By: Tom Sheehan
Leaping from his chair, arms raised in a sign of total surrender to the sound that he thought will most likely come with the same horrific resonance when the whole damned universe breaks in half, Carlos Penez yelled, leaping high off his cushioned seat to fire the exclamation, “Did you hear that?”
He was pointing skyward, and screaming!
Unbelievably, it did not appear that anyone had heard him, though one man in the thickness of the audience, with an odd grimace stared at him from a few rows deeper into the auditorium, his head uncomfortably twisted on his shoulders, a thick white beard dictating his age, his eyes featuring initial fright, as if belief had come hurriedly.
At the back of the hall Penez stood, perhaps ostracized from the very beginning of the great convention, his seat nearly blocking the exit door. Not one other person sat near him; no one was there to discuss a new idea or proposal, or even exclaim about one: in fact, not a single “Good evening,” came to him for all that matter. Earlier he had entertained, only for the merest moment, the argument that might well have asked, “What’s more difficult to contend with … to know one’s place or to be put in one’s place?” That rational query had come at a most irrational time; fear, coupled with query, curiosity, questions of finality posed at their reception. What’s a photographer when minds are otherwise at work, the world at their feet, the universe itself, ever on the move, but never flighty?
Again the sound came and it fed his mind, knocked it asunder with the curious unknown, threatened to blow it apart before resolution, realization, … a repetition from eons in Creation’s creation? From some yet unlit space between known or unknown planets? At the edge of a mysterious star? Past imagination? Past the summations of all the words in all the books he had ever read?
Were they more than mere questions in the grandest gathering of intelligence ever assembled?
He wondered, his mind blown full with mystery, a twist of doom in the mix, unaware of any other auditory message –did he alone hear that ominous reverberation, that possible echo from beyond thought, from out of this world and bound for this earth, right here of all places, in the midst of this acclaimed and august gathering?
For him, Mexican surprise of surprises, boot digger, grasper of facts, mountain-born and prairie-strung, never in his life had tossed aside an unread book on space and time and the great unknowns, doom stood still at the sound, the echo across countless centuries wavering, then sudden silence, like a major league pitcher’s follow-up three-fingered twist of the lesser orb, asserting itself in the face of the most unbelievable odds, time, space, warp, intensity of a unique and standing behavior beyond measure like having good old Babe Ruth at the plate.
“Coming from everywhere and coming here,” he managed to mutter to himself, hoping his dearest friend Marla, space person too, not yet openly acclaimed love of his life, understood some of it, and stood prepared … for some ending or for some beginning. “Indeed, they often come in pairs,” said his argument.
Realization came in the same blink of an eye, like at first inkling, at the crispness and faint newness of the echo that he, Carlos Penez, alone had heard, as though it was addressed to him. He had wanted to stand up and again scream at them, to advise them, to let them know what was coming their way, to warn them all, including a no “G’day” from Marla Graves, space comrade and a stellar student of stars in her own right, whom he’d seen once in floatation guise, up there, out there, past the moon, wearing nothing under her half skirt donned for a special celebration allowed by the space ship commander, her catching him at it and then smiling back. It was a pact signed, sealed and delivered, the pair as if matched in space and still connected, bringing the basic core of earth existence with them, her eyes still on him like a microbe under constant study, under endless calculation, measure and hope, the natural possibilities carried into space and brought back again; oh, the full moon stuff away from the full moon behind them that they’d know like few other travelers soon to be ahead of them would ever know.
Now she was in danger, as were all of them paying no heed to him, the lowest of the low, a mere photographer with a snappy finger, an eager eye.
“I’m nothing among these giant intellects,” Carlos whispered to himself. Each one of them must think it bothers me. For all their brain power, they couldn’t be more wrong. They’ll do turnabouts soon enough. I hope they can take it. It’s coming at us, this crack of doom, and first into the midst of all this elite gathering. More by design than chance. I bet, if it was my way of doing things, in an instant I could scare the hell out of half of them and knock more sense into the other half of them.”
Carlos was standing now, sort of cast-off in space, beside the lone chair placed off by itself, a line of demarcation, because he was not their equal. He supposed that was the answer, the reason, and he knew he was right on the dollar, right on the barrelhead; some credentials not recognized.
He was a “nothing,” of whom most of them would have said, a “left out,” “an accident on a mere wayside,” “an interpretation in a crowd,” “someone projecting himself into the limelight for his sole benefit,” “a nothing,” as one snob of them would have uttered in a tight aside, as long as the source of the remark was kept hidden.
But the density of the words, the threat left hanging in place, as ominous as the Devil himself, came riding piggy-back on the echo, came as if strung out like eternity itself.
Carlos the photographer, the lowliest man in the room, had suddenly commanded attention, standing at the back of the room, almost invisible in a corner tossing darkness around a room where some 300 people had been gathered for the convention; 250 men and 50 women, seemingly the smartest, brightest, fastest risers in the intellectual world of their universe … and the one beyond that, and the next one, further out, out-distancing almost thought itself, and more, many of them thought, beyond what they had ever imagined comprised the endless extent of space itself.
“We are surrounded with our intelligence,” one of them acquiesced, his heart in sync with the mystery, the possible spaces beyond them, the immeasurable gains or losses beyond them and their places in it all, “and we are inseparable, as time and tide will reveal, this cupful of who and what we are.” It was understood that Carlos was not counted in such company, remaining an observer-of-sorts.
