by David Levine
Dana sat at her vanity table, looking up at the reflection in the mirror of the plain white ceiling above, and sighed. She could discern no improvement in her vision. The vague, shadowy dimness still loitered at the edges of her view like a lurking thief. Casing the joint. Biding its time.
She chastised herself for impatience. She’d had her first injection less than twenty-four hours ago. She shouldn’t expect immediate results.
Or maybe she was in the placebo group.
Fear clutched at the back of her throat. This clinical trial was her last hope. All the standard treatments had failed to stem the gradual increase in intraocular pressure that was slowly, steadily stealing her sight. Her mother had been forced to give up driving at age 35, and today needed an image amplifier even to read her email. That kind of impairment would destroy Dana’s career.
Dana’s adviser had tried to reassure her that she could always change tracks to theoretical astronomy. But observational astronomy was her passion. If she couldn’t see clearly…
She leaned in closer to the mirror, looking into her own eyes. Observing. Studying. It was what she always did with a problem. She’d spent a lot of time looking at her own eyes since her diagnosis. The fine brown, amber, and gold structures of her hazel irises always reminded her of the delicate, glowing filaments of the Crab Nebula, or the Helix Nebula as seen in infrared.
Were they … different? They seemed … deeper, somehow. More convoluted? More colorful?
Dana shook her head. Wishful thinking, that was all. There shouldn’t be any changes in the irises at all. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and dug through her jewelry box for a pair of caps. After only a moment’s thought she selected the cloisonné pair that Jeremy had given her when she’d successfully defended her Ph.D. thesis. She snapped the grinning sun onto the socket in her left temple, then the devilishly winking crescent moon on the right.
They always made her smile. Especially when, as now, she needed a reminder that someone out there loved her. She couldn’t deny she was jealous of Jeremy’s trip to the Sagan space telescope at L2, but he’d be back home in just twenty more days.
She leaned back and blew a kiss toward the ceiling, then headed downstairs for breakfast. It wouldn’t do to be late, not on the day of her long-awaited time slot at the Morgenstern Haptic Visualization Facility.
During her commute, Dana normally read the latest Astrophys. J. on her handheld datappliance, but today she looked out the ziptrain window. For some reason the same aspens and spruces she’d zipped past every day for the past three years seemed especially beautiful today. The flicker of sunlight in their branches was fascinating … mesmerizing, even.
She was so distracted she nearly missed her stop. And then, as she hurried through the closing door, she lost her balance and stumbled. She barely kept herself from sprawling across the concrete platform.
By the time she reached her lab she was beginning to realize that something strange was happening. She felt funny — giddy, lightheaded, maybe even a little woozy — and everything seemed brighter, bolder, more dynamic, more colorful.
She spent a few minutes watching the cream swirl in her coffee — it reminded her of the Whirlpool Galaxy — before she thought that maybe she should call the clinic. She had been warned that there could be perceptual side effects, and they might want to know about this. Mind you, this wasn’t so bad. A little trippy, but not unpleasant. But still…
She was just pulling out her datappliance to make the call when it chimed, reminding her that she was due at the Morgenstern HVF in fifteen minutes.
Dana double-checked that all the work files on her datappliance were up to date, then slipped on her coat and headed for the door. The facility was ten minutes’ walk across campus and she didn’t want to chance being even a minute late. She’d call right after her session.
Waiting for the elevator, she realized that she felt a little wobbly on her feet, and the lights overhead seemed to thrum, unnaturally vibrant. Was she being foolish? Should she call in sick, try to reschedule? But as she hurried across campus, the imposing tower of the HVF looming over the Physics building, she realized that she didn’t have any choice but to proceed. She was just a lowly post-doc … she’d had to pull every string she had to get even four hours of that multi-billion-dollar facility’s time to herself. If she bailed out at the last minute, the administrators would have to scramble to fill her slot and she’d be on their shit list for sure. It might be months before she’d get another time slot, if ever.
She quickened her pace.
The HVF technician’s shirt was a colorful collage of moving images, and Dana had to close her eyes as he leaned over her to buckle the strap across her chest. The interface drugs would help prevent her body from moving during her session, among other things, but just as when dreaming, a certain amount of motion did occur and nobody wanted the IV to pull out.
“Comfy?” the tech said, patting the buckle.
Dana’s mouth was dry. She just nodded and tried to smile.
“All right. You can put your caps here.”
She snapped the cloisonné caps off of her temple sockets and dropped them clattering onto the proffered tray, which the tech set down on a small table beside Dana’s couch. He then handed her a pair of neural cables, which she snapped into place, white on the left and red on the right as usual.
