I woke up on the first day of July knowing that something big was coming. Very big.
I have a gift. I’ve always kept it a secret. My wife has an inkling and my kids have inherited a part of it, but otherwise, I’m alone with the knowledge that I am different. Perhaps I’m a mutant. Perhaps I’ve taken an evolutionary step. Whatever the reason, I see things and know things that others don’t.
I lay still in bed. My wife had already gone to work and the kids had already left for school. I lay waiting. I didn’t have long to wait. My cell phone tweeped on the end-table.
They called me in. Jane Forsch was in the hospital with a case of appendicitis. I was her replacement.
The launch protocol ran three full days. I called home each day, called my folks, call a couple of buddies. Everyone knew that I was on the list for a trip to the space lab. Finally, after two years of waiting, it was my turn to go up as part of a crew.
We were busy the three days, but the time seemed to crawl anyway. My strong sense of an impending event did not decline after I was notified. Instead, it grew.
Reclining in my launch chair at the end of the three days, sitting on top of a rocket, my dream was about to come true. But then, I had always known that it would. I joined the Air Force and entered the space program because somehow I knew, from earliest age, that I would leave the planet on a journey that would change everything for me.
The trip up was exciting but uneventful. Still, I was almost overwhelmed by my continuing foreknowledge that my life was about to change.
In orbit, I was so busy during the first hours that I didn’t have time to look outside. When I finally did, all I could do was stare at what I was seeing. Finally, I tore my eyes away and glanced back at the other crew members. It was obvious that none of them saw what I saw. I looked back out, then away, then back. I rubbed my eyes. I closed them and counted to ten. Opened them again.
The Earth was resting on an elephant and the elephant stood on a turtle, which stood on another turtle, which stood on another turtle. Of course, I immediately thought of Terry Pratchett and Bertrand Russell.
“Welcome, John,” said a voice in my head. I knew that it was the elephant.
“Am I still sane?”
“Quite sane. You can see what others can’t. That’s all. You’re something new.”
“How is this possible? I’m imagining it.”
“But… what about science?”
“Scientific explanations always seems reasonable, until some new facts come up. Before the discovery of plate tectonics, professors in geology classes would explain how mountains are built. They sounded quite reasonable, but their explanations were baloney.”
“Well, yes,” I said, “but an elephant? You’re bigger than the planet.”
“You think I’m big? You should see what the galaxy is sitting on… Never mind. Look down at the Earth.”
I looked down. The blue and sandy and cloud-streaked globe seemed fuzzy to me, transparent. Looking closer, I saw that it was layered somehow. If I focused, I could pick out individual Earths, uncountable multitudes of them, perhaps an infinity of them, one upon the other.
“Are they alternate versions?”
“All the same world,” said the elephant, “but at different times. From creation to destruction. Concentrate and you can see the continents move. You aren’t far enough along to make out the alternate versions. That’s a whole different thing.”
I wrinkled my brow and picked out one instance of the world where humans had not yet appeared. Another where the lights of cities sparkled on the night side.
“You’re holding the whole thing up?” I said.
“Of course. I’m outside time. Although somebody has to hold me up, too.”
“It’s turtles, all the way down, like they say?”
The elephant laughed.
“All the way down,” he said.
“Can I talk to the one you’re standing on?”
“You’re not ready for that, John. He’s hard to talk to, even for me.”
I looked back at the planet. Time felt like a string stretched taut down there, a torus running through the core of the stacked worlds.
“You can check out the past,” the elephant said, “but I wouldn’t advise any future-gazing. That never works out well.”
I knew what he meant, that I shouldn’t look, but I did anyway, and as I did, I was reminded of a time when I sat in a doctor’s office and, after a series of routine tests, was told, incorrectly, that I was fatally ill. I remembered again the feeling that I had had, sitting in a chair in that office, the doctor saying something that I didn’t hear, me sitting and knowing that I was a dead man. It felt like that again, now, in space, as I gazed into the future of humanity. Only, this time, the doctor was not making a mistake.