Captain Thomas Markham checked the readout on his wrist again. He’d been nervously checking it every few minutes since they had taken their helmets off. The atmosphere was still sufficiently Earth-like, and he was still breathing normally. The air had a musty smell, but it didn’t offend the senses.
He glanced over his shoulder to the rest of his team following behind. Lieutenant Sarah Gavin, Sergeant Gerard Wilcox, and Privates Claire Daud, Louis Michaels and Neriah Skildum walked in a spread pattern, no one walking directly behind or in front of anyone else. Each had a rifle in hand, a pack on their back, and their helmet slung on the belt at their hip. With their helmets off, they’d all put on tactical visors giving them better vision in the dark and data readouts. Markham’s rifle was in the hand of Ship’s cook Jalah, who looked entirely out of place in his orange space suit surrounded by the rest of the crew in their military grays. The light from random spots of glowing lichen on the walls was low, but he could still see his team. Markham’s visor was hanging down around his own neck as he’d opted to hold his pistol and a flashlight as they’d pressed onward.
From the deserted surface of this tiny planet they’d enter the caves and wound down and around for days. The deeper they got, the warmer it became, but Lieutenant Gavin had assured him this planet didn’t have a molten core. “Solid all the way through,” she’d said. “Stake my life on it,” she’d continued.
He turned to her now. “Gavin, what’s our depth?”
Gavin put her rifle over her shoulder, flicked the power buttons on the wrists of her gloves and began waving through the virtual readouts her visor was showing. “Hard to say. But we are getting close. I’m getting some interference, but we are almost directly below the ship and I estimate nearing halfway through our external readings of the planet’s diameter.”
“All right.” Markham turned to Wilcox. “Sergeant, find us a spot to set up camp.”
“Yes, sir.” Wilcox signaled to the Privates who followed him in a diamond formation off into the dark.
Jalah came in close to Markham, sidestepping around Gavin who continue to wave her hands in the empty air. “Sir.”
“We’ve only got a few days more of supplies with us. We are going to need to turn around pretty soon.” Jalah’s eyes were darting around, never staying still. He hadn’t wanted to come down with the team, but Markham didn’t want to leave him alone on the ship.
Markham holstered his pistol and placed his hand on Jalah’s shoulder. “Tomorrow.”
“Captain!” The word echoed through the chamber. Markham snapped off his flashlight, dropped it into a pocket on the leg of his suit and put his visor on.
The darkness of the world retreated, replaced with hues of green peppered with bits of text and data. He was facing a wall, the text told him it was fifteen meters away and comprised mostly of granite. The floor beneath his feet was also granite but covered with scattered dirt. Off to his right there were blue flashes of movement and he could see the outline of the four men. “With me,” he said just loud enough for Gavin and Jalah to hear. The three of them moved toward the others.
As they approached, Markham realized his gun was in his hands even though he didn’t remember pulling it. He even held it out front, with both hands, aimed downward as he was trained to do. Wilcox and the Privates stood together by a wall. The Privates faced outward in different directions, but Wilcox faced a door sized hole. Beside the hole was a small rectangular sign. As Markham got close he could see there were words written on it.
He put away his gun again, pulled off his visor and retrieved his flashlight from its pocket. When he snapped it on he stared, then shook his head and stared again. The sign was clear, a small arrow pointing downward at an angle into the door sized tunnel and the words Center of the Universe.
“I guess we’re here.” Gavin’s voice drifted softly from behind him. Markham faced her, her visor was off as well, her flashlight out. In the light, he could see her face was flush. The right corner of her mouth turned slightly upward. Next to her, Jalah’s face was slack-jawed and bloodless.
“Sir,” Wilcox said, “should we proceed or make camp?”
Gavin’s eyes sparkled. Years and years of calculations and every leg of the journey probably dancing through her head. The wormholes and slingshots around stars, all leading here.
“I don’t see why we should wait.”
Jalah blinked. “I don’t see why we should rush.” He licked his lips and swallowed. “I mean, after all it took to get here, it seems so odd that there would be a sign. And in a language we can read, no less.”
Everyone turned and looked at the sign. Gavin and Markham were both shining their lights on it, everyone had removed their visors.
“Very astute, Jalah. Maybe we should wait.” The words were barely out of his mouth before Gavin has pushed past and vanished down the tunnel. “I suppose that settles it.” Markham stepped forward into the tunnel. “Come on then, we probably don’t want to miss this.”
Just a few feet into the tunnel it angled downward and the smooth floor gave way to steps. It also turned to the right spiraling clockwise downward. He couldn’t see any glow from ahead, Gavin had clearly moved quickly, but Markham kept a steady pace so as not to lose his team. His own flashlight illuminated the tunnel as he went, the walls were smooth and the ceiling was arched, and at intervals along the way there were paintings, like the cave painting of earliest man, depicting tortoises.
He heard laughter ahead, then saw light. Gavin came into view. She was examining one of the tortoises and laughing.