“Now, you might feel a little pinch…”
“I’d prefer the right arm, please.”
The tech was good; the IV needle slid into Dana’s vein with little more than a tweak of pain. After he’d secured the needle with a dab of sterile adhesive, he helped her to slip her wrists under the elastic on the couch’s arms. So far it was just like every other HVF session she’d had, with no sign that for the next four hours she’d have the computer on the other end of the cables — the third-most-powerful scientific data visualization facility in the world — entirely to herself. She couldn’t wait.
Finally, the tech bent down to where she could see her. Already it was getting hard for her to keep her eyes open. “Okay, you’re good to go. Lights on or off?”
The tech moved away, and a moment later darkness descended. Dana thought she could hear the HVF thrumming all around her, but that was absurd — the room was thoroughly soundproofed. For the next four hours the only information going in or out of this room would be through her neural cables.
Dana keyed her access code into the numeric pad under her right hand. It was awkward, but she’d learned to cope with a right-handed world. Then she took a breath, closed her eyes, and pressed ENTER.
When she opened her eyes, or seemed to, Dana saw what appeared to be a loose, fuzzy ball of stars. It floated ahead of her in the darkness at chest level; if she wanted to, she could lean forward and put her arms about half-way around it. A thin, tepid warmth came from the ball, like the heat of a single match at arm’s length, gently warming her chest and the underside of her chin.
This was her dataset. This was the accumulated result of decades of observations, some of them her own, from telescopes and dishes all over the Earth, above it, and around it. And the HVF was her gateway to truly understanding it.
The fuzzy ball of “stars” was actually a representation of the entire visible universe — a ball of galaxy clusters fourteen billion light-years in radius, with the Earth at the center. Since the universe began fourteen billion years ago, the farthest anyone could see in any direction was fourteen billion light-years. There might be more universe beyond that limit — in fact, there almost certainly was — but there was no way for anyone on Earth to know anything about it.
This view was not really possible in the physical universe, of course. If Dana had really stood at this point in space, only the nearest galaxies to her would look like this. The galaxies farther away would appear younger, because their light was coming from billions of light-years away and was thus billions of years old, and the light would also be redshifted because they were moving away from her. The view beyond that would fade into the chaos of the Big Bang. But in this simulation, she saw the entire visible universe in its “current” state, all at the same time, with no redshift.
Dana moved the control panel from its default position on the right to within easy reach of her left hand, then zoomed in a bit, enlarging the ball to about three times her own height. Or alternatively, she thought, shrinking herself to a mere ten billion light-years tall. The rapid apparent motion made her dizzy; she had to stand still, blinking her simulated eyes, for a long moment until the sensation went away. At this scale the warmth of the ball was more apparent, like a bonfire some distance away, and Dana could easily see the structure of the universe — rather than an even distribution across space, the galaxy clusters were grouped into walls and filaments, like the walls of bubbles in foam, with mostly empty space between. One of her professors liked to say that it looked like the inside of a pumpkin.
She reached out her hand and took one of the filaments between her thumb and forefinger. The strand of galaxy clusters felt like a warm, grainy string between her fingertips, and as she tugged gently it resisted weakly. It felt a bit like pumpkin guts, actually, though stretchier and slimier … almost like gritty mucus.
This was the “haptic” part of the Haptic Visualization Facility — the simulation of the sense of touch. Haptic feedback gave Dana information on gravitic attraction, density and composition of the interstellar medium, average stellar population and temperature of the galaxy clusters, and much more, in a way that she could appreciate both consciously and intuitively. But because the sense of touch was so ancient, located in the brain’s most primitive areas and integrated most closely with the autonomic nervous system, it was surprisingly difficult to fool — an effective touch simulation required massive amounts of computing capacity. And to simulate this enormous dataset, hundreds of exabytes, she needed every bit of the HVF’s considerable power.
Which was why she had to make the most effective use of her time. She’d experienced HVF simulations before, though never one this large; she shouldn’t be wasting precious minutes marveling at the technology. Honestly, what had gotten into her?
Dana turned to the control panel to zoom in a little closer. But as she turned, another wave of vertigo overtook her, and the galaxies seemed to flare in intensity. She closed her eyes against the sudden bright colors…
… and the view didn’t change.
Again she closed her eyes. Nothing. The galaxies in her view continued to shine vibrantly, almost overwhelming in their brightness and variety of colors. She squeezed her eyes tight shut, feeling the muscles tense, but they didn’t shut out the view.
