One of the most beautiful things in the universe, is the universe itself. It's a dynamic thing, a body in motion, at the same time silent, volatile, vibrant and peaceful. For the twelfth time, Ricca Lipski woke from stasis to regard the silent burning gases that were stars and nebulae, and bask in their cool irradiation while waiting for his body to come up to the right temperature. He wouldn't be able to make this journey more than another two times; he was getting too old and heavy. Using Greene's String-Slice Travel, the trip was shortened to a phenomenal 5 gigaparsecs each way, from one end of the "coiled spine" of the universe to the other, and he had been making it ever since he had been old enough to finally leave the university with his own fellowship. His mission in life was to measure the rates and directions of the expansion of the universe. The continual trips from one end of the "spine" to the other were to re-measure these points over time, which allowed him to make corrections to his calculations, so that he could painstakingly piece together a map the universe in four dimensions. He was hoping that he could extrapolate from his data, the position of all mass in the universe at time zero, essentially providing the final evidence that the "Big Bang" theory was either true or a pile of bunk. It probably wouldn't earn him a Nobel Laureate, but it might get him published in Science. The concept of the universe having a coiled spine was his own, and his theory essentially stated that either one end of the spine or the other, called the Alpha and Omega points, respectively, had to be the centre of the universe, the initial position of the primordial bolus of matter that had exploded in the Big Bang, as these were the only two non-moving regions in all of existence. Once he had completed collecting his data between these two points, he could finalize his map and present his model of the origin of the universe. The initial concept had gotten him his doctorate, but Omnus was the only journal willing to accept the speculative manuscript without the completed model. Not bad for a start, but it wasn't really his idea of a serious publication.
His body hit 35°C and he began shivering. This was the unpleasant part, but it only lasted as long as it took for the freighter to dock momentarily with the hotel port and eject his stasis pod into the waiting arms of the concierge.
The hotel staff were exceedingly friendly and saw him to his room with an excess of inappropriate patting and smiling. It was funny, he mused, when he was young and gawky, the ladies wouldn't come near him, and now that he was growing portly . . . well, perhaps now they saw him as harmless. Or a complete quack. He had been interviewed by the National Enquirer just before he had gone into stasis, and forgetting himself once they got him going on his subject, had given one of the best lectures of his life. He had earned a standing ovation from the reporter, and regretted not having delivered that speech to the Discovery Channel instead.
It was when he was dressing for supper that he first noticed the cracks. Branching upwards from his waist, he saw a deep red fissure running up his right side and towards his back. He was completely shocked. He hadn't felt a thing, and it didn't hurt now. Not convinced that it was actually there, he ran his fingers over it, and was dismayed when the edge of the crack erupted into a series of blebs that protruded from under the skin.
"I need a doctor!" he called, and began to curse the freighter captain for not having frozen him properly.
Forty-five minutes later, in the infirmary, the fissure was still in his side, but the blebs had retracted. The doctor tried again to seal the rupture in his skin, and finally, at her wits end, used an old fashioned needle and thread to sew it shut. Ricca lay there on his good side, with one arm lifted over his head, listening to the doctor mutter over and over again, "I don't understand why it doesn't bleed!" That, thought Ricca, was completely irrelevant. The doctor should be putting her efforts into understanding how it had happened in the first place, so that she'd make a good expert witness at the freighter captain's trial.
The stitches pulled a bit, but otherwise were not uncomfortable and did not stop Ricca from enjoying his dinner. It turned out that the concierge was his great-great grand nephew, who had planned a surprise 250th birthday party for him (he had been frozen for 185 of those years), and sprung it on him once he had escaped from the doctor. There were many bottles of champagne, many balloons, and many polite people who seemed truly appreciative of the series of mini-lectures he delivered between refills of his glass. It was nice to still have family around, especially at the Alpha end of the spine, since he would most likely finish his travels at this end and settle here to write up his findings.
"So tell me, uncle," said the concierge, whose name was also Ricca, "which way is the universe expanding? Towards the Alpha end, or the Omega end?"
"I really don't know just yet. And it may be that the universe is not expanding infinitely, but expands and contracts rhythmically in a sine wave pattern, not moving continuously in one direction. This was difficult to measure for the longest time until cryogenics and light speed travel became a practical reality. But now, I think I'm really close. You know, it seems strange, but either this contraction cycle is approximately 13 years, or the universe really is expanding in only one direction, and just swirling by the Omega point. Each time I am here, the universe seems to be expanding. Each time I am at Omega, the universe seems to be contracting. Or perhaps my perception is biased, and what I'm really witnessing is the universe flowing around the Omega point, which perhaps creates an eddy, like a motionless rock in a stream. It just looks like a contraction. Oh! Once I have this model put together, it will be so much clearer."
Young Ricca grinned appreciatively, genuinely enjoying himself. "Perhaps, uncle, you have named the endpoints of the spine more aptly than you intended. Perhaps Alpha is the beginning of the universe, and Omega is the end. All matter is flowing from one to the other."
Ricca was momentarily flabbergasted. "How can that be?" he asked finally. "We'd see an increase in the mass of New Portugal, as it sits right next to the Omega point. Or it would be showered constantly with incoming meteorites, or something. It hasn't been observed!"
