While the Germans bombed London all winter, Nicholas Irvine had been hard at work on his machine to the stars. It was nearly complete now, despite their best efforts to level all of England.
The Blitz had been crippling London for several months now; thousands were already dead, and thousands more would perish if the bombings persisted further into the year. The people themselves were strong and perseverant, but Nicholas was frightened for his life and for the lives of his people.
He didn’t share their British resolve. Maybe in the long run their island could survive the attacks, but at what cost? When would it end? Bearing these thoughts and foreseeing the destruction that was to come, one year ago Nicholas started working on his plans to leave Earth.
When Nicholas went to bed that night, he prayed for London to be spared another firestorm. The next morning he woke up relieved to find his house undisturbed, and immediately started readying the ship for takeoff.
His daughter Christina, who was nearly twenty-five now, visited him that afternoon as he was preparing for liftoff.
“You’re really going to go?” she said as they sat down for one last cup of tea.
He nodded. “You know I have to.”
“That’s not true.” She looked flustered, but she calmed herself. “They say the worst of it’s over, you know. The Royal Air Force is growing stronger. Soon we will be able to compete with them.”
“You know that’s not the true reason I have to go,” Nicholas said.
“Then why? Is it because of that discovery you were talking about? Because if so, that’s not a good reason, either.” He said nothing, but Christina knew it was true. “Why, Dad! It was just an observation. No one knows if it’s really true.”
“It’s true,” Nicholas said plainly. “I have to trust in something, Christina, and if I want to hold onto my sanity, that something has to be science and the study of nature. If the astronomers say they’ve looked into space and encountered a wall, then it must be true.”
“Maybe our technology just isn’t advanced enough. Maybe we can see nothing past the celestial spheres because our telescopes aren’t capable of it.”
Nicholas shook his head. “No one had any trouble gazing at any of the celestial spheres before. The Moon, the Sun, and all the planets were discovered in ancient times. Like the others, I assumed that the sphere of stars must extend farther than we could ever hope to see, even with the aid of telescopes. But to encounter a wall of nothingness, and at no more than one-hundred and fifty million miles away…nobody can explain it.”
“So what? You’re going to risk your life just because we don’t know what’s out there? What if you don’t make it, Dad? What if you aren’t able to complete the journey?”
“I’ll make it,” Nicholas asserted. “The bulk of the fuel is necessary to breach the atmosphere, but as for the trip through space itself, I have reason to believe it will be an easy ride.”
She was silent for a moment. They each took a sip of tea. Then she said, “Dad, do you really believe it? Do you really think we can’t see past the stars because, well, because God is there?”
“What else am I supposed to believe? Can you think of any alternative?”
“None,” Christina said. “So why go if you don’t doubt the rules of the universe, if you accept the existence of God?”
“Because if God is out there, I want to meet him. Because the universe may be perfect, but mankind certainly isn’t, and I want to know why.”
Christina now understood just how determined her father was to have his questions answered. Moreover, his unwavering interest piqued her own. “All right,” she said, and finished her tea. “But I want to go with you.”
She looked furious. “You don’t think I have the same right you do?”
“I’m sorry, Christina, but you cannot come with me.”
“I’d like to know why.”
“Because I love you, Christina, and because I don’t know what will happen.”
“You mean when you meet God.”
“Yes. And you must stay behind and stand for Joseph and your mother. You must represent our family. The Battle of France couldn’t be won, but in time, if enough people like you are around, maybe we can win the Battle of Britain. As for an old man like me, all I have left is questions and all I want is to have them answered. Then I will be done.”
Christina looked down for a moment, her anger superseded by sympathy. She reached into her purse and placed something on the table. It was an olive jar that had been painted green.
“Take it,” she said. “I know you wanted me to have it, but I think you should bring it with you. You’ll need it more than I do.”
Nicholas nodded and grasped the jar. He placed his palm on Christina’s hand.
The room shook, and they lowered their heads. A bomb had gone off far in the distance, but they could feel the explosion even here.
“When you see Him,” Christina said when it was over, “if you see Him, try to give Him a little credit. We haven’t exactly been the most well-behaved children.”
Nicholas nodded, but he doubted he would be so forgiving.
When Nicholas first read the reports that the geocentric model was correct, he had been baffled. To him it had always made more sense for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Instead, the Earth was stagnant while eight celestial spheres rotated around it, moving like clockwork. Because it was now proven that humans were literally at the center of the universe, no one could deny anymore that we were special, and, by extension, that some divine creator must exist.