Instinctually she put her hands to her eyes, but that didn’t help either. She felt her closed eyes beneath her fingers, but her hands didn’t block the view.
Now she was getting a little frightened. She pulled her hands away from her eyes and held them in front of herself.
She couldn’t see her hands.
She couldn’t see herself at all.
She felt herself. Her body was there. Her hands could touch it, and she felt her hands on her body. Her simulated hands on her simulated body. If she were actually running her real hands over her real body, she’d feel the straps and the tug of the IV. Was her body writhing on the couch, straining against its straps, or lying passively? She couldn’t tell. Her own body might as well be fourteen billion light-years away, it was so far beyond her perceptions…
No. Stop it. Don’t panic. There was just some kind of glitch in the system. The HVF software was one-of-a-kind, constantly under development — largely by Computer Science graduate students — and it did have more than its share of bugs. She’d work around this bug the way she’d learned to work around so many others.
But it was still unnerving not to be able to shut out the view of the universe. Especially since it seemed to be getting more vibrant and dynamic by the minute. In fact, it was becoming overwhelming. The light of a hundred billion galaxies pierced her vision with an almost physical force.
Unthinkingly, she put up her hands to block the light … and felt them tangle in the threads and membranes of the universe. Trapped like a bug in a spider’s web. Her heart pounded and she thrashed in helpless, irrational panic.
One of her flailing, invisible hands smacked into the control panel, sending it sailing off into the darkness to her left. She tried to grab it before it got away, but succeeded only in pressing several buttons … including the Hide button in the upper right. The panel vanished, still moving quickly away.
And she began to fall.
Dana shrieked as the structure of the universe expanded, or she shrank. Filaments and webs of galaxies whipped past her, stroking and clinging and tickling her hands, her face, her legs … some particularly dense knots of young galaxies burned her skin like hot sparks.
She must have triggered a continuous zoom toward the center of the simulation; it felt like a factor of ten every ten seconds. She groped for the hidden control panel, but the onrushing galaxies were so bright … and she couldn’t even see her own hands … and her head spun, and she had trouble keeping focus. No matter how far she reached, the control panel was nowhere to be found.
And if she couldn’t find the control panel, she couldn’t hit the panic switch that would shut the simulation down.
This shouldn’t be happening, she told herself. As amazing as the universe was, and as impressive as the haptic interface was, she shouldn’t be so overwhelmed by it. It had to be some kind of interaction between the glaucoma drugs and the interface drugs.
Knowing this didn’t help. She was still falling! Plummeting uncontrollably through the universe a quintillion times faster than light. And her heart and guts wouldn’t listen to her brain.
She was now a hundred million light-years tall, and shrinking rapidly. The bubble-like structure of the universe quickly grew so large that it became invisible, replaced by clusters of galaxies … the forest vanishing, the trees becoming individual. Each galaxy cluster was a loose ball, basketball-sized or so. She collided with one as she fell, sending tiny galaxies scattering in every direction; the sensation on her skin was like sand grains in a sandstorm. Intellectually she knew it was only a simulation, but she still felt guilty for the destruction she’d caused.
Dana fell through the dense wall of galaxy clusters into the empty space between. Ahead of her another strand of clusters grew and grew, visibly separating into individual galaxies as she watched. They didn’t twinkle like stars seen from Earth — the interstellar medium was hard vacuum, compared to Earth’s atmosphere — but they seemed to vibrate with drug-induced intensity, their light reaching out to claw at her eyes.
She searched frantically for the control panel, feeling all around the place it had vanished, reaching as far as she could … but again and again her invisible fingers found nothing. Her heart pounded in her throat and she fought down panic. It was getting harder and harder to remember that this was a simulation. Her primitive monkey brain insisted she was plummeting to her death.
She fell into the strand of clusters, galaxies flashing by on either side. Each galaxy was now hubcap-sized … she must have shrunk to only a million light-years tall. The galaxies were beautiful and terrible, shimmering glowing confections, spirals and disks and strange elongated commas. Most had a thick bulge in the center, a dense conglomeration of stars … the heat of the nearby ones felt like a burning road flare, and their gravity tugged at her stomach as she fell past. A barred spiral galaxy smashed itself to bits against her invisible leg as she passed, feeling like a hot buzz-saw of stars on her calf. She cried out from the pain. Another galaxy, this one an irregular elliptical giant almost half as big as she was, came rushing up at her and she curled up in terror, but it just missed her.
What if the galactic core, with its super-massive black hole, had hit her? Could she die in the simulation? There were supposed to be safeguards … but the HVF was no ordinary sim, and between software bugs and experimental drugs she might be beyond its parameters.
