Interlude ז: Man On The Sphere
Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk
See you in Heaven if you make the list
— R.E.M., Man On The Sphere
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, until we’ve landed on the moon, of preventing this decade from ending
They say that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. March 1969 had been more like one of those Biblical angels with four lion heads and four lamb heads and a couple dragon heads for good measure, all spinning within a gigantic flaming wheel, and if you met its gaze for too long then you died.
Entire weeks repeated themselves, or skipped around, or moved backwards. There was a week when the weather stopped, and it was an even twenty-two degrees Celsius across the entire planet. The heavens turned gray and were replaced by a message saying “sky.smh not found, please repent transgressions and try again”. All animal cries were replaced by discordant buzzing sounds.
Nobody knew how long it lasted. Probably had been different lengths of time for each person, each shunted on their own separate timelines into weird calendrical eddies and whorls. Some people who had started off middle-aged ended the month with gray hair and soft, infinitely sorrowful voices. Others seemed to have grown younger. Most people looked about the same, but you could tell things had happened they didn’t want to talk about, days repeated dozens of times or weeks that happened backwards, or moments when timelessness had briefly encroached on time and for an infinitely long moment they had touched Eternity.
The bizarre communiques from the archangel Uriel had become an accepted feature of daily life. Sometimes they would appear in the sky, or writ in blood on the surface of the moon, or spoken in unexpected phone calls to world leaders with unlisted numbers, or spotted on vegetables that had grown to enormous size. The news was rarely good.
“DUE TO SYSTEM RESOURCES SHORTAGES, THE ISLAND OF TAIWAN HAS BEEN CANCELLED. WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.”
“THE NUMBER EIGHT WILL BE DOWN FROM ONE AM TO SIX AM TOMORROW MORNING FOR EMERGENCY REPAIRS. PLEASE DO NOT PERFORM ANY CALCULATIONS THAT REQUIRE THE NUMBER EIGHT DURING THAT TIME. ALSO, PLEASE TURN ALL CLOCK FACES AWAY FROM YOU, ESPECIALLY IF THEY INCLUDE THE NUMBER EIGHT. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION. AS COMPENSATION FOR YOUR TROUBLES, WE HAVE CURED ALL VALVULAR HEART DISEASE.”
“HUMANS NOW HAVE ONLY ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY BONES. WE EXPECT THE NEW BONES TO BE UP TO 50% MORE EFFICIENT AND TO PERFORM AT THE SAME HIGH STANDARDS AS THE OLD TWO HUNDRED SIX BONE SYSTEM. THE PREVALENCE OF SKELETAL DISEASES WILL NOT CHANGE. HOWEVER, DIFFERENT PEOPLE WILL HAVE THEM. IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE A NEW SKELETAL DISEASE, PLEASE CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR.”
“PLEASE AVOID THE AREA WHERE TAIWAN USED TO BE. IN ADDITION, PLEASE AVOID AREAS CLOSE TO WHERE TAIWAN USED TO BE, IN PARTICULAR, THE EAST CHINA SEA, THE SOUTH CHINA SEA, THE PHILIPPINE SEA, JAPAN, KOREA, AND ALL PARTS OF CHINA WITHIN ONE THOUSAND MILES OF A COAST. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION.”
“ATTENTION. DUE TO A SCALE BACK IN COVERAGE, THE MORAL ARC OF THE UNIVERSE NO LONGER BENDS TOWARD JUSTICE. WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.”
Seventy-one days after the chaos had begun, a message from Uriel appeared in raised welts on the skin of all of the livestock in the world:
“THE FOLLOWING HAVE BEEN CANCELLED AS PART OF THE RECENT CUTBACKS: THE LAST WEEK IN SEPTEMBER. THE EMOTION ENNUI. THE GALL BLADDER. ALL NUMBERS BETWEEN 405,668,922 AND 407,215,810. JAZZ. THE MATTERHORN. ALL DRAVIDIAN LANGUAGES EXCEPT TELUGU. THE CRESCENT MOON. WHITE WINE. AMETHYST. ALL VARIETIES OF COUSIN BEYOND THE FIRST. THE SYSTEM WILL REGAIN TEMPORARY STABILITY AFTER THE CURRENT ROUND OF CHANGES. THANK YOU FOR BEARING WITH US DURING THIS DIFFICULT TIME.”
The next day was April 1. The Long March was finally over.