There were the skeptics, of course. There were always skeptics. They argued that the astronomers were wrong, that Copernicus was right, and we were simply deluding ourselves. But such people weren’t convincing because they did not use the scientific method and instead relied on their own intuition. In any case, the Ptolemaic model was widely accepted now, and such differing opinions were in the minority.
Still, while Nicholas had accepted the truth of the geocentric model, he had always wondered why this particular explanation had turned out correct while the others were all refuted. Was Copernicus’ model so outrageous of an idea?
Nobody took notice of Nicholas as he transported his spaceship into the backyard and readied it for takeoff. Perhaps they were more concerned with the afternoon’s bombing. In any case, the launch was successful and occurred just as Nicholas had predicted. Part of his house was destroyed in the process, but Nicholas had a feeling he was never going to return to London. No, the stars were where he was headed. The stars, and what lay beyond.
As he had predicted, space was not difficult to pass through. With the absence of air and gravity, space practically tugged Nicholas along on his journey. If the astronomers were correct in their predicted distances of the planets and stars, Nicholas would have plenty of fuel to reach the end and come back.
The Moon was the first sphere, residing very close to Earth. Nicholas looked out his window as he approached it. The sphere holding the Moon didn’t actually exist, but represented the invisible ring in space which shifted, like the hand on a clock, moving the Moon along its pathway around the stationary Earth. The Moon itself turned and moved like a mechanical toy.
Looking out the window, Nicholas almost expected to see the Ten Commandments etched onto the Moon’s surface. If God existed and wanted us to know it, was this scenario really so absurd? But Nicholas saw nothing.
Mercury and Venus were the next heavenly bodies to pass by. He encountered a miscalculation regarding the planets’ distances. The spaceship would require more fuel than he had once thought, but this wouldn’t be a problem.
When Nicholas reached the Sun, his spaceship was illuminated by its heavenly light. This was the fourth sphere, located roughly five million miles away from the Earth. Humanity’s home was behind him, not much smaller than it was before. Space was far less vast than Nicholas would have assumed.
The Sun, a perfectly round orb rolling through space along the grooves of a perfectly round sphere, astounded Nicholas by its perfection. Surely the presence of such a flawless body proved the existence of God. Nicholas wondered, however, why so large and great of an object would not be the center of the universe itself. Was humanity so great a thing that it deserved its position at the crux of everything?
Only a few months more and Nicholas would know for sure.
As the fourth celestial sphere disappeared behind the view of the ship’s window, Nicholas leaned over to the table beside him and picked up the green olive jar. He held it in his hand, listing in his head all of the questions he would ask. Then he set the jar down and resumed piloting the ship.
If he was to have all of his questions answered, Nicholas mustn’t blockade his mind from the memories. He was convinced that his son would have supported his mission, were he still alive. Nicholas remembered vividly the day he had received the letter of Joseph’s passing and how they were unable to recover all of his remains. Marissa had died in childbirth for him, yet no one knew where much of his body rested.
Olives had always been Joseph’s favorite food. Nicholas smiled as he remembered all of times he had set down a bowl of them before dinner, and how they had all vanished before the food came.
Tears filled Nicholas’ eyes as these memories came to him. He wanted to know why. He wanted to know why all of this was necessary, why the Earth did not share in the universe’s perfection, why God was hiding so far away from his children.
Nicholas wiped his eyes and resumed his travels.
As the weeks passed, so too did the planets. Mars was next, followed by Jupiter and finally Saturn, the seventh sphere. Nicholas marveled at the last planet’s rings, the way the beams of light wrapped precisely around Saturn’s middle without deviating.
Nicholas didn’t linger. He had long since grown jaded by these miraculous sights. He was tired of witnessing the perfection, the handiwork of God. What he wanted to see rested far beyond where he was now, in the space past the eighth sphere, in a place the astronomers had failed to detect.
He increased the ship’s speed, burning up more fuel than before. Now that the end was so close, Nicholas longed to reach it. The engine labored through the weeks, blasting the ship past the seventh sphere and into the eighth. He was over eighty-million miles away from home now, and he could still see it.
Like a shooting star, the spaceship blazed a trail of fire through space. Nicholas fed the engine, watching the stars pass by in a chaotic blur. These points of light represented the limit of mankind’s technology. Past this realm, into the white wall beyond, the imperfection of mankind was made quite evident. Out there, Nicholas could see nothing, and he wanted to reach it.