She looked around, fighting down nausea as her invisible, simulated head spun. After that last near-miss she seemed to have fallen into another empty area, this time a space between galaxies within a galaxy cluster. Based on how large that last galaxy had been, she must be about a hundred thousand light-years tall now, and the average distance between galaxies in a cluster was a few million light-years. She might be safe.
But as she looked down, she realized she was not safe. She was falling toward the center of the simulation, and that center was Earth. The spiraling disk of the Milky Way, Earth’s home galaxy, grew and grew before her, looming with broad flat inevitability. It was like driving at full speed into a solid wall of headlights.
Dana’s headlong rush seemed to slow as the Milky Way expanded to fill her view and more, spiral arms resolving themselves into broad rivers of individual stars, but she was still going to hit it hard. She angled herself forward, held her arms ahead of her like a diver, and held her breath.
The galaxy had grown to about a hundred times as wide as her height, so she was perhaps a thousand light-years tall, when she smacked into one spiral arm. Stars and nebulae and interstellar gas battered her extended arms and face, but by now she was moving slowly enough that the blow was more like a sudden hailstorm than slamming into a wall. She gasped from the rough, scouring impact, but she didn’t think she’d broken anything.
Stunned, she fell into the galaxy as though it were a mighty ocean. The shock of her body passing through the interstellar medium made new stars spring into life, crackling like popcorn on her leading edges.
She was still shrinking. The hail of stars rapidly thinned to a hot drizzle. Soon she was mostly falling between them, with only the occasional searing impact. She must be about ten light-years tall now; the stars were about as far apart as the length of her leg. Each individual star was too small to be anything other than a blazing-hot bright point.
She fell through near-emptiness for a long time before one star began to distinguish itself from the rest, directly ahead, as she knew it must. The Earth’s sun.
How much longer could this game go on? Would she slam into the Earth, her body breaking open from the impact? Or would she keep going, deeper and deeper, vanishing into subatomic space?
No. She knew that her dataset didn’t include anything smaller than a satellite.
Unless her drug-addled brain kept going without data, making up smaller and smaller particles while her body gibbered in some mental hospital…
A stiff, gritty breeze began to push at her, chilling her skin and making her blink. She was falling through the Oort cloud, the thin sphere of cold gas and chunks of ice that surrounded the sun out to a distance of two light-years … twice her own current height.
The Oort surrounded her for a long time, as she shrank from a light-year to a light-month in height, her progress continuing to slow. Even at only one light-month tall she was still a hundred times bigger than the orbit of Neptune, the outermost of the true planets. There was an awful lot of mostly empty space in the solar system.
She was a comet now, falling inward from the Oort. Would she leave a tail behind herself as she approached the sun?
The solar system itself began to come into view before her now, the orbit of Neptune a skinny blue ellipse no longer than the palm of her hand. The ellipse only existed in the simulation, of course; the planet itself was far, far too small to be seen. Smaller ellipses just visible within Neptune’s orbit were the orbits of Uranus, Saturn, and Jupiter; Earth’s orbit was indistinguishable from the sun at this scale. She continued to decelerate, though still moving at an apparent speed that would certainly kill her if she slammed into a solid object with her physical body. And she was heading right for Earth.
She had to do something before then. But what?
Dana was now about the same size as the orbit of Neptune … about eight light-hours tall. Still falling at a speed impossible for any physical object. Still slowing. The chill wind of the Oort cloud had faded away to nothing; she was now near enough to the sun that the spaces between the planets were blown clear by the solar wind. The solar wind itself, nothing more than charged particles, was too tenuous to be felt even by her drug-heightened and computer-stimulated senses.
The ellipses of the solar system continued to swell before her, the orbits of the inner solar system planets now becoming distinct from the sun. The planets themselves were still invisible, not even specks … she was perhaps one light-hour tall now, a bit bigger than the diameter of Mars’s orbit, and even mighty Jupiter was less than a hundredth of one percent of that.
As the inner solar system expanded, she realized that the sun had begun to shift to one side. She was no longer falling directly toward it; she was now falling toward the Earth. She always had been, of course, though the distinction had not been apparent until now. The planet itself, far too small to see, was indicated by a blinking point on the ellipse of its orbit. Dead ahead.
Time passed, as she drifted down through the vast emptiness of the solar system. She seemed to be merely hanging in space now, the stars through which she had plummeted so rapidly now standing completely still, the orbits of the inner planets expanding slowly ahead of her. But she knew she was still moving at a physically impossible speed. She’d shrunk from one light-hour to ten light-minutes tall in less than ten seconds … that meant that she was approaching the Earth at more than three hundred times the speed of light. It still felt like a crawl, with no nearby objects to compare herself to.