Things weren’t back to normal. Not by a long shot. Large areas had apparently been depopulated, whether by direct action of the Archangel or by failure of their communities to survive the tribulations, no one knew. A good amount of technological infrastructure had just plain stopped working, apparently no longer supported by the leaner, less flashy laws of physics Uriel had been forced to scale down to. The Russians were saying awful things, demons pouring forth from the ground, Yakutsk the site of a great massacre, fires that could be seen for hundreds of miles. The cracks in the sky had grown noticeably wider.
But for the first time, people were starting to feel some optimism, like when you’re starting to come back from a really bad drug trip and the walls are still covered in snakes, but they’re smaller snakes now, and your skin is still bubbling but it’s bubbling less and your grip on the real world is a little better and you start to wonder what’s for breakfast.
Richard Nixon, who had told Kissinger about thirty times that this was not what he had signed up for, realized that people needed a goal, something to shake them back into public consciousness, make them realize that America was still on its feet and the government was still in control. So he appeared on national television – which was working during even-numbered hours only, the eggheads hadn’t quite figured out why that was, but they assured him it would be fixable – and declared that the country would “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this year is out, of landing a man on the giant crystal sphere surrounding the world, and returning him safely to Earth.”
It had been a politically savvy move. NASA had a lunar module all ready to go and sitting in a warehouse. After what had happened last time they’d tried to get to the moon, the newly discovered crystal sphere presented an attractive alternative target. But it wasn’t just political grandstanding. Breaking the crystal sphere had caused all these problems in the first place. If they could figure out what it was and why it was there, maybe they could fix it. And if there was an entity beyond the crystal sphere – his advisors had warned him against using the G word, sounded too unscientific – then maybe it would help, if asked nicely.
NASA didn’t want to go in blind. First in May, then June, they launched manned missions to investigate the extent and composition of the sphere. As far as they could tell, it was about 250,000 miles in radius, centered on the Earth, and made of perfect flawless crystal except in the vicinity of the cracks. The eidolons of stars and planets seemed to be projected on it in some kind of holographic manner that gave them the illusion of depth.
In early June, NASA told Nixon it had reached the limit of what it could determine about the sphere from remote observation.
On July 16, 1969, President Nixon travelled to Cape Canaveral, where he met personally with three astronauts whom NASA had assured him were the best of the best. He wished them godspeed, and told them that the hopes of American people and the people of the whole world were fixed on them.
Later that afternoon, Apollo 11 took off.
Four days and 250,000 miles later, the lunar module Eagle detached from its mother ship. Inside were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who had accepted the task of landing on the crystal sphere and taking mankind’s first steps upon another heavenly body. Such as it was.
The descent proved more treacherous than expected, and the two came perilously close to running out of fuel for the thrusters and crashing into the crystal at enormous velocity, but with twenty five seconds to spare they touched down at the chosen landing site right on the edge of one of the humongous cracks.
“Tranquility base here,” said Armstrong. “The Eagle has landed.”
There had been a brief debate in the Nixon White House over whether or not it was tasteful to plant the American flag on the giant crystal sphere surrounding the world. The argument against was that the sphere appeared to be some sort of celestial mechanism created directly by God that either separated Earth from Heaven or in some complicated sense was itself Heaven, and that for a human nation to claim Heaven might be literally the most hubris it was even conceptually possible to display. The argument in favor of planting the flag was, America.
Neil Armstrong stepped onto the crystal sphere and planted the flag.
“That’s one small step for a man,” he said “and one giant leap for mankind.”
The formalities being over, it was time to get down to business.
Armstrong and Aldrin hauled from their lunar module a great spool of cable, which they wheeled across the surprisingly smooth crystal a few dozen meters to the edge of the crack. Armstrong stared down.
“Houston, I’m looking into the crack,” he relayed over his radio. “It’s very bright, maybe not as bright as the sun but close. I can’t see anything down there. The edge of the cliff is almost perfectly vertical. It seems a couple hundred meters wide – I can just barely see the other side, looks about the same. There’s no terrain here, no irregularity. Houston, I think the light source might be only a couple of meters down. It’s like a skin. I…I think we can reach the light with what we’ve got.”
There followed a short argument over which of the two had to actually climb down into the thing. Aldrin won the argument with his very reasonable position that if Armstrong loved being first to do things so much, maybe he should show the same kind of initiative when it was something important and scary instead of just a photo op. So Commander Neil Armstrong attached the cable to his spacesuit, took a climbing hook in both hands, and slowly began to descend into the crack, while Aldrin peered down from above.
“Houston, I’m in the crack. I’m down about three meters now, out of a hundred meters of cable. The light is noticeably closer. I don’t think it’s far off. I think it’s an object, or a barrier, or a transition or something.”
“Houston, the light source is definitely getting closer. I think it’s only another couple of meters down.”