As the days passed, Nicholas prayed he was getting close, though he wasn’t sure who he was praying to. He realized that he would no longer have enough fuel to take him back home. By needlessly burning most of it away, Nicholas had gambled that he would have enough to return home, and he had lost. Unlike with the planets, the spaces between stars seemed limitless. Nicholas could no longer be certain when they would end.
He remembered Churchill’s speech over the summer, shortly after Joseph’s death. There had been rumors in London that Britain was going to surrender to Germany, but Churchill had assuaged their fears. We shall fight on the beaches, he’d said, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Nicholas believed that Churchill had been speaking the truth. He admired Churchill. He was determined to be stolid, resolute, and unyielding like him. Even in the face of death, of a force greater than himself, Nicholas would steel himself and face his adversary without fear.
Nicholas wasn’t even aware he was approaching the ninth sphere until his ship departed the eighth and broke through the barrier.
Immediately after entering this new realm, Nicholas could tell that the rules here were different. He was in the ether, a world where matter was different from what he was accustomed to. So while his ship continued to ignite a stream of fire behind it, Nicholas lost control.
The ship veered through the clouds, turning erratically, gaining speed and then losing it as it looped through God’s domain.
Finally, the ship punched through the clouds and approached the ground below. While he was more concerned with stabilizing his ship, Nicholas was able to glance out the window and see a few shapes below: wings, harps, beatific faces. Nicholas even claimed to see Joseph and Marissa among them, but this was just a fantasy.
Nicholas fought for control as the ship, now a burning fireball, plummeted to the ground. Angels dove out of the way as Nicholas’ machine plunged into the soft, white blanket, tearing through each layer of fabric until it encountered something solid and collided with the obstruction. As the lights went out, so did Nicholas.
He awoke standing in the middle of a great white room. A man was sitting at a rather large desk, busying himself with the papers in front of him.
“Where am I?” Nicholas asked when his head was clear.
The man looked up at him. He had a great white beard, powerful shoulders, and cold blue eyes. A cloak of light surrounded him. “WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” he answered before dipping his quill in a jar of ink, resuming his work.
“Heaven,” Nicholas said breathlessly. “The afterlife. That is where I am. And that makes you God.”
“YOU’VE CERTAINLY MADE A MESS OF THINGS.”
“Where’s my ship?”
“BEHIND YOU,” God said, extending out a long glowing finger. Nicholas looked, and it was there. “YOU CRASHED STRAIGHT INTO MY OFFICE AND INTERRUPTED MY WORK.”
“I’m sorry,” Nicholas said. “But I had to come to see you.”
God rolled his eyes. “I KNOW, NICHOLAS IRVINE. I KNOW.”
Nicholas was growing nervous. Here he was, standing before God, and he knew he must have violated some sort of law, if not several, to reach this place. He expected some sort of punishment, for God to pass judgment upon him. Nicholas was confident that with a snap of his fingers, God could have him dead.
Then he remembered Churchill.
“I have a few questions for you.”
“I want to know why you made the universe the way it is, why it is so utterly flawless.”
“THE UNIVERSE IS FLAWLESS BECAUSE I AM FLAWLESS.”
“But mankind is not flawless,” Nicholas pointed out. “Why is that?”
God was silent for a moment. He placed his quill down. “MUST YOU QUESTION EVERYTHING I DO? I AM YOUR CREATOR, NICHOLAS IRVINE. YOU MUSTN’T DOUBT ME.”
“I cannot help it!” Nicholas protested. “My country is at war. People are dying every day, and there doesn’t seem to be any fairness or design to it all. It is random, not ordered.”
“YOU EXPECT ME TO EXPLAIN MYSELF?”
“Yes,” Nicholas said. “If you created me then you created me to question everything that happens to me. It is in the nature of mankind to ask questions. So please, answer mine. Why is the world the way it is? Why did you make the universe so perfect and yet mankind so flawed?”
“I TOLD YOU NOT TO QUESTION ME. DO NOT FORGET YOUR PLACE, NICHOLAS IRVINE. I AM YOUR GOD AND THE GOD OF YOUR ANCESTORS. NOW DO AS I SAY AND LEAVE THIS PLACE.”
God waited, but Nicholas stood still. He thought about returning to his ship and heading home, but even if he had enough fuel, he wouldn’t have done it. Something inside Nicholas simply required to have his questions answered, for as much as he feared God’s wrath, he feared not knowing the truth even more.
“YOU’RE STILL HERE?” God said after a moment. He looked into Nicholas’ eyes, and Nicholas wanted to look away.
He thought about his wife and son, and then he stared back.
“Yes, God, I am.”