Dana could no longer see all of Earth’s orbit at once, and the other inner planets’ orbits were too far to the sides now for her to see without turning her head. Ahead, the blinking point that represented the Earth began to expand into a visible circle, but soon she realized it was not the planet itself but the orbit of the Moon.
Although Dana’s fall was still slowing, the appearance of a visible feature made it seem terribly fast again. The Moon’s orbit grew from invisibility to an ellipse the size of her head in a matter of seconds, rushing toward her like the mouth of an oncoming tunnel as seen from a speeding train. In and around that tunnel mouth she saw many flickering green curves — circles, ellipses, and parabolas representing the orbits of artificial satellites.
One of those was the Sagan space telescope, poised at the L2 point on the far side of the Earth from the Sun, well beyond the Moon. And that was where Jeremy was.
Dana’s heart beat harder at the thought.
Her brain knew this was only a simulation, that Jeremy wasn’t really there. But her heart ached for him.
They’d been apart for so many months, and now … now she was about to die. Her simulated body was going to slam into the solid simulated Earth, far denser and proportionally much bigger than the galaxy that had grazed her leg so painfully. She didn’t know what would happen to her then, but her terrified screaming monkey mind insisted that she would go splat, and between the bugs and the drugs she couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t.
The Moon’s orbit was now a skinny ellipse as long as her arm. She must be about five light-seconds tall, and coming in just above the plane of the ecliptic. The Sun was to her left, so Jeremy would be off to her right, on the far side of the Sun from the Earth and about four times farther from Earth than the Moon … just there.
And there he was. A tiny, tiny green ellipse, no bigger than her fingertip, represented the Sagan telescope’s station-keeping orbit around the L2 point. She had already nearly passed it.
Desperately she reached out to the speeding ellipse. I love you, Jeremy, she thought…
…and her hand struck something hard and cool.
The control panel. When it had flown out of her reach, it must have automatically returned to its default position by her right hand. But it was still invisible, and she hadn’t thought to look for it there.
Heart pounding, Dana ran her clumsy right hand around the panel’s smooth rounded edge, fumbling for the Hide button in the upper right. She found it and pressed it.
The control panel appeared.
Beyond it, the Earth was already the size of a basketball, and growing rapidly. The simulation was cloudless, a photorealistic globe surrounded by the green circles of artificial satellites. She fell toward it, slowing but still moving at killing speed.
The Earth shimmered in her drug-addled vision, huge and bold and powerful. The home of all humankind. So small in the immensity of the universe, yet so immense to her.
As terrified as she was, she was overcome with awe.
She couldn’t wait to tell Jeremy about this…
Dana slammed the Stop button with her thumb. Immediately she halted her downward plunge.
She hung, gasping, in space. She must be no more than five percent of a light-second tall; the Earth was now a sphere bigger in diameter than her height, its surface just an arm’s length away.
She reached out and touched it. It was cool and smooth and very hard.
Dana leaned against the Earth and sobbed with relief.
Dana peered anxiously at the people coming off the flight from Florida. There he was! Moving slowly, still unaccustomed to gravity, but she’d never mistake Jeremy’s face.
And she could see it so clearly! Even only twenty days into the experimental treatment, she was already detecting an improvement in her vision.
She ran to Jeremy and embraced him with a shriek of joy. “Did you bring me anything?” she teased.
“Just a head full of stars,” he said, and kissed her. “How about you?”
“Well…” Her headlong plummet through space had, amazingly, taken only five minutes of her HVF time. Once she’d recovered her composure, she’d gone on to complete her researches as planned … in fact, her unexpected side trip had given her some very interesting insights. “Actually, I have some important results to share. But first, I want to share something else…”
Jeremy squawked as she picked him up and spun him around. Then she set him down, and they headed for the exit.
This story follows in the footsteps of the book “Cosmic View” by Kees Boeke (1957) and the films Cosmic Zoom by Eva Szasz (1968), Powers of Ten by Ray and Charles Eames (1977), and Cosmic Voyage by Bayley Silleck (1996).
Like those earlier works, it attempts to give an understanding of the scale of the universe by giving a high-speed guided tour from the largest scale to the smallest. Because this is a short story rather than an art book or a movie, it lacks stunning visuals, but I hope that it offers instead the full range of senses and emotions provided by the reader’s imagination.
If you’d like to take an interactive online version of Dana’s voyage, you can do so here:
Copyright David Levine