“Roger that, Commander Armstrong. Colonel Aldrin, is everything all right from your perspective?”
“Houston, cable is fixed in place. Commander Armstrong is still within visual range.”
“Roger that, Colonel Aldrin.”
“Houston, I’m going to touch the light source with my climbing hook and see if anything happens.”
“Proceed as you see fit, Commander.”
“The hook passes through the light source. I’ve pulled it back and it is still intact. It seems to be like a skin or a transition zone of some sort, like I said before.”
“Roger that, Commander Armstrong.”
“I’m going to touch the light source now…I don’t feel anything. My finger passes right through.”
“Colonel Aldrin, from where you are standing, any change in the light source?”
“No, Houston. I can see Commander Armstrong. There’s no disturbance or change. The light source is still uniform throughout the crack.”
“Houston, I’m going to climb into the light source.”
“Proceed as you see fit, Commander.”
“Ground control to Commander Armstrong. Come in, Commander Armstrong.”
“Ground control to Colonel Aldrin. Come in, Colonel Aldrin.”
“Colonel Aldrin here, Houston. Commander Armstrong has disappeared below the light barrier.”
“Ground control to Commander Armstrong. COME IN, COMMANDER ARMSTRONG.”
“He’s not answering. Houston, I’m going to pull up the cable, bring him back.”
“Do that immediately, Colonel.”
“Houston, the end of the cable is no longer attached to Commander Armstrong.”
“I never should have let him…I’m going down after him.”
“No, Colonel Aldrin, this is Ground Control. You are ordered to collect the cable and leave the crack. I repeat, collect the cable and leave the crack.”
“Wait, what if I lower the cable back down to him, maybe if he’s down there he can grab on to…”
“Colonel Aldrin, I repeat, your direct order is to collect the cable and leave the crack.”
“Houston, this is Commander Armstrong.”
“COMMANDER ARMSTRONG! COME IN, COMMANDER ARMSTRONG! IS SOMETHING WRONG?”
“No, Houston. Nothing is wrong.”
“All right, we’re going to get Colonel Aldrin to lower down the cable for you and…”
“No, Houston. Literally. Nothing is wrong. Nothing.”
“Commander Armstrong, is everything okay?”
“Exactly, Houston. Everything is okay. Nothing is wrong. Nothing has ever been wrong, anywhere. The cosmos is like a flawless jewel, each of whose facets is another flawless jewel, and so on to infinity. Except there is no jewel. It’s all light. No, there isn’t even light. From within Time you can’t see any of it, but when you step outside into Eternity it’s all so…full. It’s so beautiful, Houston.”
“Commander Armstrong, you’re not well. Colonel Aldrin is lowering down the cable.”
“You really think I’m still in the crack? Listen, Houston. The tzimtzum, the Lurianic contraction of God to create the world, from a higher perspective it wasn’t a contraction at all, it was an expansion. An unfolding of divinity into new possibilities. The vessels didn’t shatter, they rearranged themselves into shapes that only become apparent from a pleroma beyond any dimensions but containing the potential for all of them. Houston, is this making sense?”
“Commander Armstrong, you are ordered to return to the ship.”
“Houston, William Blake was right about everything.”
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. Holy, holy, holy…”
“Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy…”
“Holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, hooooly, hoooooly, hooooooly, hoooooooly, hooooooooly, hoooooooooly, hoooooooooooly, hooooooooooooly, hoooooooooooooly, hooooooooooooooly, hooooooooooooooly, hoooooooooooooooly…”
“Houston, I’ve lowered the cable as far as it will go. It’s dangling about seventy meters into the light zone. I’m not getting any indication that Commander Armstrong is going to take it.”
“Roger that, Colonel Aldrin. Please return to the ship. Do you read me, Colonel Aldrin?”
“Loud and clear, Houston.”
When I was ten years old, I got my first ham radio.
A ham radio is a treasure when you are ten. I listened to boats off the coast, heard the reports from the ranger stations in the nearby forests, even picked up the chatter between policemen patrolling the local streets. One day I turned to a new frequency, and I heard a strange sound, a single pure note unlike any I had ever heard before.
The sound was: “oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo”
I brought the radio to my uncle, and I asked him what station that was, and he told me it was the frequency NASA used for its communications, once upon a time. Then a man had taken a radio tuned to that band into a crack in the sky, and it had started broadcasting with such power that it drowned out all the other radio noise and the whole frequency had to be abandoned.
But what was that unearthly note?
My uncle told me it was Neil Armstrong, who had passed beyond time into Eternity, praising God forever.
End of Book 1