Young Ricca smiled and nodded considerately. "Of course. I'm only a poet, not a scientist. I think of things differently."
At the end of the party, Ricca returned to his rooms and was feeling quite tired, even after having slept for the last 13 years. He went straight to bed without giving much thought to his evening routine, rationalizing that he could take care of it in the morning. His dreams were filled with accolades and brown nosing as he presented his completed model to the Intergalactic Coalition for the Study of Quantum Mechanics (ICSQM). And then he saw it. In his dream, he held up the holoimage of the 4 dimensional model, turned it in his hands, played it back and forth through time, and watched, fascinated, as the flow of the universe moved past the limits of his data, showing him the origin of the universe . . . and then the end of it. And then he was distracted, as the butt-kissing president of ICSQM came to shake his hand in front of all the news media, and handed him a book.
"What is it?" Ricca asked in his dream.
"Your biography," was the answer. On the cover of the book was Ricca's name, and the exact date of his birth, followed by the exact date of his death.
He woke and sat up in a cold sweat.
In the dark of the hotel room, Ricca counted on his fingers the number of years of life his dream predicted he had left and came up with the number 13.
"Oh, you're being silly," he told himself. There were more important images in the dream, and he prodded his memory for the model he had seen ever so clearly. He replayed it in his mind, moving backwards in time, and then suddenly, when it reached the end of his data, he forgot what he had dreamt. Annoyed at the lapse and his own morbid fascination, he replayed the dream the other way, almost terrified that he would remember how he had seen the universe end. He reached the end of his data . . . and forgot. What had he seen?? It had been almost like a convoluted funnel, turning inwards on itself, folding inside out, but then what???
"Ah well," he sighed, and lay down again. Two more trips and then he would find out the proper way, with real data. The stitches along his side were a bit itchy, but he supposed that meant the crack was healing. If it went away quickly enough, he might not even bother suing the freighter captain.
Then next morning, he was delighted to find that young Ricca had arranged access to the Astronet Processor, which had been improved greatly during his last stasis sleep. He uploaded all of his data to the processor and began to construct his model, based on what he had so far. Astronet had several marvelous programs, including internal extrapolation functions, that allowed him to correct several of his vectors, and predict the best points of measurement for his next journey. Finally, he plugged in the last of the predictive algorithms, and with great relish, clicked on the function that would construct a graphical representation of the universe (making certain assumptions about the missing data). It did indeed look like a convoluted funnel that turned inwards on itself at the narrowed, farmost end (the Omega point), but the actual shape was difficult to discern. He removed the 4th dimension, and the model became a "snapshot" that was no longer in motion. Then he "sliced" through the 3-D construct to have a look at a cross section. The first horrifying realisation, was that he had completely miscalculated the location of the Omega point. He had been off by fifty three parsecs. How could he have been so wrong? He irrationally hoped that the National Enquirer would accept his apologies for having given them incorrect information. Ricca corrected the location, then clicked on the "linearize" function, to straighten out the structure and allow him to see what it looked like in only two dimensions. The structure was entirely too simplified and didn't make any sense. Keeping it linearized, he re-layered the 3rd dimension, and then stared at the graphic in disbelief. The second horrifying realisation, was that the Omega point wasn't the end of the universe at all. In fact it wasn't even the end of the coiled spine. He had a sudden creepy-crawling feeling ice its way over his skin, as he thought about having to retract his thesis. Don't be silly, he told himself. It was just a prediction, and still publishable. The modification of the theory will just show that I've made progress. What was the Omega point then? From the linear image, the universe appeared to be a long tube, with regularly spaced, periodic bulges, and the Omega point was like a constriction, that in four dimensions, would force the tube to convolute and fold into another set of directions, and then it would continue on with its periodic bulging. The predictive algorithms made it seem very likely that there were more than one set of Alpha and Omega points, each set demarcating discrete portions of the universe, and acting as anchors to seemingly hold the entire universe in place. Wondering why he had never found these points before, and where they might lie in the universe, he marked his original Alpha and Omega points with bright green, the others in bright red, and allowed the structure to fold back into its natural convolutions. He then set the whole thing in motion. The coiled spine reappeared, and the other points were nowhere in sight. Ricca sighed in exasperation and reset the model so that it would start at the beginning of his data, and move forwards only. The universe expanded, seemingly flowing in various directions, all eventually turning towards Omega. Then the entire universe imploded at point Omega and all matter clumped into one mass.
"What?" exclaimed Ricca angrily. The model was no longer moving, and he thought that the program had crashed. He hit a few keys, and the message popped up: "Continue simulation?" He clicked "Continue" and waited. After a few moments, the mass exploded, just like the Big Bang, and the universe re-expanded into a little bubble.