“AND YOU WILL NOT LEAVE, EVEN WHEN I COMMAND YOU TO? “
“No, God. I have come too far, I have waited too long. I will not leave. Not until I know the truth.”
God sighed. “I KNEW I SHOULD HAVE PLACED HEAVEN FARTHER AWAY. YOU HUMANS ARE CLEVERER THAN I ANTICIPATED. IN ANY CASE, THERE IS NO HARM IN TELLING YOU THE TRUTH. YOUR BEING HERE CLEARLY MEANS I MADE A MISTAKE.”
“You can make mistakes?”
“OF COURSE. I CAN DO ANYTHING.”
“But you wanted us to believe that you are perfect, that you have everything under control.”
“WHAT KIND OF GOD WOULD I BE IF YOU KNEW I WASN’T OMNISCIENT? MANKIND WOULD NOT HAVE ACCEPTED ME.”
“That is why you created the universe the way it is,” Nicholas realized. “The planets and stars are a buffer to keep us from seeking you, from knowing your true nature.”
God nodded. “I WAS HOPING THIS WOULD BE THE LAST TIME I CREATED THE UNIVERSE, BUT I WAS WRONG. YOU WERE ABLE TO REACH ME, TO SEE MY FACE, AND SO I MUST START OVER AGAIN.”
“You’ve created the universe more than once?”
“OF COURSE. THE TOWER, THE FLOOD, I CAN NAME COUNTLESS EXAMPLES, BUT I DO NOT WISH TO DWELL ON MY FAILINGS.”
Nicholas looked worried. “So you’re going to do it again, just like that, just because I found a way to reach you?”
He nodded. “THAT IS HOW IT MUST BE. I THINK MY FOLLY WAS THAT WHILE I HID MYSELF WELL, MY BARRIER STILL RESIDES IN SPACE AND TIME. IN ORDER TO TRULY DISGUISE MYSELF, I MUST EXIST OUTSIDE OF THOSE RESTRICTIONS.”
“All because of what I did?” Nicholas went on. He couldn’t believe the impact he had made, how easily he had altered everything. “All those people will die, don’t you understand that?”
“DIE AND BE REBORN. I WOULDN’T WORRY, NICHOLAS IRVINE. THIS IS MY BURDEN. A LESSON WAS LEARNED IN THE PROCESS OF THIS UNIVERSE, SO DO NOT THINK IT WAS A WASTE. YOU ASSISTED IN BRINGING ME CLOSER TO PERFECTION. YOU ARE A TRUE REBEL, NICHOLAS IRVINE, AND THE PROTECTOR OF MY CAUSE.”
“So am I Job, or am I Abraham?”
God chuckled. “BOTH AND NEITHER. WOULD YOU MIND TERRIBLY IF I HELD ONTO THIS?” He held out the green olive jar which Nicholas thought he’d left in the ship.
“It means a lot to me,” Nicholas said. “I’d like it back, if you’re going to let me live.”
“OH, YOU WILL LIVE,” God said, “BUT YOU WILL NOT BE AS YOU ARE NOW. YOU WILL NOT UNDERSTAND ITS SIGNIFICANCE. PLEASE, IT WOULD MEAN A LOT TO ME. MAY I KEEP IT?”
Nicholas shrugged. “All right, if you must, but only if you answer one last question.”
“ASK YOUR QUESTION.”
“Is this a game to you? Is the whole universe a chance for you to showcase your power and learn to better yourself after each mistake, or do you truly care for and look after your children? Do we mean anything to you?”
God looked hurt. “YOU MEAN EVERYTHING TO ME. YOU ARE WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT, WHY I HAVE BEEN TRYING SO HARD.”
Nicholas nodded, satisfied. It felt good to have his questions answered, to know the truth, however disenchanting it may have been. He thought about Joseph, about how tragic and meaningless his death had been, and how Nicholas didn’t want to live in a universe that didn’t match humanity’s imperfection. If human nature couldn’t be changed, then at least nature could. “Okay,” he said. “I’m ready, do what you must.”
God smiled, and in that instant, the universe died and was reborn. Every star, every planet, even the Earth itself, was swallowed up into the darkness and then spat back out. Time itself began anew, and God was the only thing present in the new universe.
This will be the last time, God promised as he observed the nothingness. This will be my last mistake. This universe will be flawed, but it will also be perfect.
With a wave of His hand, God created light, rewrote the laws, fashioned the Earth again. Then He descended down upon His creation and, like before, decided to make man.
He opened the jar and spread its contents out over the space before him.And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the Earth…