again.

I think what I was trying to do was work up the courage. You see, no one had touched it before. It wasn’t as though no one had tried, mind you. But the closer you get, the worse it feels, and the urge to run from it becomes overpowering. It doesn’t just dominate your mind, it is your mind: running is all you are, for a few moments. You don’t breathe. You don’t speak. You don’t think. You just get away from the void as fast as you can, and once you are a distance away your body realizes it should probably pass out. You know the rest from there: hospital, nothing seems wrong, don’t do that again.

Throwing things at it doesn’t work, either. For whatever reason, their trajectory just shifts, no matter how hard or fast you propel them. They never hit the void. They bend away, in ways that trick your eye into thinking your throw was bad, your aim was off. Maybe the objects, too, were overpowered by the need to run. Maybe even things without minds developed them just long enough to escape it.

But one day, I just knew it was time. I headed towards the void, slowly but surely. The fear built up, of course- the panic, the pain- but it was like they were happening to someone else. I was aware of them, but they had no impact on me. I pushed forward, even as my body pushed back. I hit a wall, not of matter or of void, but of control. My body was frantic, wouldn’t let me continue: my mind wouldn’t let me stop. And so, the two opposing forces decided to agree to disagree, and went their separate ways. My body leapt backwards, and my mind stepped forward, the two unlinked for the first time.

There was no more fear, no more hurt. I felt strange, or at least I think I did: after all, I didn’t have nerves anymore. There was some sort of sensation, though. The presence of the void was more tolerable. I stepped forward, all soul and purpose, and reached out a hand. A fraction from the void, I stopped.

Then I pushed, and my hand reached the nothing.