"Oh, this is entirely wrong!" He ran his hands over his face, and then pulled back in a fright. Had he felt cracks on the right side of his face? "Ricca!" he called his nephew. "Ricca, what's happened to my face?" The concierge came at once and took his uncle to the doctor. Neither one of them turned to see that on the graphic simulation, the debris of the universe had moved aside to reveal a bright red dot at the point of the explosion's origin, and after a few moments, as the universe unfolded a bit further, a second red dot winked into existence, right at the proper location to form a coiled spine between itself and its partner. All matter in the predicted universe was expanding outwards from Alpha2, and through convoluted, non-linear motions, was moving towards Omega2. Then it cycled again, imploding at Omega2 and re-expanding at Alpha3. A little while later, the housekeeping staff sympathetically shut down the simulation and logged off Astronet.
In the clinic, young Ricca was trying to soothe his apoplectic uncle who was inventing several methods of freighter captain torture and dismemberment. Instead of stitching the cracks shut, the doctor had filled them in with temporary synthetic tissue (unfortunately she only had it in purple), and had ordered Ricca to stay put until she had determined the cause of his rupturing skin, and why it did not bleed.
"Please be calm, uncle. You don't know whose fault it is, if anyone's. Your health is the most important thing now. Don't think of things that make you angry."
Ricca sat up again and pushed aside his nephew's arms. "I need to make sure my probes are recording properly. I don't have time to sit around here! In a few weeks I'll have to make my next journey back to Omega."
"You're too close to your work, uncle. It's affecting you badly. Take a step back from it, and I'm sure you'll be fine."
Ricca stood tried to ignore that last statement. Of course he was close to his work. That was his whole life! That was what he was, right down to the very core of his being. He was prevented from leaving by the doctor, who had just returned from her lab.
"Dr. Lipski, you've got a very unusual condition," she said. "I've never heard or seen anything like it. The strange blistering that you described when the cracks first appeared, it hasn't disappeared at all, just internalized. Here, you can see it on your body scan." The doctor pressed a key on her wristband and a hologram of Ricca's insides shot out from projectors in the wall. Indeed, several bulges were seen across the simulated peritoneum and muscle walls of the abdomen. "They appear to be migrating from your right side to your left. I would like to try magnetic resonance to prevent this from getting worse."
"What would that do?" Ricca asked.
The doctor looked sheepish as she replied, "Well, essentially I want to try to push everything back into place. I think I can do this with magnetic forces. I know it's a bit alternative, but it's worth a shot."
After twenty minutes in the magnetic chamber, Ricca's wounds began to bleed. He called this out to the doctor, who seemed pleased.
"That's a good sign that things are no longer being pulled to the left," she called back.
After forty minutes, the temporary tissue patch had been pushed out of place, and the stitches on his side no longer pulled. It took only a few minutes more for the doctor to seal up the cracks by conventional means. She seemed both relieved and satisfied as she released him.
Three weeks later, his data and new calculations carefully stored in his media case, Ricca bade a teary farewell to his nephew. The next time they would meet the concierge would be in his late fifties, and the relationship would necessarily be different. He didn't tell his nephew this, but before getting into his stasis chamber (first class this time), he had fired off a message to his lawyer to begin proceedings against the freighter captain. Hopefully, there would be a settlement waiting for him the next time he was at the Alpha point, and he could buy his nephew some new suits.
Upon arrival at New Portugal, 13 years later, Ricca's stasis chamber was automatically re-routed to the secondary destination, Arbitan, three parsecs away. The transport captain duly logged the vital signs of his passenger before sending him off, and other than noting that the metabolic activity was a bit higher than it should be, there were no abnormalities.
Arbitan was a pacifist colony, and while they tried to keep their technology up to date, they felt a bit backwards in terms of worldliness, and thus were confused when they thawed out Ricca's stasis chamber and attempted to wake him up. The window plate was frosted up from the inside, which prevented them from seeing through it. A passenger was there all right, all the sensors said so, but there was a strange vacuum inside that made it difficult to lift the lid. Worried that he might suffocate, they pierced the gasket and equalized the pressure before manually overriding the locking mechanism. The chamber seemed empty except for a thin rod of some strange, compact material. They were about to contact the transport captain, and ask what he had meant to ship in this chamber, when the rod suddenly unfolded, and expanded from left to right into a human being: male, thin, about 25 or 26 and completely speechless. He didn't seem to know who or where he was. The documentation didn't help, it obviously had gotten switched. There was no way this boy could be Dr. R. Lipski, unfrozen age of 65. They ran the recording logs on the freezer which spat out a hologram outlined in green light, of a rather portly, older gentleman going through the freezing process. Over the course of the 13 year journey, cracks appeared along his right side, and his entire body pulled all the way to the left, the movement of pixels on the hologram seeming to flow through an invisible funnel, until they formed the thin rod they had seen on opening the casket. The simulation continued, showing that after the vacuum had been released, the pixels reappeared, and flowed outward from whatever unseen dimension they had been in, now moving towards the right until the new body had been formed.
"Well, I've never seen that before," commented the Arbitan mayor. "Must be some kind of new shipping technology that rejuvenates you as you sleep. We don't have anything like that! I expect we'll be needing to get our systems updated again."
"Orlan!" said his wife. "You've just been through an update. Remember the doctor told you not to become your work. It'll be the death of you!"
"Sweetheart," the mayor responded, "sometimes my work makes me feel like a new man."