“Oh,” thought Carlos when he overheard that slight, “he’s a philosopher as well a space pirate, a space culprit, trying to take over space no man has taken over.” He admitted, also to himself, “Something out there has or will bind these attempts. Something out there is saying ‘No,’ and I can hear it from here, all the way to here.”
Every one of those attending, except Carlos to this point, had had their say in the month long stay, enduring, arguing, proving, surmising, postulating, proposing, and gambling at some point their own very existence in this world of knowledge.
The moderator, Manfred Higginton, who had emerged from a stay in Carlsbad Caverns after 17 years of relentless study up through a telescope mountain-hewn and dedicated to a dot in space, his family gone to pot and ruin, had, at length, walked to the center of the stage, held his hands palms outward to the audience and said, “I must assume that we have heard every soul in this room bring forth his or her beliefs, in full force, of course, on our very destinies.”
If a chuckle could talk, spit words, it would have leaped off his face, so self-flattering was his immediate feeling of fellowship and commission. At the center of the wide stage, Higginton stood in a kind of adoration and abeyance in front of the backdrop behind him of an artfully painted sign that surmised “All those other place in the entire universe of possible worlds or entities or whatever names we will call them, or those that follow us will opt to call them.” “Or us,” some wag of a scribbler had added with artful graffiti, not necessarily intending humor.
The short laughter was at Higginton’s own joke of sorts, an attempt to ease the break-up of the most prodigious gathering of intellect ever assembled. His narrow shoulders appeared to collapse within the rest of his frame, more in consolation at the end of the meeting rather than a celebration of what it had revealed. His short laugh was not humor at work; it was disregard, it was indifference, it was neglect. It set him apart, in his own place, in his one place, a most curious man above men.
His gaze swept across the faces in the room, one by one, in a long and solid measurement of the audience, many of them friends from his youth or met in his long studies, allowed to penetrate the mountain-high laboratory where he plied his studies for those long and separated years. Before his descent to the base of the telescope, he’d traveled long voyages with many of them, been locked for weeks or months with some of them in distant locations, on the face of the moon, on Mars, or other places the heavens held in some kind of secrecy from the beginning of time itself. They were, to a person, flattening in their faces, getting rotund in their torsos, their minds exploding, but growing older … and carrying the deadly fear that all things would evolve after they themselves had left their holy lives within damp earth. To the core, they carried a pre-pain of loss; how dare it avoid them, how dare it hold back or be held back:” One of us,” they would argue, “one of us here will come up with all knowledge.”
They believed in that tenet, Higginton to the highest plateau.
All of them had voiced opinions, ideas, proposals, long-held secrets of beliefs and accountabilities, named known destinations and dark possibilities that surfaced in their sleep or taunted them in nightmares each of them had experienced outside the laboratory, the classroom, on the surface of a distant body of matter still lit up by a sun of a second or third origin.
Then, as Higginton was about to yield his spot up front of them, he noticed the raised hand of one man in the far corner; it was the long-range photographer, Penez, invited at the last minute to explain any difficulties encountered in location, or name of photographic history, if such history existed in his cubicle of activity … aim, shoot, develop, distributed to the mass of them.
Penez was waving his hand as if he really had something to offer to this assembly of brainpower, and Higginton was not easily convinced to give him his due, his turn at the microphone, at the front of this select group; the words again sounded pleasant to his ear, and he was pleased with himself, even as he felt a shudder underfoot, a sensuous swing of a musical arc, a gentle crib roll any infant would enjoy.
Oh, he loved his images bursting from his contented soul, even as the photographer, his name quickly evading him in a black flash, continued to wave his hands in a distinctly and suddenly distraught manner … as if the tremor was earth-born, underfoot, speaking of ground waves rather than an electrical or starry compulsion … of which some of them must have known, had seen it … but apparently, with the photographer’s hands insisting on being recognized, ignoring it at least for the moment.
It came, that tremor, that eternal echo, that near holy adjudication, almost at first like a timely drummer’s soft tattoo, that rhythmic drumming calling soldiers to their night quarters, only now calling underfoot to heed an alteration in the universe itself, an alteration as far as minds might allow, as far and as deep as these various brilliant minds could find extension to pure thought. But likely to be humbled by concern for personal safety.
In a moment of his own concern, he sought for Marla Graves, seeking new eye connection, for a moment holding the panic-laden message in abeyance, waiting her full, and solemn, attention, necessary for reception of the guts of his warning, which now, again, in another flash from beyond, came most imperious, most authoritative ever mounted on high, or ever discerned by one man among the many millions of fellow humans abreast on the Earth, and the handful of gallants now riding, floating, zooming amid the stars, some of them surely never to report back again what they’d seen or encountered in the confines of known times. All of them, he realized, too adventurous, too curious, too hungry for what they’d apprehend, understand in a minute way the creatures, the figures, the objects found en route, knowing their journeys were often not wholly circular.
If he could only see the pictures they’d all taken on their ways, pair them up in his lab, match them in the twin-ness he had found in his mind … and never let on, never shared, never let escape his mouth. “This universe, this infinity, this limitlessness, is a double-take. I can sense or feel my mind out there,” he said finally, knowing Carla was out there too. Two of her! It was as majestic as these universes.
“How could I be so damned lucky?” he said, man of the universe, man in the universes, his woman with him, and all these super brains.
He said, hopefully, “I trust her lovely heart is out there with me this very second.”
That imploration was followed by the most resounding C-r-r-r-a-a-a-c-k-k-k! ever heard across, between, or alongside the universes.