She smiled at him, “Turtles.”
Markham gave her a puzzled look. He didn’t understand what she meant.
“Nevermind,” she said. She winked at him and then continued down the stairs. Markham wanted to make her stop so he could take the lead, but it was too narrow for him to pass her anyway, so he simply followed.
Behind him he heard Wilcox urging Jalah onward, and Jalah was breathing heavy. He hadn’t liked the other much larger caves, so this tunnel was likely much worse.
Finally the tunnel and the tortoises came to an end, opening up to a large room. Light seemed to come from the walls, and in the center was a round stone table. Next to that was a comfortable looking chair, and in the chair was an old man. The whiskers on his chin and lip moved as he snored. In the center of the table, hovering just above the surface was a large black globe.
Markham stared at the globe, it seemed to draw him in, the blackness looked endless, but occasionally there would be a tiny fleck of light.
The snoring stopped.
“Ah! You’re here!” The old man’s eyes were wide and he leaped to his feet. He rushed forward with an outstretched hand. Wilcox snapped his rifle up, but the old man didn’t stop. He came immediately to Gavin and shook her hand. She was smiling. Then the old man shook Gavin’s hand. Then Jalah’s and through the Privates, but not Wilcox because he wouldn’t put his rifle down.
Gavin stammered, “Where exactly are we?”
“Center of the Universe.” The old man was almost hopping with excitement.
“Well, almost.” The old man indicated the table. “The actual center is over there.”
“The center of it. The center of the center of the center and so one.”
Gavin laughed. “Turtles all the way down.”
The old man slapped his leg and his face lit up. “Indeed!”
The two of them laughed for a while and everyone else just stared. Markham walked toward the table, mesmerized by the black globe with the occasional flickers of light.
When the laughter stopped, Markham felt someone standing beside him. “What is this?”
Gavin answered his question with one of her own, “What do you see?”
“And if we were on the deck of our ship, looking out the window, what would you see?”
“Planets, moons, stars.”
“Mostly? Space. Nothing, I guess.”
“Exactly.” Markham broke his gaze into the globe and looked right into Gavin’s green eyes. “Looking out is looking in,” she said. “Somewhere out there,” she waved her left arm in a sweeping arc away from the table, “far away from here, farther than anyone could possibly go is the edge of a large black sphere. And outside that sphere is a room at the center of the universe, of someone else’s universe.” She looked toward the globe and so did he. “And in there,” she continued, “way down at the center is a room at the center of the universe, of another someone else’s universe. It’s recursive. Infinitely.”
“But,” he began, then stopped. She waited for him to put his thoughts together. “But what do we do?”
“About this? All of this.”
“Nothing. We go home.” She turned away and wandered back over to the old man.
Markham’s mind was swirling. “Wait. Just wait.” Gavin and the old man, and everyone else looked at him. “Who is this guy? Is he God?”
“Me?” The old man looked shocked. “No, I’m not God. Well, not your God anyway.”
“Who’s God are you?”
The old man nodded toward the table and the globe. “Them I suppose. I mean, I’m the keeper of the sphere but it’s not like I created it or anything. Can’t even do anything with it. I just watch.”
The old man shrugged. “And nothing.”
Markham felt hot. He was trained for flying space ships and following orders and making military decisions. This jaunt to find the center of the universe had been Gavin’s proposal and they’d been given a mission to try. She’d been working the math for a long time, but in the last year they’d been jumping wormholes and skimming gravity wells, spiraling around all of creation to find this room. This sudden revelation of universes inside universes with universes outside them infinitely was beyond him. He was trying very hard to piece it all together and make it fit in his view but there was just too much. Everyone was just staring at him, which exasperated him even more. “What does it mean?”
Gavin smiled at him. A few strands of her auburn hair cascaded across her face. She walked over slowly and put her hands on his upper arms. She squeezed gently, but hard enough so he felt it through the suit. Then she leaned in and kissed him. It was at first a solid, firm kiss on the lips, then she tilted her head slightly and he followed suit. Her lips parted just a little and her hands slid around his back. His lips parted also, and his arms roamed upward finding her hips and then sliding up her back. They kissed for a good long while.
Wilcox cleared his throat.
Gavin pulled back and resumed smiling. She let go of Markham, walked back over to the old man, shook his hand, gave him a hug and then headed toward the stairway.
She paused at the opening, looked back over her shoulder at Markham. “Are you coming?” And then she clicked on her flashlight and began ascending the stairs.
The old man strode over to Markham. “You want to know what it means?” Markham nodded while still staring at the stairway. “It means she came here to find the center of the universe, and she did. She also found the center of her universe along the way. It means that the center of the universe might be over there on the table, but the center of your universe may have just left the room.”
The old man patted him on the arm and then walked back to his chair. Wilcox, Daud, Michaels, Skildum, and Jalah filed up the stairs. Captain Markham smiled.